To Win in Rural Areas, Democrats Need to Tackle Market Consolidation

Loyal Political Animal readers may remember a piece I wrote in the June/July/August issue of the Washington Monthly called “How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values.” It’s a need that hasn’t gone away. We explore it in several articles in the new issue we published on Monday. Claire Kelloway, a food reporter for the Open Markets Institute, tackles farm policy in her story for our cover package: “How to Close the Democrats’ Rural Gap.”

There’s never been any question, for me at least, that the Democratic Party needs to aggressively court rural voters. I can’t fathom a left-wing party that doesn’t compete in every community and that doesn’t fight for hard-pressed and powerless everywhere. But I also think rural voters have plenty of economic reasons to be displeased with the Democrats, even if the Republicans are an objectively worse alternative.

Kelloway doesn’t shy away from telling that story.  For starters, farmers did not fare well during Barack Obama’s presidency.

The three years leading up to the 2016 election saw the sharpest decline in farm incomes since the Great Depression. In 2015, more than half of all farm households lost more money than they made farming.

Then there were the broken promises:

When Barack Obama was competing for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, he seemed to understand the role that corporate concentration was playing in immiserating much of rural America. Campaigning in Iowa, North Carolina, and Colorado, he promised to take on abuses by monopolistic agribusinesses, particularly meat-packers. 

Early in his presidency, he followed up on these promises by having top Agriculture Department (USDA) and Justice Department officials hold hearings across the country to investigate malpractice in the poultry, cattle, dairy, and seed industries, as well as the growing gap between the prices consumers paid and farmers received. At the conclusion of these hearings the USDA proposed rule changes that would have given farmers far greater power to stand up to abuses by ag monopolies. 

But the blowback was immediate. Big Meat threw its lobbying weight behind an effort to block the reforms. Soon, sixty-eight Republicans and forty-seven Democrats delivered a letter to the USDA saying that the new rules were unjustified and required more industry input and economic analysis. Obama could have implemented the rules unilaterally, but for whatever reason his secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, hesitated. Then, in 2010, Republicans took the House and began passing appropriations riders that stripped the USDA of the necessary funds to implement the rules even if they had gone into effect. In December 2016, Vilsack finally signed off on a significantly watered-down rule change. But shortly after President Trump took office, new Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue shot down even these modest reforms and dissolved the USDA’s antitrust agency entirely, burying its duties within the agribusiness-friendly Agricultural Marketing Service agency.

The election of Donald Trump was obviously connected, at least in some ways, to the declining fortunes of rural America. Most rural Americans are not farmers, but agriculture drives their local economies. A lot of people think these economies are doomed and cannot be revived; too many Democrats too often act on that assumption. When they’re not thinking about relocating rural America to our more vibrant cities or coming up with other similarly disrespectful solutions, they’re simply walking away because, as rural America shifts hard to the right, it seems like winning their votes is either impossible or entails compromising on core values.

Kelloway does a fantastic job of explaining how market consolidation is driving farmers out of business, but she also demonstrates that farmers understand this very well and are receptive to any politician who knows how to discuss the rather complex forces at play. More than Representative Steve King’s racist comments, what really made him vulnerable to defeat in the 2018 midterms was that his opponent, J.D. Scholten, hammered on the evils of monopoly. It’s the same story I heard from Tom Perriello when I interviewed him during his unsuccessful primary bid for Virginia’s governorship. Neither Scholten nor Perriello were ultimately successful, but they both showed surprising rural strength precisely because they were talking a language their constituents understood.

I won’t spoil the article for you, but one reason it’s worth your time is because, in the last 20 years, Democrats have twice lost the presidency and seats in the U.S. Senate despite, in all three cases, winning the national popular vote. The cause is their weakness in rural areas. That weakness has been growing–and it exploded in 2016.

The Democrats do not necessarily need to win in rural areas, and that seems like a stretch in the near future. They do, however, need to avoid being slaughtered. They won’t win on cultural issues but they can make major inroads with good, responsive farm policy. And that begins with a willingness to take on monopolies and market concentration in agribusiness.

Here’s a final tease to try to entice you to read the whole thing:

“I have a lot of folks calling me thinking of running for president and they want to know what their rural message should be,” Scholten says. His answer: “Talk about market consolidation.” 

At his thirty-nine town hall meetings, across every county in Iowa’s Fourth District, Scholten spoke about improving the economy by addressing the growing power of agribusiness monopolies, which, by raising prices on what farmers buy and pushing down prices of what farmers sell, are devastating farm incomes. “Agriculture is the backbone of this district,” Scholten says. “At every [town hall] I talked about how farmers are being squeezed on the input and on the output side. . . . That resonated more than tariffs ever did, and I think that’s one thing that national reporters never understood.

“I think farmers view tariffs as temporary, whereas market consolidation is a long-term issue,” he adds, noting that the call for fair competition has bipartisan appeal. “Anti-trust . . . has not been a partisan issue. Traditional Republicans, they want competitive markets, and that goes against what’s happening in the ag business.” 

Scholten’s message on agribusiness monopolies may have resonated with farmers, but it has not yet broken through with big-city liberals, too many of whom write off the possibility that progressive economic populism could appeal to rural voters more than right-wing cultural warfare. Until Democratic leaders and candidates find their voice on the key issue affecting rural communities’ economic fortunes, even the biggest blue wave won’t be enough to take back the map.

We are going to keep flogging this horse until either morale improves or the Democratic Party gets the message. There are plenty of people in rural America who know what the problem is. They’ll notice if the Democrats are the ones that acknowledge it and develop a plan.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.