How to Mobilize Rural Progressives

The first step is to bust some myths about rural voters and communities.

Matthew Hildreth grew up in what is know as “Siouxland,” the region surrounding the Big Sioux River drainage basin stretching across parts of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota. That came with certain stereotypes about what it meant to live in rural America.

Through TV, I learned about life in the big city and what the rest of the country thought of hicks, hillbillies, and hayseeds like me. I learned that to be successful, I had to leave. And so, like many of my classmates, I left as soon as I could.

What initially brought Hildreth back to Siouxland was the Bush administration’s ICE raid on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa back in 2008, which resulted in the arrest and detention of almost 400 Latino members of that community. Here’s what he found.

Within hours of the raid, Sister McCauley [parish administrator of the local Catholic church] had the entire community of 2,269 residents organized. When I interviewed her a few days later, the church was full of children still waiting to be reunited with their families. The church’s fellowship hall was filled with clothes, meals, and supplies for the children; community volunteers worked through legal paperwork on behalf of those detained. In a moment of complete chaos, community members rose to the challenge and stood together with their neighbors. It was at this point I realized the power of rural organizing. I was hooked.

Hildreth went on to launch Rural Organizing. Here is how they answer the question, “Who are we?”

In small towns and rural communities across the country, authentic relationships are the foundation for community change. Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local,” but we’ve found that rural politics are also personal. We believe that communities, causes, and candidates must leverage these relationships in order to organize and mobilize rural communities toward enduring and sustainable change. With smart communications and strategic distributive organizing, we will empower rural progressives and develop, pass, and implement policy platforms needed to rebuild small towns across America.

When they talk about empowering rural progressives, they know what they’re up against. As Hildreth notes, “after the 2016 election, the GOP emerged with a 16-percentage-point advantage among rural voters.” But he also wants to bust some of the myths about rural voters that have been embraced on both the right and the left.

Rural doesn’t mean white. The majority of Indigenous Americans (54 percent) and a quarter of African Americans live in small cities, towns, and rural communities. Between 2000 and 2010, the Asian American population of rural communities grew by 37 percent; the Hispanic population grew by 46 percent.

And rural areas aren’t necessarily conservative. According to data from the Pew Research Center, rural voters’ partisan affiliation was equally divided between Democrats and Republicans from 1999 to 2009…The 2018 midterm elections…demonstrated the power of small grassroots investment in strategic rural engagement: A Reuters analysis found that Democrats increased their share of rural votes in more than 50 congressional districts. Even in two Iowa districts that voted for Trump in 2016, Democrats came out on top.

As a way to demonstrate that first point, it was Hildreth that introduced me to the bluegrass group Che Apalache. Bandleader Joe Troop grew up in North Carolina but eventually settled in Argentina, where he recruited the other members. Take a look at what they’re doing with both sound and message in this song titled “The Dreamer” about Troop’s friend, Moises Serrano.

The first step in reaching out to rural America is to discard the myths and recognize both the unique challenges and opportunities faced by these communities.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.