When listening to Bernie’s new and improved stump speech, something jumped out to me. Amidst the standard anti-billionaire, political revolution talk, there are numerous calls to rebuild rural America. Whether it be renewing the tradition of the small farmer, in contrast to the corporate behemoths that dominate agriculture today; Or a call for significant investment in rural communities via increased education and healthcare funding.
Bernie Sanders is laying out a vision to restore rural America, to rebuild rural communities and to overcome some of the structural hurdles that hold people living in rural communities back from Southern Mississippi to Eastern Oregon. Which is in contrast to the disdain shown to rural voters by some contingents in the Democratic party.
In a world where it’s tempting for Democratic candidates to cast aspersions on rural America, Bernie Sanders has opted for the opposite approach. Instead of a lecture, Bernie Sanders has built a platform meant to breath renewed life into communities that feel largely forgotten. Many Democrats have ceded rural America to the Republican Party entirely. For many Democrats, it’s easier to admonish rural Americans and paint with a broad brush, than really reckon with the very real social/cultural forces and structural limitations of the rural economy which have pushed rural voters to populism. It’s easy to assume all rural voters are Trump voting yokels, but this betrays the fact that Bernie Sanders consistently outperformed Hillary Clinton in rural states. Additionally Clinton fell far below Obama numbers in most rural counties.
This is a Structural Problem, Not Widespread Personal Failings
The fact is there are deep and legitimate problems facing rural Americans and Democrats seem intent on dismissing this fact. This attitude is probably best captured by Hillary Clinton’s comments regarding the relative economic production of those who voted for her versus those who did not. One common refrain from Clinton and her camp since the election has been to point out “less than 500 counties carried by Hillary Clinton encompassed 64% of America’s total output compared to more than 2,600 counties that Donald Trump won generated just 36% of the country’s economic output.”
This goes hand in hand with the whole “deplorables” line. In Clinton’s eyes, many rural Americans are not just backward, they’re less productive, and by implication, less useful. That this is the Clinton camp, or really just the middle of the Democratic Party’s response, is telling. They don’t view this disparity as a structural problem in the American economy that is starving rural America. They view it as a personal problem, rural Americans didn’t work hard enough, they weren’t “innovative” enough, and I think again, by implication, many who hold these views would argue this lack of “innovation” is at its root a problem of cultural backwardness.
Now maybe I’m just a little too into Marx, but this seems fundamentally backwards. The economic pressures of the modern world are responsible for the very real cultural rot which Hillary Clinton gestures to with her “deplorables” comments. The pervasive hopelessness which fuels the opiate epidemic and all time high suicide rates, is wrapped up in that. The turn toward racism, xenophobia, and frankly, neofascism, are all wrapped up in that. Rural America is accounts for almost half the country but is only capturing a third of the economy.
This is a fundamental structural problem in the economy. And the forces of brain drain and the ever present pull of global cities and all the opportunity they provide aren’t going away anytime soon.
Bernie Sanders Offers a Solution to These Structural Problems
This is why the Sanders approach is so important and also incredibly refreshing. It’s also probably deeply rooted in his conception of politics. Bernie believes in a bottom up, class struggle conception of power and politics as a means to solving these structural problems. And it’s clear Bernie Sanders sees this economic disparity and wants to rally rural Americans to resolve it.
In his early rallies Bernie’s rhetoric shows as much. While many on the left scoff at rural Americans for “clinging to their guns and bibles” or only “creating 36% of the economic output in the country.” Bernie has instead called on rural Americans to stand against corporate farms, to invest in rural healthcare, and infrastructure projects such as expanding rural broadband. These policies all aim to increase that 36% share of the economic pie, instead of allowing corporate interests to systematically extract it from rural economies at the expense of the people on the ground.
Bernie Sanders has made attacking agribusiness and corporate farming a staple of his campaign. “All across America we have seen family farmers go out of business, as the prices they receive for their products decline rapidly and large agribusiness corporations and factory farming take over agriculture.” The death of the family farm has fundamentally change rural America and Bernie’s call to use the Department of Justice and antitrust to break up big agribusiness is a good start to reviving the rural family farm.
It’s not just farms though, the structure of rural economies are such that high quality health care is difficult to provide. “We have seen rural hospitals and nursing homes shut down and not enough doctors available to provide the quality healthcare rural America deserves.” It’s not just health care, education is also chronically underfunded in rural America, both in elementary school and secondary schools but there is also a stark lack of higher education in most rural communities.
Both these trends have very real consequences which Bernie highlighted in his various Iowa rallies, “tragically Instead of seeing good jobs, quality education, and healthcare coming to our rural communities,” Bernie stated, before laying out the real human consequences, “we are far too often seeing despair and a terrible increase in suicide and opioid addiction. In rural America we are seeing a decline in life expectancy.”
Bernie’s got a vision to renew rural America. More importantly though, he sees the urgency. This is life and death for millions of people. It’s easy to blame these people for their lot in life, but the structure of the economy is killing rural America and Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who seems to see that.