[OPINION] Looking for the Left Wing in Rural, Predominantly White Areas

By Spencer Sunshine Jan 26, 2017

Everyone is familiar with the election map that shows the two Americas: a vast swath of red stretching across the country with a few blue patches clinging mostly to the coasts. This unbroken red block has been the cornerstone of what’s looking like a catastrophic political future for people of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, health care, reproductive rights, civil liberties, Social Security, the environment, and the list goes on.

So its no surprise that debate is raging among progressives about the White working class people who voted for Trump. Should these voters be uniformly dismissed as racist deplorables or should progressives try to appeal to them with populism?

I think we should be asking another question: How can progressives break up the sea of red by creating a vibrant small-town and rural movement?

Stop the stereotypes

To establish rural strongholds, progressives must stop stereotyping rural, working-class people as White, reactionary hillbillies who automatically swing Right. History reveals a much more complex truth. For example, in the 1910s and ‘20s, the Socialist Party of America elected mayors of small towns in Florida, West Virginia, Arkansas and Idaho. In the 1920s, the Oklahoma Socialist Party was a major statewide force. Radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World and Western Federation of Miners gained mass followings in the logging and mining industries. The Minnesota Farmer–Labor Party was able to elect three governors in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Another drawback of the rural-as-White-and-Right stereotype is that people of color make up 25 percent of rural populations. These communities have rich histories of progressive organizing against racial segregation, unfair labor standards and land theft, among countless other causes. We can look to the 2013 election of Chokwe Lumumba as the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, and the #NoDAPL struggle as contemporary examples of rural organizing by people of color. 

Actually fight in rural areas

If we are to be competitive on a national level, progressives must stop automatically ceding rural areas to the Right. Even without systemic voter disenfranchisement and Republican district gerrymandering, the Electoral College and GOP-dominated Senate give disproportionate power to rural areas that are in crisis across the country. Rural communities suffer a housing crisis, a huge increase in drug addiction and outmigration. The traditional rural industries like farming and logging are no longer the paths to middle-class wealth that they were in the 1960s and ‘70s. With populations that are largely White and conservative, these areas are able to shape the fate of the country. People often live in information silos where they are fed a diet of fake news and conspiracy theories about how climate change is a hoax, Democrats are coming to seize their guns, and environmental laws are a prelude to a looming United Nations invasion.

But instead of challenging conservatives for their base—by addressing the real concerns of rural and small-town people—coastal progressives retreat further and further away into a purely urban-centered focus, generating a cycle of defeat, and reinforcing the existing rural Left’s sense of abandonment.

Oregon shows one potential approach. In 1988, the state was the site of a major surprise victory for the Christian Right: Measure 8, a referendum that overturned LGBTQ employment protections and blocked new ones. Measure 8 was quickly followed by new ballot measures limiting reproductive rights. This spurred Marcy Westerling, a skilled activist in rural Columbia County, to action. She reached out to pro-choice groups in the state to volunteer as an organizer for her county. In an interview for the “Rural Organizing Voices” oral history project, Westerling said: "Well, the most amazing thing happened—which happened a lot back in those days—is I was told I wasn’t needed. I was told that Columbia County was not a part of the election plan, and that our voters didn’t matter." Groups told her to come into Portland or send a check. Instead, she convinced a friend who worked at NARAL to smuggle out local addresses from their database, and used them to launch independent political opposition to the ballot measure.

Her work ultimately led to the formation of the Rural Organizing Project (ROP). Today, ROP is a network of 50 groups in small towns and rural areas around the state, plus the small cities of Salem and Eugene. ROP is a multiracial organization, although in practice it is majority White—just as the state is. From the beginning, it has always stressed a multi-issue organizing, weaving together economic demands with an emphasis on anti-racist, LGBTQ and feminist issues. ROP works closely with another unusual Oregon group, PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), a majority Latino farmworker union with strong progressive bent. PCUN also has a comprehensive political vision: building farmworker housing, advocating for all undocumented people and running a radio station.

Acknowledge the work already being done

Although they don’t receive much attention, organized progressive groups do exist outside of the coasts. In addition to Oregon’s ROP and Tennessee’s venerable Highlander School, groups like the Western States Center, Project South, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement, Maine People’s Alliance, and the Idaho Community Action Network are based in rural areas, or have chapters that are. Many rural groups are part of the new umbrella organization People’s Action. On the more radical side, Redneck Revolt reaches out to working-class Whites with a combination of armed militancy and fierce anti-racism.

There is also a patchwork of majority-White, rural constituencies spread across the U.S. that are a basis for one kind of progressive politics or another. There’s the gravitational pull of small colleges, environmentalists in remote areas, Back-to-the-Landers from the 1960s, the remaining lesbian and Radical Faerie communes and LGBTQ folks scattered everywhere. They may not see themselves as part of the same movement. However, rural groups are affected by the same tensions that urban ones do, including racial tensions inside of, and in between, groups as well as competition for funding. For example, the shifting set of alliances and conflicts between Native tribes, environmentalists and advocates of rural economic growth over issues like water rights, grazing and mining can be difficult to even keep a scorecard on.

But all these groups have a fundamentally different vision than the dominant conservative mindset, and together they represent a potential nucleus for a new rural progressivism. 

There are already progressive people struggling in the rural areas. They are old hippie Back to the Landers and young Black farmers; poor locals with a thirst for justice and wealthy retirees with decades of urban activist experience; queer folks who don’t want to leave their hometown and Native kids who grew up on the reservation. Of course, urban progressives shouldn’t attempt to tell them what to do—but they shouldn’t ignore them either. A rural progressive movement will have to congeal itself and articulate its own demands, while urban progressives will have to incorporate rural concerns into their national agenda and provide a fair allocation of the collective resources.

I won’t pretend to know all of what it will take to make this happen. However, I do know that if it doesn’t, the political map will remain the same.