As we all know, Donald Trump’s election on November 8 hit Democrats hard. Mortified by his bombast, misogyny, ignorance, petulance – and his almost cult following by Tea Partiers – we Democrats felt in our cores that Trump was woefully unprepared for the job, and if elected, could do real damage to the country, and perhaps the world. Our worst nightmares came true, and we’ve been beside ourselves ever since.
One thing is clear, however. Democrats are not going quietly into the night. Groups have formed, people are marching, Democratic candidates are springing up, and local committees are looking for larger spaces to meet. We had eighty at our last Roanoke County Democratic Committee meeting – almost twice our previous high. Clearly, Democrats are on the move.
But even as more and more Democrats stir to life, we continue to wrestle with questions about who we are as a party, and what we have to do to win more elections. While Clinton’s loss revealed the urgent need for a hard self-examination, the problems Democrats face obviously go deeper than presidential elections. From school boards to state houses to governorships to Congress – Democrats are getting clobbered in rural and Rust Belt America.
The question we Democrats face is what to do about it. There are some who insist we do nothing; that changing demographics will eventually give our party a reliable numerical edge. It’s certainly true that demographics are changing – and that does bode well for future presidential and statewide races – but it will be a long time before those changes lead to Democratic successes in rural parts of the country. And for those of us Democrats living in rural America, doing nothing to better reach rural voters beyond waiting for population changes is simply not an option. We have to promote policies and a message that rural voters find appealing. If Donald Trump is the disaster to white working-class voters that we think he’ll be, Democrats will soon have an opportunity to offer an alternative vision. Now is the time for us to put that vision together.
To be clear, returning rural voters to the Democratic Party is no easy task. There are many forces including cultural and media that present challenging hurdles. But having run for office in rural Virginia and having recently chaired our local committee, I believe there are some things we can do. This list is far from exhaustive – but it’s a start.
Broadband, Broadband, Broadband
Democrats have to make the case that broadband access is as much a right as electricity or paved streets. Without broadband, school curriculums are limited, healthcare is compromised, and communities cannot attract large businesses – especially manufacturing. Broadband must become the party’s single most important economic investment in rural America. We have to make this case unapologetically. The digital divide is leaving many rural Americans behind and it will fall on our party to address this urgent problem.
Be Realistic About Gun Legislation
I know the reaction this will garner but I’ll say it anyway. Democrats need to realize there isn’t a lot that can be realistically done to drastically reduce gun violence in America. The country’s gun culture is too old and established to be radically altered. Any policies we have for curbing gun violence will be limited by the fact that there are 300 million guns in the country. Until that changes, and it won’t change anytime soon, we’re going to have way more gun violence than we should for a country our size. That’s not to say, however, we can’t do anything. We should push for background checks on private sales, limits on magazine sizes, and improved mental health services and communication with law enforcement agencies. These efforts will save some lives and are worth pursuing, but they don’t need to be the centerpiece of our platform. We also need to stop talking about banning “assault weapons.” There is no substantive definition for what constitutes an assault weapon so any legislation to remove them will simply be met with stylistic changes by gun makers. Let’s focus on what will work, but be realistic about the changes we’ll actually see.
Stand Up to Entitlement Fraud
There have been several books published in the last year that shed light on the minds of rural Trump supporters. Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land, Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy are essential reading for Democrats looking to expand the party. One of the central themes of all three of these books is the value of hard work among rural voters. Many white working-class voters are struggling to support themselves and their families, but amidst all the challenges they face, they continue to do it on their own. Self-reliance is as essential value for them. That’s why so many rural voters react so strongly to those who take unfair advantage of entitlement programs – and the Democratic Party who they see as enabling the fraud.
I’m a strong believer in the importance of government programs that help those truly in need, but we have to be willing to acknowledge that fraud – particularly medical fraud – is relatively common, and we have to be willing to propose policies that help end it. If Democrats want to gain ground with rural voters, they, too, must champion the importance and value of hard work, and stand against those who want to game the system. For rural voters who are barely getting by, fairness is crucial – and we must make it clear that we agree.
Allow a Place at the Table for People of Faith
Aside from the large number of attendees at our last Roanoke County Democratic Committee meeting, something else occurred that night that was truly refreshing. One of our members (someone who will be announcing his plans to run for office later this month) stood up to say the reason he had switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party was because the Democratic Party was the only party that lined up with his Christian values (he’s a Mormon). As a religious studies professor, I found his statement extremely hopeful. One of our tasks right now as Democrats is to find ways to weave together the causes of our various identity groups. The most effective way to do that is to find language that expresses our common values. Quite frankly, we need to speak about our party and our vision for the world in moral terms. We need to talk about what’s right, why it’s right, and we cannot be afraid to do so in explicitly religious terms. Values and morality do not have to be grounded in faith traditions, but we shouldn’t resist those whose moral center is squarely rooted in faith. Rural Americans are the most religious in the country, and if we hope to attract them to our party, we have to be willing to find common moral ground with them.
Between last year’s concerns about the DNC’s neutrality during the Democratic primary and worries about transparency and corruption within Donald Trump’s administration, the time is right for our party to lead by example. From our local committees, to the DNC, to all of our elected officials, we must insist that our party handles its business with the highest levels of integrity. One of the main reasons many rural voters oppose government is because they believe it’s corrupt. Democrats must be especially vigilant to ensure that our internal elections are fair, and that our elected officials are honest, transparent, and willing to put the good of the country over personal political gain. If we hold ourselves accountable to this standard, our party will grow.
This list is far from exhaustive but it represents the essential positions we must take as Democrats if we hope to pull rural, white-working class voters back into the Democratic fold. Our party is clearly on the eve of a resurgence. If we can galvanize around policies and messages that expand our appeal to rural voters, we could begin to take back local and state governments. Our moment is now. We can’t pass it by.