A number of recent news bits like this post on Vox and this video, have pointed to the fact that the Democrats got 20 million more votes for Senate than Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections, yet are down in representation 46 to 54. Though the number itself is a bit miselading, still there is a lot of hand-wringing and bemoaning it: “This proves our democracy is broken!” says Cenk Uygur. I disagree.
It’s not (just) the electoral system though yes this is a factor, by design. The system in America was framed by the Founders to privilege the rural; in Madison’s Federalist Papers—the Founding Fathers consciously chose country-states (where the capital is a relatively small town, and representation is at least half based purely on geography rather than population)—because they saw the long, terribly unstable history of city-states (where the capital is a big city, and representation is based largely on population or direct democracy).
Now the real problem is that the Left (everywhere, not only the US)—just doesn’t ‘get it’ when it comes to country folk. Very broadly speaking, country people everywhere—I saw this even in India on my last visit—are terrified by modernity, and for good reason. It’s existential. Their access to the means of survival and advancement for city/suburban life—education, social connections, values of interdependence, multiculturalism, technology-driven communications—are all sharply less and it only seems the gap is getting wider. And what they do have for survival—land, basic survival skills, direct personal and social connection, biological & ecological intuition—assets that used to be the foundations of human survival—are being supplanted around them by agribusiness/mining/timber/energy megacorporations, and in the wider world by social media and mass media culture, and the hyperspecialization of labor in cities… From my view, it’s a real loss for the human race, and for people who live from the land, or who are deeply connected to that culture, even if they don’t themselves live in it, it’s maddening.
The part of the Left that should most connect to them—the Green movement—somehow deifies nature and the Earth, but not the actual people who live most connected to it daily, and has little clear strategy that empowers them either…
I was just on a 10-day retreat where my roommate was a family farmer from rural Minnesota, with 20 some family members on a 2500 acre spread. Only grew GMO corn, soy, alfalfa and wheat. Asked him about if he considered going organic and he said, sure–but it was too hard/expensive/complicated for his family to undertake, and there wasn’t near enough help for it to seem like a sure bet. They’re just eking it out as it is. The Left just isn’t making the case for guys like him. And this was a pretty progressive Minnesota farmer—the kind who would do a 10-day Buddhist mindfulness retreat.
In the absence of a cohesive strategy, everywhere the Right is cynically turning their fear and the economic pressures on them to its political advantage through the (not-so) veiled politics of race and lower-vs-middle-class. But the Left could easily win this—rural media is cheaper, and their desperation makes them ripe for transformation in a more cohesive direction that is united with the rest of the global economy, instead of being pushed madly further to the edge. Around the world, the Left just hasn’t gone after country folk hard enough with a serious, workable set of alternatives, backed up by deep thinking, and new policy, programs and money that give them a real hope to be winners in the modern world.
We need a real alternative to the fear the Right uses to win them over and we don’t really have it.
Update January 15, 2016: The emergence of Trump and Bernie Sanders has come to illustrate my point in this post even more sharply. Unfortunately, how socially progressive politics like Sanders has stood for the last 50 years has never been not enough to connect with the rural Trump supporters’ frustrations. They see this as more taxpayer-funded charity for people other than them. In addition to paying for college and healthcare, we need to talk about paying for the kinds of social innovation that will keep family farms up and running, and keep rural communities healthy and vibrant. Beyond organic farming, we need to make the case for investment in financially and environmentally sustainable uses of the land — wind & solar farms, access to high-paying urban markets for specialty produce and the expertise to produce it, ecotourism, electric vehicles, 100% wireless broadband penetration, online education (even at pre-k-12), and the like. The then-President-Elect Obama had in the Fall of 2008 a reasonably good start at a progressive Rural Agenda addressing all of these, but if we’re honest, follow-through hasn’t been very energized or particularly successful. The frustrations and fears and failures in rural America are at least as much if not greater…