It’s been seven years since I started this blog, and a lot has changed since then, and not just in my posting frequency. Back in late 2009, I was involved in a lot of discussions at a now-defunct blog on strategy about how we would turn New York into a “solid Blue” state, taking the the only two remaining Republican House seats left in the state. Look at the map after this last election? It’s almost solid Red. There are a couple of blue spots, but that’s it. Sure, there’s a majority of the seats still held by Democrats – mostly due to New York City – but outside of there, forget it. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of what we see in the country. Sure, large, very diverse cities went (or stayed) strongly Democratic, but outside of those, they switched, even in supposedly “safe” states.
There are many causes for this, but it can be put down to just a few factors. First and foremost, Democrats are absolutely terrible at turning out the vote during mid-term elections. Consider that in 2010 the voter turnout in this state was around 32%, and in 2014 it was even worse, at 28%. A lot of the “Democratic base” groups either decided to sit out – and were actively encouraged to by some on the Left – or didn’t think it was “important.” Guess which party has voters who are virtually guaranteed to show up at the voting booth? That’s right, Republicans. While progressives worry about voter suppression – and yes, it is a problem -when it comes to the mid-term elections where most state legislatures, governorships, and all House members are voted on, Democratic voters do a great job of self-suppressing.
The second big factor was the economy. Yes, absolutely, it’s great that for all intents and purposes the economy has recovered and greatly grown since the recession. Nationally, we’re seeing unemployment levels close to “full employment,” the stock market is getting ever higher, wages are going up, and things look good. You can say the same thing for this state, when you look at the figures for the entire state. The problem? As I said in an earlier post this year, it’s uneven. That is, most of the growth and “good news” for this state is in the downstate region. Upstate? Well, it’s still not doing that well. That’s a common pattern in many states, which leads to a lot of anger and frustration, when the people in those areas hear all sorts of rosy things about the economy, but their reality is not only are things not getting better, in some cases, they’re getting worse.
Which leads me to the final factor, messaging. I don’t often disagree with Spandan over at The People’s View, but this post about growing the urban base is one where I do. No, I’m not saying that Democrats, or progressives in general, should start excusing or waving aside the racism that played such a factor. But in many ways, this is emblematic of a problem progressives have had for a long time. That is, we tend to phrase progressive programs and policies in terms of how they impact and benefit urban areas. Most of the progressive focus on a host of issues revolve around that, and if rural areas are mentioned at all, it’s mostly an afterthought.
As an example, here’s an issue: Food deserts. If I look at the official definition for food deserts, it’s within 1 mile for urban areas, or 10 miles for rural ones. Look at a map, and it’s obvious that it’s a big rural issue. But when you look around at various policy discussions, you find things like this:
“Food deserts”—areas in which residents are hard-pressed to find affordable, healthy food—are part of the landscape of poor, urban neighborhoods across the United States.
…The most important study implications, though, are policy-based, according to Bower. “Local policymakers should be looking at the quality of infrastructure in poor and minority neighborhoods to see if it could better support businesses,” she says. “And they should think about ways to incentivize supermarkets to locate in minority neighborhoods.”
That’s just a single example, but it’s the common thread on activist sites and policy groups about this issue. A brief acknowledgement that it’s also a problem with rural areas, but then diving into what to do in an urban area. I can go (and did) across the spectrum of policies, like affordable housing, healthcare, education, broadband access, and so on, and the emphasis is always on urban areas. All things that are big issues in rural areas, and yet we don’t see progressives -or Democrats – talking about them in that context. The focus is always on an urban area, and as a result rural populations don’t think they’re benefiting from those programs. Which played right into the Republicans hands. By using the existing rural versus urban antagonism, dog-whistling all the inherent racism, Republicans were able to use progressive’s emphasis on urban areas as wedge issues, or more crudely “black and brown people want stuff you don’t get,” to get elected. The end result is that Republicans now have total control of half the states, significant control of many others, and starting next year, control of the federal government. Even “Solid Blue” states like Massachusetts and Vermont have, or will have Republican governors.
That has to change. I recognize that the Democratic Party’s strength is in the cities, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be organizing there. However, I also can look at a map, and I understand something else. In many states, the cities do not determine who wins on the state or national level. As we’ve learned the hard way this year, ignoring rural areas, ignoring those states is a path to defeat. Back in 2005, the Party had the “50 states” initiative, to compete across the board. The result was that by this time 8 years ago, we were talking about Republicans being a small, mostly regional Party. Today? The small, mostly regional party is the Democratic Party. We can all point fingers as to the reasons, and they’re all a part of why it happened. But focusing on just the cities means that the Party will remain that. We need to start getting back to competing, and taking the message to those places again, as well as getting Democratic voters out to the polls in 2018.