In the wake of the Virginia election, the group Third Way commissioned a focus group to figure out why Biden voters switched to Republican Glenn Youngkin this year. In an interview with the New York Times, Brian Stryker, who conducted the groups, said of the Democrats, “We’ve got a national branding problem that is probably deeper than a lot of people suspect…People think we’re more focused on social issues than the economy — and the economy is the No. 1 issue right now.”
I would argue that Democrats and progressives also have a trust problem, especially with voters in rural areas. Maybe that trust has been diminished by the propaganda of outlets like Fox News, but some of it has also been eroded by progressives who emphasize culture changes that unsettle a lot of working class people. It’s also been hurt by a cultural elitism that has left many Democrats with little understanding or sympathy for the plight of rural America, particularly areas that are still struggling to recover from the damage done by trade deals of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Democrats aren’t going to regain that trust just by promising legislation that will help working class people. While voters may support positions like higher minimum wages and Medicaid expansion, the distrust of Democrats is deep and personal in rural America. The percentage of rural voters supporting Democrats has been shrinking for years, but it has cratered since 2016. Democrats might want to write these voters off as racist Trumpists, but they can’t win in states like North Carolina if they do.
Besides, it’s not just White voters that are leaving the Democrats. Black voters in rural areas are starting to slowly shift toward Republicans, according to UNC-Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. He told WFAE in January, “I think just the perception that Democrats emphasize urban issues, talk about things from the perspective of their urban core: higher educated constituencies that appeal to issues that are relevant to those upper income, upper educated voters. Talking in a way that rural voters perceived to be condescending and dismissive of their values.”
To retain or win back some of these voters, Democrats need to do more than promise policies. No messaging is going to restore trust among people who don’t believe Democrats have their best interests at heart. They need to become programmatic and engage with these communities.
That’s just what the New Rural Project is doing. Founded by former Democratic candidates Cynthia Wallace and Helen Probst Mills, the organization is going into small towns and rural communities to provide services. Right now, they’re setting up vaccination clinics. Listening to the people in these communities to understand their needs is a core component of the New Rural Project.
A few weeks ago in Morven, NC, the New Rural Project partnered with local organizations that set up a vaccination clinic that also provided meals, free clothing, and even haircuts for men and boys. That’s how progressives can regain trust. Actions speak louder than words. Once they’ve got the attention of the community, they can begin conversations about policies that affect the people who live there.
Instead of blasting TV or radio ads hoping to win votes, progressives need to put people in places providing services to better understand the perspective of rural voters. They need to regain trust and show that they care about the needs of people outside of intellectual centers and urban hubs if they want to earn their votes.
The New Rural Project could provide a model for Democrats to re-engage in small towns and rural communities. If they don’t, they probably need to get used to being a minority party. They can’t win in states like North Carolina as long as their vote share continues to shrink outside of the suburbs.