How Democrats Can Win Back Rural Wisconsin

By Eric Timmons

Bill Hogseth, the chair of the Dunn County Democrats, wants the party to invest in year-round organizing in rural Wisconsin, rather than parachuting in staff with no local experience months before election day, and back an agenda that speaks to practical issues facing rural voters.

Despite Joe Biden’s victory, 2020 was another wipeout for Democrats across huge swathes of the country, including most of rural Wisconsin, with disastrous down-ballot consequences. Hogseth, a guest speaker at the Our Wisconsin Revolution monthly meeting on Tuesday, said the results were the outcome of longstanding failures by Democrats.

“There’s significant economic pain in rural Wisconsin and these communities have been getting depleted for decades,” he said. “It really shapes the way people view politics, the way people view power and I don’t see the Democratic Party at the national level telling a story to people who live in my community that resonates with the pain they’re feeling and helps them understand why what’s happening to their community is happening.”

The failure of Democrats to communicate to rural voters, or champion bold economic policies that raise living standards, creates a space in which a demagogue like Trump can thrive.

“It leaves this huge vacuum for other stories to prevail in the minds of people who I live with,” Hogseth said. “It’s a story that Trump tells really well. It’s a story that villainizes other working people as being competitors for the economic pie, rather than the real villain of the story being a system that enables the economic plundering of the rural economy.”

A popular notion among some Democrats is that rural people vote against their own self-interest, a way of thinking Hogseth suggested smacks of pretension.

“I think it comes from a place of arrogance, and a place of not understanding the struggle in rural communities and not taking them seriously,” Hogseth said. “To say that they’re voting against their own self-interest implies that people around here or elsewhere in rural Wisconsin don’t know what their self-interest is, which I think is mistaken. I just encourage folks to listen and do some work to understand what’s going on.”

Bill Hogseth

He pointed to positions taken by the last two Democratic presidents that had negative consequences for farm communities. President Clinton signed the Freedom to Farm Act into law in 1996, overturning a New Deal era price support system for dairy farmers, with disastrous consequences in Wisconsin. President Obama’s secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack failed to support country-of-origin labeling laws for meat, Hogseth noted, which also hurt farmers. Vilsack has just been selected by Biden to resume his role as secretary of agriculture.

Three Policy Ideas

While he painted a grim picture of the wreckage across rural communities, Hogseth said a progressive program can win those communities back, but first Democrats have to regain credibility.

“When you lose trust, everything else goes out the door,” he said. “The deep irony, is that, and I think polling data would suggest this, and my conversations also supported this, I think most rural voters support progressive policy.”

Hogseth pointed to three policy areas as fertile ground for Democrats on which to win back rural voters. The first is an ambitious plan to deploy broadband across the countryside that would echo the spirit of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Act. Secondly, Democrats should fight to expand Medicaid as the starting point on the road to universal health care, a policy Hogseth said polls strongly in rural areas. Finally, Democrats should champion antitrust enforcement that could curb the consolidation in agri-business over recent decades that has weakened small farmers and local food systems. Farmers understand economic power better than most due to their exposure to commodity markets, Hogseth said, and would be receptive to a program that challenged big agribusinesses.

“These folks are not dummies when it comes to economic power and when you start speaking the language of antitrust I think it clicks in the brain pretty fast that you’re willing to fight for them,” Hogseth said.  “I think a lot of farmers feel the system is rigged…that there’s no competition in the system anymore.”

Any effort to by the Democrats to win back rural America will face strong headwinds. The media landscape in rural areas is dominated by cable news, conservative talk radio and social media, Hogseth said. Often, the only progressive messaging voters hear comes from national outlets like MSNBC that falls flat, just like many of the campaign commercials that show up around elections. Instead of dropping in staffers during campaign season, Hogseth suggested Democrats needed to invest in local infrastructure, meaning local people who can serve as trusted messengers.

“We’ve done such a poor job having year round organizers in rural communities; we drop in young folks, god bless them, who are from Connecticut, three months before the election,” Hogseth said. “We expect them to organize in one of these communities and build relationships and then they leave after the election. I think there’d be a lot of value in investing in people from these communities, developing them as organizers and letting them do this work year-round because if there’s not a progressive presence in these communities that has a local voice it’s just not going to work.”

Top image: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett talks with a dairy farmer during the 2010 election campaign for Wisconsin governor, which the Democrat lost to Republican Scott Walker/CC BY 2.0.

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