Push hard and fast. Don’t settle. Demand big change.

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Rural voters shouldn’t be thought of on a left-right spectrum, but rather as a bloc of swing voters with a strong populist and anti-establishment streak. –Matt Hildreth, progressive rural activist and political organizer

Here they come again. The Democratic Party establishment of high-dollar donors, don’t-rock-the-corporate-boat congressional leaders, and their hired political operatives are rampaging again, trying to purge progressive activists and policies from the party. Even when the candidates of these old-line forces win, as Joe Biden just did, they can’t seem to stop assailing us grassroots progressives who supply the new ideas, vision, energy, organizing, excitement–and votes–that are the party’s future. Preferring to cling to power as a club of comfortable insiders, they’re furious that we upstarts are making gains and pushing Democrats to be … well, DEMOCRATS! Their latest hissy fit asserts that we are scaring voters with “wild-eyed” proposals like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and criminal justice reform.

Just hours after polls closed on November 3, a group of timorous congressional Democrats joined in a game of “pin the tail on progressives,” wailing that demands for such egalitarian policies had nearly cost Biden the presidency and were to blame for eight centrist Dems in swing districts losing their House seats. One of the leading complainers, Rep. Jim Clyburn, even insisted that those pushing a people’s democratic agenda would be the death of the Democratic Party–if “we are going to run on Medicare for All … socialized medicine, we’re not going to win,” he proclaimed.

Never mind that we taxpayers already provided “socialized medicine” for him and his colleagues or that he’s a top recipient of political cash from pharmaceutical profiteers, he’s also wrong:

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  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quickly deflated the puffed-up claim that supporting universal healthcare caused any congressional losses for the party. “Every single swing-seat House Democrat who endorsed Medicare for All won re-election,” she tweeted on Nov. 7. “Every. Single. One.
  • Indeed, even Democratic Med4All backers in districts Trump won–such as Reps. Matt Cartwright (PA) and Jared Golden (ME)–were re-elected. Of the eight soft Democrats who lost their House seats, all of them had refused to back healthcare for all.
  • Far from scary, the prospect of universal health coverage is hugely popular. Just days before the election, Fox News (!) polls showed 72% of voters favor replacing today’s for-profit insurance gougers with “a government-run health care plan.”

It’s hardly surprising that the big, transformative policy changes we seek are bugaboos for right-wing Trumpeteers and defenders of corporate supremacy, but they’re also powerfully attractive to a growing majority (including many Trump voters) seeking relief from the relentless crush of plutocracy and autocracy. In fact, Biden won by 6 million votes because progressives backed him–despite the business-as-usual timidity he and his establishment party peers embraced.

We carried Joe to victory

We did this–the grassroots “we,” those who rebelled against the established order, including the innumerable strategists, organizers, and volunteers coming out of unions, people-of-color movements, women’s networks, youth groups, environmental defenders, and so many others. They are the “we” who did the work that saved our nation from Trump II. While party insiders insisted on Biden, they lacked the voter clout to elect him. After all, big donors and powerful lawmakers don’t go door to door, send millions of personal texts, or volunteer to organize mass rallies–not to mention that their voter approval rating barely tops single digits.

Indeed, rather than working with insurgent grassroots activists, the old guard that controls the party apparatus largely got in the way of success. The DCCC, DSCC, DNC, and other acronyms of lobbyist-funded money machines arrogantly refused to back most progressive nominees, deflating the morale of their volunteer activists. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi’s dictate that funders and consultants must protect conservative Dems from rebellions by progressive challengers and constituents not only failed, but revealed the party to be wholly unprincipled. And while Biden’s deliberately muted I’m-not-Trump campaign calmed moderates, it stamped out any spark of enthusiasm from voters who longed for a robust champion of people’s needs.

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

Still, as I declared in an October video urging reluctant progressives to go with Joe, I didn’t care if he were a 200-pound sack of concrete, we had to carry him into the Oval Office: Biden, our only means of defenestrating Trump, was also our only chance of advancing a reform agenda. Dozens of grassroots constituencies organized campaigns independent of the party structure to do just that, including:

  • Long-term “relational organizing” by the New Georgia Project helped Black voters overcome the GOP’s shameful suppression tactics and produce a Biden victory in this Deep South state.
  • The emerging Latinx vote not only rose up in Southwestern states, but also produced margins of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and other areas of immigrant growth long ignored by national party honchos.
  • Young members of the Navajo Nation registered 4,000 tribal members to vote in Arizona, then organized “Ride to the Polls” horseback treks to polling stations that GOP officials had moved 10 miles from their homes. The Navajos delivered many of the 11,000 votes that helped flip that red state to blue.

And now what? At last, we get a real possibility of winning some progressive policies. Not that Joe will turn into a Sanders-Warren fireball of democratic populism. But unlike in 1992 and 2008, when Clinton and Obama each fleetingly raised hopes that progress was possible, two new factors give progressive proposals a greater chance this time:

Biden himself. Despite a long career representing Delaware, home state of Corporate America, a core part of Biden’s political make-up is that he’s Joe Labor. He comes to the job with a genuine affinity for working stiffs. He’s visibly comfortable in union halls and working-class bars, and he unabashedly campaigned this year as “a union guy.” Neither Clinton nor Obama had that in them. For Biden, labor rights are not wonkish issues, but about showing gut-level respect for working families, caring a bit less about Wall Street wealth and more about worker well-being.

You and me. This is not ’92 or ’08, when incoming Democratic presidents simply said “thank you and goodbye” to grassroots backers, then handed the government’s economic keys to Wall Street bankers and corporate lobbyists. We won’t allow Biden to do that and he knows it. Today, there’s an organized, battle-tested Left on alert in practically every congressional district. It includes street-savvy, digitally connected movements of and by people of color, scrappy labor organizers and mobilizers, aggressive contingents of climate activists, and ever-watchful Berniecrats and Warren enthusiasts. Plus, we now have a growing cadre of unwilting agitators in Congress, willing to expose and oppose insider sellouts.

This time, progressive forces are neither weak nor meek, and we’re not about to be shushed or shooed by Joe or a go-slow establishment. We’re akin to the insistent forces of fundamental change who asserted themselves 88 years ago after Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency. FDR had not run as a fiery New Dealer, but as a centrist Democrat promising little more than to rid the White House of the clueless, nearly comatose Herbert Hoover. The moment Roosevelt was elected, militant grassroots movements (particularly labor unions, farm rebels, and anti-poverty fighters), along with such popular political firebrands on his left as Huey Long, Maury Maverick, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Upton Sinclair were in his face. They were the ones who created the historic New Deal reform agenda … and then made Roosevelt spend his political capital to pass it.

Of course, the parallels are not exact, but many of the dynamics are, especially the key New Deal big lesson: Push hard and fast! Progressives can’t settle for just sweeping out, disinfecting, and patching up our national house after Trump’s four-year plunderfest. We must demand a fundamental, comprehensive, structural rebuild including policies for healthcare, immigration, environment, racial justice, labor law, and infrastructure. And there’s at least one more area that must become a priority for a major policy overhaul–an area of huge moral, cultural, and economic significance that the Democratic Party and most progressives have ignored for decades, to the detriment of millions of people and our own political strength–RURAL AMERICA AND FARMERS.

Rural does not equal Red

To say that Biden lost the rural vote is to sugarcoat the dire situation Democrats face out beyond the suburbs. For example, my state of Texas has 254 counties. The 20 most populated counties gave Joe 54% of their votes; the other 234 cast 71% of their votes for The Donald. With a quarter of the state’s population, those rural and small-town counties handed a statewide 5-point victory–and all of our 38 electoral votes–to Trump. Why? Too many lazy politicos and pundits scoff that rural is indelibly red–that it’s “Trump Country,” filled with white rubes and racists, and that therefore Dems should write them off and concentrate resources where the big numbers are.

Aha! Might it be a problem for a political party to dismiss an entire diverse constituency of millions as a block of static data points in some consulting firm’s computers–rather than, say, viewing them as human beings to be won over? Yet the national Democratic Party is a myopic, data-driven operation, as was inadvertently admitted two days after the election by Rep. Cheri Bustos, head of the party’s congressional campaign arm. As reported by the New York Times, her post-election analysis was that “Something went wrong,” blaming “incorrect modeling of the electorate.”

Hello … how about an understanding of, concern for, and outreach to rural families and communities? Rural America is being crushed by Big Ag monopolies, joblessness, artificially low crop and dairy prices, farm foreclosures, Wall Street land speculators, loss of healthcare services, punishing weather from climate change, lack of broadband, outmigration of youth, Covid-19, meth and opioids, suicides, and a host of other Biblical-level plagues. Sure, Republican officials are uncaring and push policies that cause and sustain the pain of all the above. But where the hell are the Democrats?

Let’s be blunt: Much of the rural electorate now writes Democrats off as aloof, Washington-based elites who condescend to them and don’t give a damn about “out there.” Even responsive candidates and organizers in rural areas find it hard to convince farmers, workers, local business, and other natural allies in the hinterlands that the Dems are on their side.

For a brief moment in 2009, for example, it looked as if President Obama might finally bust the beef and pork trusts that openly rip off family farmers and ranchers. Thousands of abused producers testified at field hearings, a real ag reformer by the name of Dudley Butler was appointed to go after the corporate profiteers, excitement spread across farm country, and then … NOTHING. Meat monopolists like Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS shrieked at the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress, and all of that grassroots testimony was shelved, Butler resigned in disgust and protest, and the monopolists grew bigger than ever.

Of course, rural America is not just about farmers, and it certainly is not monochromatic, for at least one in five rural voters is a person of color. According to Matt Hildreth of RuralOrganizing.org, a third of all new immigrants find work in enclaves far outside our major cities. That became clear to us all last spring when the same Big Three meat monopolists that exploit farmers proceeded to kill untold numbers of immigrant workers by forcing them to stay on the job in Covid-infected slaughterhouses (see The Lowdown, July 2020). While Trump was the one who sanctioned this corporate murder, the Democratic establishment did little more than file an objection and avert its eyes.

If Dems don’t stand firm for rural people, why would rural people stand for them? As we just saw, they won’t. In fact, while the party has a rural program on paper, the Biden campaign hardly showed up. People’s Action–one of the great independent progressive groups that work with rural voters–estimates that its rural effort was bigger and more effective than Biden’s. And when the Dems do deign to go to the countryside, they shy from even speaking the name of the real elephant stomping the rural economy and culture: Unbridled corporate power.

Getting back into the fight

If Dems hope to win rural/small town America or even to “lose better” (by smaller margins), that journey begins by literally moving a permanent party presence to the countryside, listening to the diversity of people there, standing with them, and delivering on their needs. We don’t have to create a special vehicle to reach them, for a powerful office already exists with enormous authority and resources to help them restore vitality and prosperity: Secretary of Agriculture.

But a tool only works if you use it. Quick, name the ag secretaries under Carter, Clinton, and Obama, representing 20 years that Democratic presidents controlled ag and rural policies. Few Americans can name even one, because … well, what did they do, even as crisis after crisis ripped through the farmlands and communities they were supposed to serve?

Consider Barack Obama’s appointee, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.[*] He actually tried to resign as secretary in 2015, complaining that, “There are days when I have literally nothing to do.” Seriously? At the time whole towns were boarding up, massive hog factories were exploiting farmers and local residents, states were slashing food assistance, climate change was advancing relentlessly, and, well … get to work Mr. Secretary! Vilsack subsequently did find work as chief Washington lobbyist for dairy-exporting corporations, drawing a million-dollar annual paycheck. Meanwhile, burdened with the low milk-price policies he sanctioned, almost nine US dairy farms closed down every day on average in 2019. Does he not think farmers notice … and turn Republican?

As the former Agriculture commissioner of Texas, I know that the US Department of Agriculture (created in 1862 by Abe Lincoln to be the “people’s department”) could become a transformative force for the Common Good. The agency:

  • has major anti-monopoly authority
  • has its own banks
  • controls a huge rural development program
  • runs nutrition programs including food stamps (SNAP), school lunches, and has responsibility for food safety and pesticide regulations
  • directs the Forest Service and numerous conservation, wildlife, and other environmental policies
  • has sweeping civil and labor rights responsibilities
  • is mandated to serve consumers and the poor
  • has a $119 billion budget, some 100,000 employees, and an office in every county in America, and
  • most powerfully, the secretary of Agriculture has broad authority to be a national advocate for the people against the corporate plutocracy now controlling policy.

In other words, ag secretary is a BIG office–if you dare to use it. But recent presidents have relegated it to a third-tier Cabinet slot meant to keep BigAg content and in charge. Thus, USDA’s top leadership has been somewhere between indifferent and hostile to the majority of workaday rural people who need an ally.

So, let’s become that ally. Here’s a chance for progressives to practice what Rep. John Lewis called getting into “good trouble,” rallying a broad grassroots constituency to refocus the work of this huge public resource to make it The People’s Department again. The tools for making this fundamental structural change are in place; thousands of capable, public-spirited USDA employees would eagerly join such a historic mission; and the political energy for success would come from the people themselves. Impossible? That’s what those who pushed hard and fast for the New Deal were told. And then they did it.

* This issue of the Lowdown went to press before Biden named Tom Vilsack as his pick for Ag Secretary — all the more reason to keep the gas on!


Organize for a rural America that is ’empowered, thriving, and equitable’

Folks in our rural areas and small towns may have an independent streak, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t progressive. And you can support them by plugging into (and supporting) organizers such as RuralOrganizing.org and People’s Action.

Rural Organizing unites diverse rural communities to fight for quality employment, sustainable land management, rural healthcare, and more. It offers a Facebook group of “rural changemakers,” a free email newsfeed, and resources such as a toolkit for “Fighting Misinformation in Small Towns and Rural Communities.

Over the last two years, People’s Action has done groundbreaking work with “deep canvassing”–person-to-person conversations that effectively counter the right’s use of “strategic racism” in rural America. Its To See Each Other podcast shows “how small-town folks are working together … for everything from clean water and racial justice to immigration rights and climate change.

I’m making moves!

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