Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.
Anyone concerned about the future of the Democratic Party should worry about the party’s poor performance in rural America in recent election cycles. On TV, I remember watching America’s red and blue counties after 2016 and 2020. There are blue coasts and blue pockets in a largely red sea.
How come Democrats are politically wiped out in so many rural places? I have seen different statistical explanations. One in Politico said two-thirds of rural voters chose Trump. Another said Democrats lost 90% of rural counties. Trump has actually done better with rural voters in 2020 than he did in 2016. Regardless of the actual numbers, there’s a reason Democrats are very concerned.
It has not always been so. The red trend in rural America has accelerated over the past decade. Two young Democrats, Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward, co-authors of the new book, Dirt Roads Awakening, let us return to the Democrat/rural voter question. And they don’t speak as academics. In 2018, Maxmin and his campaign manager Woodward flipped a state representative seat in a heavily red district of Maine. Then in 2020, they flipped a state senate seat against Maine’s Republican Senate Minority Leader.
Maxmin and Woodward argue that Democrats have largely ignored rural America, sending the message that “you don’t matter.” They say Democrats stopped trying to persuade people who disagreed with them, focusing on achieving big margins in urban and suburban areas.
The two young activists speak out against a long-standing pattern of neglect. In their 2020 campaign, they describe how the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee told them they didn’t believe in talking to Republicans. Maxmin and Woodward recognized this as bad policy. They pledged to reach out far more to independent and Republican voters. Their strategy paid off.
Our octogenarian leadership of the Democratic Party is seriously out of touch. The party keeps losing in rural America but there is misunderstanding of the repeated losses. You might think that the magnitude of the losses would lead to some soul-searching. Only the loss margin matters.
Many people in rural America view the leadership of the Democratic Party as elitist and unresponsive to their needs. This is also true of the leadership of the Republican Party, but the Democrats have presented themselves as fighters for working people.
Democrats need to be self-critical. In the not-too-distant past, our leaders called grassroots voters “deplorable” or “clinging to guns and religion.” It was our party leadership under Bill Clinton that presided over the deregulation of Wall Street, disastrous trade policies, the continued deindustrialization of America, and mass incarceration. Neither side has clean hands.
Maxmin and Woodward show a different path. They lay out a roadmap for organizing rural America. Maxmin emphasized door-to-door service and the personal touch. She and Woodward got rid of expensive party campaign consultants and conventional election literature, creating their own original signs and literature.
She focused more on listening than on offering solutions. She engaged people to hear what was on their mind. She was always respectful of people and their opinions, even when she disagreed. She focused on values, not the party. Maxmin also ran a 100% positive campaign. She refused to appease her rivals.
During the 2020 COVID lockdown, Maxmin and Woodward organized socially distanced phone banks geared towards providing relief to seniors who needed help. The campaign connected a network of volunteer drivers to pick up prescriptions from neighbors, deliver groceries, drop off toilet paper or find large-print books for people with sight problems who couldn’t access public libraries that were closed. . Their campaign was more of a social movement than a traditional politics.
Campaigns of all political stripes seek authenticity. That’s why you see contestants shooting guns, wearing cowboy or baseball hats, or riding horses. Even Trump, who looks like he’s sleeping in a suit, wears a baseball cap. Maxmin was straightforward as a progressive Democrat. She never hid her opinions.
In her book, she describes a conversation with a guy who opposed Medicaid expansion in Maine. At first, he told her to leave his property, but she persisted in asking his views. He explained that he grew up without electricity or running water. He had worked hard to build a life for himself, including buying his own health care. Maxmin thanked him for his explanations. She said her support for Medicaid shouldn’t take away from her hard work. It was about supporting others who remained in need. At the end of the conversation, the guy said he would vote for her.
Maxmin and Woodward point out the harm of negative stereotypes. There are plenty of Democrats who, out of frustration, will dismiss people as “Trumpers,” “backward,” or “racist.” While there are undoubtedly many Republicans who will never be won over, there are not many others. Finding common ground is possible, but Democrats must try.
Workers across America have been screwed. Many don’t bother to vote, believing it makes no difference. When Biden ran against Trump, he talked about getting things back to some sort of normalcy, like they were before Trump. This point of view is wrong.
Things are in a much worse and more precarious place than former Democratic leaders seem to realize. Whether it’s the climate emergency or the fascist threat to democracy, Democrats must be the party of big change, recognizing the gravity of our present moment.
As Maxmin and Woodward explain, the Democrats failed to understand the class structure of rural America. Too often they have not fought for low-income rural people or working people who all have the same needs everywhere. Rural families want to close the wealth gap with better incomes. They want their children to have opportunities. They need broadband, affordable housing, affordable education, student debt relief, and universal health care.
But Democrats have cut the Violets. They will provide $40 billion for Ukraine, but American restoration remains irrelevant.
The future of the Democratic Party rests with exceptional young people like Maxmin and Woodward, not corporate lobbyists tied to Wall Street. Young activists are right that the party needs to reinvent itself so that we can really hope to take over some state legislatures.
Democrats have an abysmal record at the state level. In 1978, Democrats controlled both houses in 31 state legislatures. By 2017, that number had dropped to 13. During Obama’s presidency, Democrats lost nearly 1,000 seats in legislatures. We have to look at this and not accept it.
In rural America, a revival of dirt roads is the best hope for combating Republican authoritarians. The Republicans have completely degraded but the Democrats have shown themselves only weakly worthy. The stakes couldn’t be much higher.