It’s too easy to get the wrong idea about rural rage

It’s too easy to get the wrong idea about rural rage | The Hill

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LAWLER, IOWA – NOVEMBER 1, 2023: Corn is harvested in the late fall in Lawler, Iowa on Wednesday November 1, 2023. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White Rural Rage” is a book version of a clickbait article written by two people who don’t seem to engage with rural Americans regularly and who used other people’s data to come up with their conclusions about why rural Americans lean right. I am not an academic or journalist, like the two authors, but I am the only Democrat at the state level or higher among 32 counties in Northwest Iowa and someone who ran for Congress in 2018 in a district Trump won by 27 points in 2016 and lost by just 3 points.

One thing they fail to mention is the lack of investment by the Democratic Party, campaigns and adjacent groups in connecting with rural voters. According to a study with Open Secrets, for every dollar a Democrat running for federal office spends in rural areas, Republicans spend $14. While about 30 percent of Americans and 20 percent of registered voters live in rural areas, barely 3 percent of Democratic-affiliated expenditures occur in rural geographies — a clear lack of priority given to cultivating rural champions.

Media has changed. The 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed media companies to buy up stations at the cost of local news. Combine that with the mis- and disinformation on social media and the algorithms that amplify them, and you give conservative messaging a channel to success. Radio stations that used to give Associated Press news now provide hours of right-wing propaganda a day, leading to voters hearing one side disproportionately. 

Far right-wing politicians are able to push their personal agenda in a lot of these deeply red and rural districts. We saw that firsthand in Northwest Iowa with former Rep. Steve King (R). In many ways, he was ahead of his time when it came to the modern far right wing with his racist and xenophobic rhetoric. I would also give credit to Northwest Iowa voters for being ahead of their time in voting him out of office.

What makes these right-wing messages resonate with many rural voters has to do with economic concentration. Independent farmers are few and far between, with nearly every sector of agriculture consolidated — just a few multinational corporations squeeze the average farmer from the input side to the farm gate. Wealth gets extracted — by Dollar General or hospitals or multinational ag corporations — with little money invested back into these communities. When it comes to new wealth, as of a few years ago, 80 percent of the venture capital was invested in only 50 counties in our country – out of nearly 3,100. A lack of opportunity is eroding rural communities and sowing understandable discontent — discontent that Republicans point in the wrong direction.

For years, I have talked to farmers who will always vote for me and some who will never vote for me, and many in between. Not one of them has pushed back on me when I have talked about how ag monopolies were detrimental to them. When I first ran for office, farmers were going through five consecutive years of low commodity prices. But do you know their No. 1 complaint? The lack of affordable health care.

It’s not all hogwash — what the book got right is the power the rural vote has in this country. When it comes to the Electoral College, the Senate and the judicial branch of government, rural voters have an enormous voice. It was rural voters in Saskatchewan who led the way for universal health care in Canada. Rural voters in America have that same power to create change. The right has spent decades investing in that power, planting seeds of fear that are sowing division. If the left wants to win, or at the very least gain ground, we need to invest in rural Americans — and make sure our common interests benefiting rural regions are heard.

J.D. Scholten, an advocate for residents in small towns across Iowa, represents Iowa’s 1st District in the state House and sits on the board of the One Country Project, an organization dedicated to uplifting rural Americans’ voices.


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