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Rural Democrats Want a Bigger Tent. Is that Possible?

11 Jan 2018

Michael Kruse, of Politico, has written a fascinating piece on rural Democrats in the Midwest. He spoke at length with Terry Goodin, the only Democrat to represent a rural state legislative district in Indiana. Goodin is pro-life, an A+ legislator according to the National Rifle Association, and voted for an amendment to eliminate same-sex marriage in Indiana.

Goodin, and many others like him, are profiled in a new national report authored by U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), “Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington.” In the report, Bustos notes that in 2009, Democrats held 57 percent of the US House seats in the eight states of the Midwestern “heartland.” Now, they hold 39 percent. In 2008, Obama won seven of the eight heartland states. In 2016, Donald Trump won six of them. Of the 737 counties in the Midwest, Trump won all but 63 of them.

Bustos represents a largely rural and agricultural US House district and she won re-election handily in 2016. Donald Trump also won her district. This has earned the relatively unknown representative a spotlight, especially if Democrats hope to turn back Trump’s Midwestern populism in 2020.

Goodin, the farmer who is also a school superintendent, claims the Democrats at the national level are elitist and out-of-touch with average American voters. There is, he claims, too much focus on identity politics and marginal social issues that alienate rural voters. He argues for a clearer emphasis on the economy and wages.

Both Bustos and Goodin would have felt at home as Democrats until the 1990s, I think. Since then, we have seen a dramatic polarization in both parties, so there is a dwindling number of “conservative” Democrats. At the same time, the number of “liberal” Republicans is also shrinking.

Kruse documents one conversation between Goodin and one of his constituents, a man who supported both Trump and Goodin. It is clear the man is quite conservative socially and he is fearful of Muslims. The man’s rhetoric would get him ostracized from many communities, but Goodin, instead of focusing on his disagreements with the man, targets their commonality.  As Goodin says,

“…But [he] and I probably agree on 90 percent of everything we’d ever talk about. So why would I focus on the 10 percent that I don’t agree with him on?”

There is so much truth in Kruse’s article that it feels almost obvious. Political parties must be expansive in order to collect as many votes as possible, especially in a largely two-party system like ours. There are relatively few, if any, core principles that define parties in spite of how they present themselves. Parties absorb whatever views they must in order to advance their interests.

But parties are not fully elastic. They cannot easily incorporate contradictory beliefs, at least not on whatever elites and voters have defined as the most critical concerns. There can be differences on secondary matters, but most parties need some sort of coherence on primary interests. The argument that Bustos and Goodin are making, it seems, is that the party should be defined by economics. They want social tolerance.

Looking at the Democrats today, this seems a mighty stretch. For me, the thing that binds the Democrats together is their rigorous commitment to identity based politics, with a priority on feminist, racial, and sexual egalitarianism. Abortion, same-sex marriage, racially-based social justice, and transgender rights are now sacrosanct. If anything, the party’s economic philosophy flows from these commitments instead of the other way around.

Beyond that, when you peel away Goodin’s own rhetoric, he plays fast and loose on social issues. He claims to be pro-life, but he insists abortion should be a religious issue as opposed to a political matter (presumably, this would allow him to vote against legislative changes in what is already a largely pro-choice environment). On marriage, he says he has “evolved” and same-sex marriage is now the “law of the land,” so, like his constituents, he does not care what people do in private.

There is much to consider in the article and, of course, its implications for the G.O.P. In a way, President Trump has already challenged, and perhaps changed, the definition of what it means to be Republican. He has downplayed social issues, though many religious conservatives appear satisfied as long as Trump’s judicial appointments meet their approval. Will Democrats be able to achieve a social tolerance while focusing on kitchen table concerns? I doubt it, but the G.O.P., somehow, seems to have done so, at least in the very short-term.