A Marshall Plan for rural America

by | Mar 11, 2016 | Economic Development, Economy, Editor's Blog | 19 comments

My friend Mike Cooper told some truth this week. In an article for the U.S. News and World Report, Mike laid out what he calls Trump’s America. He argues that both parties have let down working class white voters in rural America and that those voters are fueling Trump’s candidacy out of anger and despair.

Mike’s right. In areas like Wilkes County where he lives, less-educated white men are dying younger while almost every other demographic is living longer. They’ve seen their futures disappear and have turned to alcohol, drugs, and suicide to fight the pain.

Not surprisingly, several people commented that those people weren’t left behind, they just voted against their own self-interests and elected Republicans who ignored their needs. That’s not true. Most of those people voted Democratic for economic reasons and only turned to the GOP when those economic reasons went away. They’ve always been more culturally conservative than the Democratic Party as a whole and without the economic incentive to vote for Democrats they voted with their biases, not their pocketbooks.

In rural areas throughout North Carolina, Democrats were competitive up until the first part of this century. Eastern North Carolina was represented in Congress by people like Martin Lancaster. Larry Kissell won in the south-central part of the state just six years ago and Mike McIntyre represented the southeast until just two years ago. Democratic legislators called towns like Laurinburg, Albemarle, Rutherfordton, Shelby and Goldsboro home—and they weren’t in gerrymandered districts.

However, trade agreements signed by Bill Clinton and supported in Congress by both Democrats and Republicans sent their jobs overseas. Nobody offered them any support to replace those jobs. As the world became high-tech, the infrastructure in their towns and counties became obsolete. In many areas, the largest employer is the school system and, yet, the schools are falling apart. While Google is laying fiber in the Triangle, nobody’s talking about spending the money fully wire rural North Carolina.

Those people turned to Republicans because, if Democrats weren’t going to offer them the economic support they needed, at least the Republicans would stand up for their conservative cultural values. A decade or so later, that hasn’t worked out so well, either, so now they’re siding with Trump.

Republicans seem content to let the free market crush rural America while trying to exploit the anger of people being left behind by blaming immigrants and poor people. They say we can’t afford to spend money on rural America because of our massive debt. According them, we need to cut, not spend. They’re wrong.

The last time we had a debt-to-GDP ratio this high in America was right after World War II. We didn’t cut our way out of that predicament. We invested in infrastructure and people. We built airports, an interstate highway system, schools and universities, and sent a man to the moon. We gave almost every abled-body man a free education through the GI Bill and those people took the knowledge they gained to build businesses and the largest middle class in history.

We paid for it by taxing the rich. Marginal tax rates for the very wealthy were high but everybody paid some tax. Income inequality shrunk while economic well-being for the majority of Americans increased dramatically. With more money in the pockets of the middle class, more money went back into the US economy, spreading the wealth and keeping economic growth strong.

More than fifty years later, we need to rebuild that infrastructure again. We need a Marshall Plan for rural America, better connecting small towns and counties to economic centers with pavement and rail as well as with fiber and cell towers. We need to build new schools and community colleges with the infrastructure to educate and train a work force prepared for an economy based on ideas, technology and creativity. And we need to make sure they come out of these schools with jobs, not debilitating debt.

If Democrats want to take back Congress, they need to have support from working class America again. Liberals need to stop blaming the victims and wooing them instead. Offer them hope for the future instead of criticism for not being progressive on social issues. Education and exposure will change those attitudes more than ridicule or scorn. Donald Trump will only be here  for an election cycle but the problems facing working families will be here long after he’s gone.

Politically those working class voters are up for grabs.


  1. Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin

    I should not be astonished by this kind of thing by this point, but I confess that I find it just gobsmacking that you could write an article on this topic without ever breathing the name “Bernie Sanders.”
    Take a look at the primary election results from our state. Here in Western NC, which is primarily inhabited, last time I looked out my front door, by white working class voters, he took nearly every county. Not just hipster Asheville, but rural Appalachia: Yancey. Madison. Swain. Jackson. etc. and lost Cherokee by only 3 votes. In state after state, he does well with rural voters, so this is not an anomaly. Check out the results in Kansas, and in eastern Washington state.
    If the media would ever mention his name without being forced to, and then in some derogatory context, those unhappy struggling white voters that like Trump’s trade message might gravitate towards Sanders’ more sincere message without racist bombast. But they scarcely know anything about him, because they watch cable news.
    “But Trump!! Be very afraid!!” Yes indeed. In the last 40 years, no Democratic candidate has ever had Hillary’s negative favorability rating: it’s the worst ever. And no candidate with ANY negative rating has ever won the presidency. Sanders can beat Trump, Cruz, and all comers by a large comfortable margin and restore the soul of the Democratic Party. His proposals are so “pie in the sky” that they already exist in Canada, Australia, Europe, and Japan–and have for decades. He has already won 13 states and gotten within the statistical MOE in another 4, despite the near-blackout of media coverage. Look in the mirror, sir: you are part of the problem. If the media and the DNC insist on coronating Hillary, I reserve the right to say “I told you so” when she loses in November.

    • Hillary Supporter

      Hope you’re wrong in wishing Hillary will not win. Last time I checked,we called it presidency, not coronation of a king or queen (with the exception of Reagan whom the media loved for adding distance from the masses that Carter had reversed by trying to be “of the people”).
      A lot of the negativity toward Hillary Clinton is because she is a woman, plain and simple.

      • Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin

        It’s not a wish, it’s a prediction, and it is based on available data.

        My feminist cred goes back 40 years and my objections to Clinton have zero to do with her gender and everything to do with her politics.

        It does not matter WHY people are against her, or whether it is fair. It only matters that they incontrovertibly ARE, which makes it unlikely that she can win the election. Something that centrist Democrats should be concerned about, but apparently are not.

  2. Someone from Main Street

    “He argues that both parties have let down working class white voters in rural America and that those voters are fueling Trump’s candidacy out of anger and despair.”

    I do wish news media reporters would dig just a bit deeper. Trump’s support is far bigger than “working class white voters in rural America.” Wealthy people with second homes; educated people who hate HRC – Trump’s reach is much broader than what is generally reported.

    In 2008, we saw the collapse of the housing market – and the collapse of the middle class. Obama’s first move when he became president – health care reform. HEALTH CARE REFORM!

    The corruption that runs rampant throughout Wall Street, which enabled turning the US HOUSING MARKET into a Vegas craps table, has not been addressed. Hillary refuses to release transcripts for the speeches Wall Street banks paid her to make. The GOP put up a massive field of candidates – and Cruz is running a distant second to Trump. How awful! THIS is the best we can do?!

    NEITHER PARTY cares about the middle class. Trump will be the GOP nominee because that’s what GOP voters want. And he may win…

  3. Joy Hewett

    If any one is trying to divide Democrats, I would say that’s you. Because there were comments about Bill Clinton earlier in these discussions, and Hillary is running now, so there is sometimes a logical fallacy of guilt by association, I pointed out some things I think are good about her. And I do look around and see plenty of hard working Democrats. And ones who hoe and plant and plow, among my friends, so our definition of liberal and conservative probably can’t be agreed upon. This discussion has reached an end of its usefulness here.

    • Troy

      Except…you think I can be dismissed like a petty functionary? Au contrare.

      Yeah, I can see why and how you would say that. Simply because I challenged your conclusions, not your support per se, suddenly I become the enemy. You tacked on a bunch of conclusions along with your observations that were about as conclusively supported as a toothpick holding up an elephant. I made one of those comments about Bill Clinton. He did sign NAFTA. It’s a fact. I voted for him twice.

      I’m not sure that it was ever useful, but it was interesting. I can certainly see too how my pleas for inclusion by the DNC would certainly be devisive.

      As far as our definitions of liberal/conservative. I use a pretty conventional definition and understanding of both of those terms. I’m not sure how you fit yours under your hat.

      Now, this discussion has reached it’s end.

  4. Joy Hewett

    Interesting discussion on this issue. I do think Hillary Clinton will support working class, and that she recognizes some of the problems that occurred after the trade agreement of the 90’s. I believe she will work to fix them. She has always been on the side of women and children. She wants to ensure a good education, starting with preschool, for all children in America. I heard her say education is the foundation of our democracy (Thursday March 10 rally in Durham). She laid in to the NC Republicans and what they are doing to destroy education in our state–teacher salaries as well as per pupil spending among the issues she brought up.
    The less educated people are, the more lying crazy-making monsters like Trump can influence them. It’s a tactic the Koch brothers endorse. Also, divide and conquer, as old as paying sugar cane plantation workers different wages based on race and getting mill & factory workers to fight each other instead of the corporations and owners that exploit them.

    • Cosmic Janitor

      What makes anyone “think Hillary Clinton will support [the] working class”? because she said as much campaigning? Well her husband Bill told the Minnesota auto workers during his first campaign that he would never vote to approve NAFTA – but guess what, that was the first thing he did, he signed the trade agreement and basically told the US. auto workers they could take a hike if they didn’t like it. As if that was not brazen enough, Bill then proceeded to betray the entire country by rescinding the Glass-Stegall Act, which had kept commercial and investment banking activities separated to prevent another banking failure the likes of 1929 – and what happened, we had the great banking failure of 2008, which coupled to the US. government’s 21st. century foreign policy/military aggressions has ballooned the national debt upwards to 19 trillion. Any one foolish enough to vote pro-war Hillary Clinton into the Oval Office is overlooking not only her vote for the Iraq invasion, but her enthusiastic endorsement as SOS for the Libya intervention – in which thousands of women and cildren were needlessly slaughtered and her endorsement for military intervention in Syria. Like Obama, Hillary’s campaign has been largely funded by Wall Street, for whom all of the free Trade Agreements to date were written providing a virtual bonanza of profits – which is a good indication these trade agreements will remain in force just as they are with even worse pending. Like one US. Texas Congressman unwittingly proclaimed not too long ago: “everyone knows we are here [in government] to serve the banks” and that is a truth we Americans would do well to heed today!

      • Cosmic Janitor

        That Texas Congressman’s name was Joe Barton.

      • Joy Hewett

        Hillary Clinton is taking on the gun lobby, and the war on children and innocent adults being shot by crazy white men with guns. I think that is more important than the vote on war created by Bush and Cheney–so much patriotic fervor back then a woman voting against it would have been labelled “too soft”. As far as Bill Clinton’s role in 90’s influencing Hillary Clinton’s decisions in the future, no way to tell.

        • Troy

          If you’ll go back and re-read the article that Mr. Mills wrote, you will see that the things that you are touting as attributes are the very things that are driving the moderate/conservative Democrats away.

          Before you take that out of context, let me explain. First of all, not all idiots, zealots, and wackaloons are “crazy white men with guns.” Those attributes are shared by a lot of people across all races, nationalities, and ethnic lines.

          Owning a gun doesn’t make you crazy any more than owning anything else. So I am completely unfamiliar with this “…war on children and innocent adults” that you referenced.

          And it wasn’t just “…women that would have been labelled (sic) as too soft.” Anyone that said anything counter to the status quo concerning the war on terror was labeled as “unpatriotic”; “a raghead”; “a Muslim”; “unamerican.” Remember when US House of Representatives member extraordinaire Walter Jones lobbied to have the name of “French Fries” changed to “Freedom Fries”?

          Now, you are free to think as you choose; that is certainly one of the last bastions of freedom that we all can enjoy without some sort of intrusion. And while I disagree with your conclusions as you’ve expressed them, that too, is something you are entitled to hold and express your opinion on. What I would urge you to consider however, is moving away from that one dimensional perspective and consider the issues in totality; not just how one candidate’s expressed view favors one segment of the population. A view, I might add, that has morphed whenever the opinion polls trended up on the topic as well.

          Benjamin Franklin opined, “Either we all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

          • Joy Hewett

            You said my comments touting attributes are ones Mills said were driving moderate /conservative Democrats away. Mills talked about economics, trade deals, social values. So I don’t see where you get that unless you equate social values with gun rights. I am not sure there are any conservative Democrats. Anything remotely kind to others is called liberal, instead of basic Christian, by the right wingers; as far as those shooting people with automatic weapons in America, these are mostly white guys, and they are crazy. Not all white guys are crazy. Not everybody who wants a gun in his or her home wants assault rifles on the street.

          • Troy

            Yes I did.

            Mr. Mills wrote, “…both parties have let down working class white voters in rural America and that those voters are fueling Trump’s candidacy out of anger and despair.” “… less-educated white men are dying younger while almost every other demographic is living longer.” “Most of those people voted Democratic for economic reasons and only turned to the GOP when those economic reasons went away. They’ve always been more culturally conservative than the Democratic Party as a whole and without the economic incentive to vote for Democrats they voted with their biases, not their pocketbooks.”

            Thomas isn’t talking about micro/macro economics or a negative cash flow situation; he’s talking about a way of life. People in the more rural areas had to work to live. There was no opportunity for an education; they had to hoe corn. They couldn’t attend parties and social functions; they had to put up hay, feed the livestock, make many of the things they used in everyday life simply because buying them was not an option. That is less true today than it was fifty years ago, but that manner of living still exists. Those are the Democrats to which I identify and claim to be akin to. So if you aren’t sure there are any conservative or even moderate Democrats, I would urge to look around once in a while.

            From your responses for which I drafted my words, you said, “I do think Hillary Clinton will support working class…she recognizes some of the problems that occurred after the trade agreement of the 90’s.” “She has always been on the side of women and children.” “Hillary Clinton is taking on the gun lobby, and the war on children and innocent adults being shot by crazy white men with guns.”

            There is certainly no doubting what group(s) you identify with and support. I honestly don’t have a problem with that premise. But, those aren’t the only Democrats who deserve being represented. Most of what you had to say had little to anything to do with the piece with the exception of you thinking Hillary will support the working class and she recognizes some of the problems that occurred after NAFTA. Nowhere was there a mention of firearms rights, the gun lobby, or a “war” on certain segments of the population. Had you wanted to do a piece supporting Hillary and her points, I don’t object to that; just say as much.

            No, I don’t equate gun rights with social values. I equate it to a right; Constitutional. Just like all of the others so enumerated. From which you get to do things like worship as you choose; be free from unreasonable searches and seizures; vote when you attain the age of eighteen years. Nice try at backtracking though; “…mostly white guys.” I won’t even delve into the semantics and nuances between “automatic weapons” and “assault rifles.” Because they are different; I’m sure you don’t care.

            Which is why I added that quote from Benjamin Franklin at the end. We can be divisive and we will lose big in November. We don’t need to be splintered or fractioned any more than we already are. And just to be clear, those things you stated about what Hillary understands, what Hillary will attack, what Hillary intends to take on, drives those Democrats who aren’t liberal, the ones you’ve never met, across the divide to the dark side. They exist and they count too. That’s why they have drifted toward the dark side. The Democrat Party quit listening to them.

      • Edison Carter

        Actually, N.A.F.T.A. was passed before Clinton under Bush: Clinton just signed the bill into law. Just as damning, though… As for Hillary… More of the same old baloney. The corporate Democratic party is just that, and have now become the “Republican Lite” with their right of center policies, and the the Republican party is filled with sociopaths, and evangelical end timer loons.

        Want real change, for all in this country whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Independent, White, Black, Latino, Native American or Asian or even LGBT?

        Sanders, 2016 – The President this country needs, right about now. The 99% need to be heard, and have representation.

        Enough is enough.

  5. Troy

    My family hails from Wilkes County. Been there since the mid 1700’s. Most of my immediate family still reside there. I’m not convinced Mike Cooper knows quite what he’s talking about with regard to that area. My parents grew up during the depression there. I could relate to you the stories I used to hear of growing up in rural North Carolina during the Great Depression in Wilkes County and what people had to do just to eat. I doubt if anyone would believe them in the context of what we experience today.

    No sir, Republicans never let down or turned their backs on the working class. They never held them up or supported to begin with. Never will. Republicans pander to the working class in order skim votes otherwise they’d never see the inside of a political office. So it’s not hard to understand the true meaning behind Trump’s little faux pas statement, “I love the poorly educated.”

    And you have probably heard this lamented many times before too, but I’ll say it again. “The Northeastern liberal elite took control of the Democratic party.” That as that control formed and grew it kept the focus on the working class at first, but it gradually began to morph prior to the ‘60’s. Then the social unrest that came with the Vietnam war, civil rights, voting rights, equality, and a few more social issues that caused the planks that backed working middle class average Americans to be burned and the party elites installed new ones focused on niche issues, social expansion and giving a voice to every non-conventional, splinter, anti-establishment group that could find a spokesman on the national stage. Those mainstream average Americans were abandoned as too white, too average, and since they had prevailed since post World War II, it was time the rest of society was given some playing time. The problem with that analysis and subsequent policy paradigm shift is that it left the machine that drove economy and the ability to even think like that twisting in the breeze. It likewise left them feeling alone, abandoned, betrayed, and without political support or clout. Step in Republicans with the snake oil pitch.

    Nixon recognized the crevasse that was opening after the social shift began in earnest. His “southern strategy” was promulgated by it. Republicans have now had almost 50 years to shape, conform, and adapt that strategy to mold a solid voting block for their own ends. Not that of the working middle class though; they are only a means to that end.

    Now, that rift has grown and been fueled that it is now out of control. The working middle class, as you so aptly stated, has been beaten down with trade agreements that only enhanced other economies and lined the pockets of those who wrote the rules that allowed them (politicians) and those that forced the rule changes and stood to profit the most from them (corporate proles). And yes, that happened on both sides of the aisle. So the working middle class now have no one to which they can talk, trust, depend upon, or who will stand up for them as a bonafide backer of their way of life. Talk about taxation with no representation.

    Sure William Jefferson Clinton signed NAFTA. George H.W. Bush negotiated it. It was going to be his first official act upon entering his second term. Didn’t happen. But Bill, probably as a quid pro quo did sign it. The effect wasn’t really felt until the Republicans took over Congress and began working the loopholes the Corporate suits found in the agreement. Jobs, manufacturing, and our ability to be self-sufficient began to flow off shore in search of cheap labor. We can’t compete for labor in 3rd world and child labor markets. Not unless we’re willing to slide back to the 19th century. Which would suit the Republicans just fine. That’s where the predominance of their thinking resides.

    Yes, others have said that Democrats have voted against their own self-interest. I’ve said it a lot however. I’ll continue to say it. I’ll say that they have been effectively abandoned by the Democrats for too many years, just as you opined. I’ll say this as well. It’s not about rural vs urban. It’s not about values this and morals that. It’s about whether you work with your hands or not. It’s about being able to feed, clothe, and shelter those you love. None of that comes for free. It’s also getting harder and harder to provide on stagnant wages, working longer hours, and more jobs in order just to break even; and in many cases, getting further and further behind. Maslow wasn’t wrong. If you’re kept looking to provide the basics of food, shelter, and safety, you can never advance. Republicans know that. They ensure they keep you thinking and working on those things and not thinking about how bad they’re using you.

    It’s time the Democrats embraced us once again. Until that happens, Democrats will be passé because you can’t take enough niche groups and make a majority. And Republicans won’t do it. They only pay lip service to manipulate more power and more wealth for themselves.

    • Nortley

      “Nixon recognized the crevasse that was opening after the social shift began in earnest. His “southern strategy” was promulgated by it. Republicans have now had almost 50 years to shape, conform, and adapt that strategy to mold a solid voting block for their own ends.”

      That “southern strategy” goes back further than Nixon. It really began with Barry Goldwater in 1964 when he exploited white working class resentment with the civil right movement. Nixon built on it and perfected it for Republicans who have been running on it ever since.

      • Cosmic Janitor

        In todays politics, the majority intent of both the democratic and republican parties are one and the same: perpetuation of the corporate/military war empire. To that end, we are witnessing the corporately owned media, the entrenched corporate financial establishment and the corporately owned DNC working in unison to foist upon the easily misled American people a pre-ordained candidate who projects the Oval Office as her rightful destiny; she is a pre-ordained candidate who proclaims herself to be a populist democrat but who’s actions and affiliations in public office belie her as a staunch self-promoting insider and a died in the wool neo-con republican warmonger. The bulk of the congressional and executive deliberations that we witness on a daily basis is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that most of our elected democrats in office are in truth loyal corporate republicans and this inconvenient fact is undeniably borne out with the spectacle of GHWBush calling Bill Clinton ‘the son he never had’!

  6. Vonna Viglione

    Am a big fan of the Marshall Plan and the concept of thinking big…..it STILL puzzles me why this country didn’t launch a real “energy independence” effort as the 21st century equivalent of the sputnik moment….

    • Joy Hewett

      Totally agree with this! If we had a sustainable energy initiative nationwide, think how many jobs this would create. But Republicans are tied to the oil industry.

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