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A general rule of politics warns against trying to win today’s election by re-running yesterday’s campaign. Yet while the political climate and landscape do change fast, certain fundamentals persist. So, as we ponder the Democratic Party’s strategies for both this fall’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential run, let me take you back many yesteryears to 1980, to the very start of my Texas politicking.
As I headed out to campaign for statewide office, I chose an electoral path that defied the reigning wisdom on how Democrats should position themselves and run, and I believe it offers guidance on a crucial question facing the party today: Is it a waste of time for Democrats to put resources and energy into winning back significant numbers of rural and factory town voters who’ve recently “turned into” conservatives, Trumpsters, or no-shows?
Back to the future
Four decades ago, most Texas progressives were hunkered down in a defensive crouch. Corporate interests were ascendant, having defeated such strong, steadfast liberal champions as Ralph Yarborough and Sissy Farenthold in senatorial and gubernatorial races. The state has gone conservative, was the diagnosis of the media and political funders, as well as the self-defeating lament of too many progressive leaders.
Thus, it was judged the better part of valor for Dems to sublimate overt progressivism and choose candidates who might slip into office as corporate- sanctioned centrists.
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“But wait,” said I, “That’s not who we Texans are!” Then-editor of The Texas Observer, I protested to the high heavens that far from being meek adherents to the corporate order, we’re direct descendants of the historic anti-corporate Populist Movement that literally began here in the 1870s, took root, and flowered. In fact, going back earlier, our first state constitution outlawed banks and required a two-thirds vote of the legislature to form corporations!
Moreover, the people whom the pundits were calling “conservatives” and “corporatists” included my own father and mother, who had been part of the mass migration of rural people forced off family farms by bankers, commodity brokers, and landlords during the Depression. The people I’d grown up with in Denison, Texas, were local merchants, construction workers, teachers, dirt farmers, truck drivers, and other working-class folks … and none of them had ever mistaken Wall Street, chain stores, oil barons, and the general corporate hierarchy for allies.
This workaday constituency, I argued, could be enlisted in (and even enthused by) politics that went to them with an unabashed campaign to build an urban-rural, multiracial, labor/small-business coalition around democratic values, working-class issues, and the hot message of anti-corporate populism. Of course, Democratic Party cognoscenti immediately laughed off this strategy as liberal lunacy.
The only way to test its validity was to try it. So, I ran for statewide office, driven by not only the requisite levels of ego and political self-delusion, but also by the intention to revive Texas’s history of progressivism and demonstrate its potential. The idea was to run a campaign focused squarely on grassroots people’s aspirations and real grievances, or as the Populists used to put it: politics with hair on it. Most importantly, we related the myriad of their issues to the core democratic question of who has power (and why) versus who ought to have power (and how to get it). Our strategy was rooted in a powerful working-class reality first expressed by Martin Luther King and later echoed nationally by Rev. Jesse Jackson during his Rainbow Coalition campaign: “We might have come over on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
As expected, grassroots activists rejoiced at challenging the state party’s corporate drift, but we knew early on that we were onto something more than the usual left v. right campaign. Family farmers, Main Steet businesspeople, and rural newspapers joined in standing up to corporate power grabbers. Then, one spring afternoon in Tyler (Texas’s unofficial capital of Old South conservatism), I had an experience confirming that the classic populist appeal had real possibilities for uniting a people’s coalition.
A local supporter escorted me to Tyler’s grand old county courthouse for a courtesy visit with a prominent district judge, stressing that hizzoner was quite conservative, “So don’t dump your whole load on him.” His eminence heard me out while leaning back in his swivel chair, tilting his cowboy hat over his eyes, and propping his booted feet on his big desk. He reclined there unmoving as I earnestly explained that one of my core issues was the rising price of natural gas, which was squeezing consumers. In a carefully toned-down conclusion, I said: “It seems to me, your honor, that these gas utility corporations aren’t being entirely fair to us.”
WHAM! His boots hit the wood floor, and he thrust forward across the desk to look me square in the eye. Oh, sweet Jesus, I thought, even that was too hot for him! But, no. He blurted out with real passion, “Hightower, in your private moments, wouldn’t you say they’re f*****g us?”
Yes, sir, I eagerly replied, I would … I have … I do … and will. “Then I’m for you,” he said, “and I’ll support you here in Tyler.” With a coalition of labor, African-Americans, students, angry consumers, liberal Democrats, and supposedly conservative mavericks —who, like the judge, detested aloof and arrogant corporate powers—I won that county.
Meanwhile, back at 2022…
The same don’t-rock-the-corporate-boat political timidity I confronted in my 1980 race is now coming at us from the party’s Washington establishment. Top officials, funders, consultants, et al., are wailing in unison that Americans have taken a hard turn to the right, so the best course for Joe Biden, Congressional Dems, and down-ballot candidates is to pose as responsible governing moderates, contrasting themselves to the GOP’s bombastic extremists. The public, they instruct, wants only modest, incremental reforms, so Dems must cast aside those “polarizing” populist ideas like Medicare for All, bust-’em-up anti-monopoly actions, and strong pro-unionizing laws. Let Republicans push their craziness, the strategists smirk, and then watch mainstream voters come rushing to us in the sensible center.
Oh, and the Dem establishment also tells us to simply give up on those irrational rural and factory town voters who’ve deserted the party for the siren call of Trumpism. Rather than trying to persuade them that Dem poohbahs understand their disenchantment and will fight for their families’ future, the Washington brain-trust has chosen in the last few election cycles essentially to withdraw from the non-urban political turf. Instead, they have put practically all their resources in a metro strategy to goose up turnout of their core constituencies in big cities, inner suburbs, and college towns.
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In her 2016 run against Trump, Hillary Clinton didn’t even have a rural outreach staffer until just weeks before the election, and that lonely soul was based in Brooklyn! Move ahead to 2018, when party chair Tom Perez scoffed at face-to-face outreach to non-metro folks: “You can’t door-knock in rural America,” he explained. Actually, sir, you can, for homes out there do have doors—as well as porches for conversations and people who have plenty to say—but you have to believe they’re worth bothering to knock.
So, are they worth it? No, say most of the party’s high-priced consultants, peering at the countryside from their lofty perches in far-distant DC. They flash computer print-outs to show that their metro focus has succeeded beautifully over the last three election cycles. And, indeed, the metro-centered strategy has produced a net gain of 1 million Dem votes in the cities and suburbs of Pennsylvania and nine other key states in the industrial Midwest. That truly is impressive, a credit to the excellent get-out-the-vote work by the party’s grassroots activists and progressive allies.
But hold the champagne. In the rural and small factory counties of those same states, Democrats have suffered a net loss of nearly 2.6 million votes.
That’s pretty compelling political math, arguing we should re-engage with the countryside. Still, party pros insist that the bulk of those voters are long gone and can’t be persuaded to come back home, so better to scrounge for votes elsewhere.
Really? Hog stuff! shout progressive organizers like People’s Action, a grassroots coalition with long success working in the Midwest. To counter the knee-jerk presumption of the Democrats’ faraway inner circle, these ground-level activists set out in 2018 on a series of extended front-porch conversations with voters in rural counties that had flipped from Obama to Trump. Their most consistent feedback was not that voters loved Trump, but that Democratic officials no longer showed up or seemed to care about what was happening to them, much less actually stand with them in battles against corporate powers and economic collapse in their communities.
This year, to get a comprehensive reading of the political pulse (and Democratic possibilities) in the rural counties and small factory towns of the Midwest, American Family Voices, a consortium of political activists and analysts, proposed a novel idea: Why not ask people directly about the party? The resulting in-depth report, released in June, concluded that “giving up on these counties and voters is a big mistake.”
While acknowledging the difficulty of overcoming the people’s deep sense that they’ve been abandoned by Democratic elites, the study finds that families here still retain their core FDR-ish commitment to small-d democratic values. Don’t give up, build up, pleads AFV: If the party goes with a strong progressive agenda and establishes a consistent grassroots organizing presence, it can put most of this constituency back into the D column. But only if they get there out and earn it:
Yes, the voters here are cynical about the Democratic Party, but they are equally cynical about Republicans. More importantly, this is a very populist group of people economically, and the number-one villain for these voters is Corporate America. They see the GOP as thoroughly in the pocket of wealthy CEOs and the corporations they run. These voters agree with most of the Democratic Party’s issue agenda, especially, but not only, on economics. …[But] they tend to view Democrats as too weak and incompetent to get anything done.
Before party experts kiss-off those voters, they might contemplate just a few of the AFV’s revelations about them:
✅ There are a whole lot of them. In the 10 states studied, nearly half the voting population lives in non-urban, non-suburban counties, and an even bigger percentage of swing voters live “out there.” It’s impossible to win a national governing majority without winning more votes from places the party is currently conceding. BONUS FACTOID: Nationwide, Clinton lost rural America to Trump 3 to 1; if she’d lost only 2 to 1, she’d be president.
✅ Out there does not simply mean Whitesville. People of color make up 25% of today’s rural population, up from 19% just a decade ago. This increase includes large numbers of immigrants from Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Pacific islands, not to mention Black and other families leaving US cities to find better housing, schools, air, and opportunities in the country. This electorate will grow. Why reject it as too bothersome to pursue?
✅ Contrary to political stereotyping by national pundits, the terms “rural” and “small town” are not synonyms for Trumpster Rubes and right-wing crazies. AFV’s voter surveys, for example, found that the GOP’s strategy of winning new adherents by focusing on such “culture war” folderol as Don’t Say Gay, Critical Race Theory, book banning, and demonizing Big Bird and Mr. Potato Head has no mass appeal to the region’s disgruntled Democrats. Indeed, while these voters are dismayed and disgusted by the out-of-touch, tone-deaf incompetence of top Democrats, they continue to react most positively to such overtly progressive, little-d democratic policy concerns as health care and the inequality of today’s economic system. In short, like those Texas “conservatives” that my populist campaign rallied decades ago, most of these people are, at core, Democrats.
✅ AFV’s most telling finding is that millions of people out here are feeling real pain:
A majority of voters in factory towns say they or a family member suffers from a chronic health condition … [and] personal experiences with disabilities, job loss, mental health issues, and addiction. Half have experienced a loss of pension or retirement savings … [and] well over a third have experience with serious illness costing most of their savings, domestic violence, or legal trouble. … Voters describe the feeling of being hammered over and over again … [including by] the 2008 financial crisis with all the foreclosures and job loss, the opioid epidemic, Covid, [and] inflation. …[T]hey don’t know when or if things will get better. They feel like politicians, the national media, and other major institutions have forgotten them. …But where these voters are most cynical is with wealthy, global corporations and the corporate CEOs that make the decisions to send their jobs overseas, cut their health care, and retirement, benefits, and jack up their prices.
Hello, opportunity knocking
Why are the party’s smart ones so willing to kiss off these voters as a hopeless cause? Shafted farm families, mad-as- hell working stiffs, whole communities in distress, a mass multiracial population with a progressive-populist mindset, and clear targets for corporate villainy—this is the Democratic Party’s reason for existing, its ideal organizing opportunity. This is where the party’s best fighters are supposed to be, standing up to the moneyed powers and getting things done for common folks. For the future of the party and country, rallying this mid-American constituency would provide the numbers and political oomph to forge not just another tenuous and timid majority in Congress, but a governing majority to get America moving again.
But there’s the rub. Under present leadership and top-down structure, the “Party of the People” is a corporate party, governed not by democratic principles, but by Big Money. Much of the economic and political damage in the Midwest and elsewhere flows directly from:
✅ Bill Clinton’s wholesale embrace of NAFTA and other corporate trade scams
✅ Al Gore’s fantasy that manufacturing losses didn’t matter because everyone would get “smart jobs”
✅ Barack Obama’s massive bailout of Wall Street greed at the expense of workers, farmers, and Main Street
✅ Joe Biden’s meek surrender of bold progressive solutions to such shameless corporate sycophants as Mitch McConnell and Joe Manchin.
It’s not the people who’ve “gone conservative,” it’s the Democratic establishment. Too many progressive organizations, especially larger Washington-based groups, have been too willing for too long to follow what in essence is the party’s business-as-usual corporate hierarchy. These outfits have been reduced to touting small, incremental reforms, while asking the country’s workaday people to trust that the insider ability and Capitol Hill comradery of Biden, Pelosi, et al., will finally produce big change. They won’t—and most voters now realize that.
The good news is that feisty progressive activists have been organizing, fighting, and making real progress with grassroots efforts all across the country, including “red” areas the party is writing off. They are “leading from behind,” showing that the progressive movement as a whole must break away from Washington and get out here with the people to demand, fight for, and WIN the structural changes we want.
👇 DO SOMETHING 👇
Believe in organizers. Abused, abandoned, or ignored by both major parties, many workaday Americans are organizing to assert their power—and the Movement Voter Project and Movement Voter Fund were created to support their work. As MVP puts it, “there are thousands of grassroots organizations working to build a true democracy and move the U.S. forward. …But not nearly enough direct funding or individual donations go to these groups. In the meantime, billions of dollars are spent each election cycle on TV ads and consultants. We are working to change that!” movement.vote
“Lean and mean,” American Family Voices “fills gaps in the progressive movement by conducting research and providing strategic messaging and public relations work that nobody [else] is doing.” E.g., its recent Factory Towns report at americanfamilyvoices.org.
Words to win by. AFV founder Mike Lux writes: “We are going to have to pick some fights with big corporations that are screwing people, we are going to have to be specific in talking about solutions, and we are going to have to do some old-fashioned people-to-people organizing and community building.”