I spent the day today canvassing in rural Floyd County, with Flo Ketner, who’s running for the House of Delegates in District 7. It’s a county of sheer awe-inspiring beauty, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the backdrop, and lush green trees and plants and wildflowers all around. It’s full of independent, artistic people, who love to make and enjoy local music and art and food. It is also a place of extreme poverty, hardship, and unemployment.
We often hear people ponder “Why do rural people vote against their own self-interest? What’s wrong with them?” Sometimes I’ve even heard people say “Screw the rural people–they’re just some white people who only care about God and guns, why should we even try to win them over?” But I think we need to recast the discussion and ask ourselves: “Why haven’t we distinguished ourselves enough from Republicans on issues rural voters care about? Why haven’t we been able to convince rural voters that they are Democrats?”
Because the Democratic party–in principle at least–supports exactly the kinds of things that are important to the people I met today. They desperately need jobs–and need education and training for the jobs of today. We met a man who’d lived in Floyd for over 80 years. As he sat on his porch in his overalls, with the most incredible unobstructed view of the mountains, he listed for us all the factories that had closed down in the area. Another woman we met today, who apologetically confessed that she usually votes Republican, has to work hundreds of miles away in Richmond; she spends Monday-Thursday in Richmond, and only comes home to be with her husband on the weekends.
The Republicans want to cut training programs that could be used to give unemployed workers in places like Floyd a chance at a new job, want to cut health and welfare programs that provide a safety net for low-income people here, and their health care plan is expected to result in the closure of many rural hospitals, causing even greater job losses. And the Republican solution to rural unemployment is to “simplify the tax structure” (aka increase corporate profits) deregulate (aka increase corporate profits, at the expense of the safety and health of consumers and workers), and to back out of trade deals and impose high tariffs on other countries (which is likely to lead to trade wars, and decreased exports of our own American-made goods).
You might think all these corporate goodies will induce companies to open up businesses in rural Virginia. But there’s no real reason to think that corporations would locate in rural areas. Unless there are workers there with the necessary skills, it’s not likely. Furthermore, the people in Floyd are not fans of corporatism. In fact, they’ve been resistant to many big, corporate brands attempting to locate there–such as CVS, McDonalds, and Burger King. Most businesses in Floyd are local, owned and operated by residents, and that’s the way they like it.
Another thing they like a whole lot in Floyd County, and for good reason, is the beautiful nature around them. Preserving those pristine mountains, and protecting the land and water is essential. You can’t mention the pipelines in Floyd County without hearing an earful about the potential damage they will do to Southwest Virginia. Protecting our environment is seen as non-negotiable to these Virginians.
Education, training, small business development, anti-corporatism, programs that provide a safety net for those facing hardship, and environmentalism–where do we hear those themes? Oh, right, it’s the Democratic Party! Democrats offer: “targeted funding and support for entrepreneurship in underserved communities,” stopping corporate concentration, encouraging programs that protect and enhance family farms, debt-free college and free community college, and building a clean energy economy, with all the jobs that such a move creates.
So why are we not convincing residents of Floyd that we’re offering them solutions that would help them? Why did only 29% of Floyd County vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016? This is our challenge, and what will ultimately determine our long term success. We have to win back these voters, and not just shrug our shoulders thinking we can make up the 6,000 votes with a little bit higher turnout in Northern Virginia. We have to win back these voters because THEIR well-being depends on it, and because above all else, we are stronger together.