How Democrats can win back rural America
One big reason that Donald Trump won the presidency is that he cleaned up with Americans living outside cities. "Hillary lost rural America three to one," one anonymous Democratic Party source told Politico. In the Rust Belt and the Midwest, Trump flipped key states where rural and small-town communities have been ground down by the great shifts in American society over the last few decades.
The Democrats' coalition, meanwhile, is increasingly contained in cities. To win again, the party will have to stretch its appeal beyond the "urban archipelago."
There are already a lot of liberal policies that could help Democrats in this regard. For instance, minimum wage hikes and individual infrastructure bills already boast a successful track record in areas Democrats don't always win. Despite the GOP's sweeping victories on Election Day, four states passed minimum wage hikes — the latest in a raft of states to do so — and several local municipalities approved big infrastructure initiatives. And, of course, one of Trump's most popular proposals — his $1 trillion infrastructure plan (or a better version of it) — was lifted right out of the liberal playbook.
The problem is, the party is too often bogged down by a grab bag of overly complex, incrementalist policies. How can "expand access to equity capital for rural businesses by increasing the number of Rural Business Investment Companies" compete with "Make America Great Again"?
Democrats need to take another approach: Simplify and radicalize. They need ideas that are big and bold, and that will be easy to message and explain.
Start with jobs and wages: Over the last several decades, the rate of job and business creation during economic recoveries, including the one after the Great Recession, steadily declined in rural areas. And many pro-Trump, non-urban communities are where working-class whites suffer from high unemployment and wage stagnation.
The simplest and most radical solution is something called a federal job guarantee: a promise to provide full-time, well-paid work to any American willing to take it on. You literally guarantee that everyone will get a job. And it's not that outlandish — economists like Pavlina Tcherneva are already developing ideas for how the national government can disperse cash to create new employment where it is most needed. It would also act as a de facto minimum wage law, since private employers would have to compete with government offers.
The jobs created would also go a long way towards rebuilding rural communities decimated by declining health, drugs, crumbling housing and infrastructure, and overall neglect. People hired to build rail lines connecting cities to the country, for instance, would help provide rural areas with access to opportunities downtown. Those hired to rebuild and re-staff rural health services would also help improve wellness and fight drug addiction. And that's not to mention the local government jobs that every community needs, no matter how small, like police, firefighters, and teachers.
Exploring such a policy should be fast-tracked to the top of the Democrats' agenda.
The other big problem to tackle is the regional inequality between the major cities and the rest of the country. This is the flip-side of rural America's declining fortunes: Capital, dynamism, and consumer demand are flooding into 10 or 20 big urban centers, leaving the rest of the country high and dry.
There are two big fixes for this.
The first is returning to the antitrust enforcement of the mid-century — an idea Democrats already seem to be warming up to. That means breaking up the big corporate trusts, from national retailers to Silicon Valley behemoths. The purpose is not simply cheaper prices; it is opening up market access for smaller businesses, and giving local communities the power to shape their own economic fate again.
A massive corporate chain like Walmart may provide jobs in small towns, but it pays poorly while making massive profits that get sent to distant shareholders. The wealth created by small towns' labor doesn't stay and re-circulate in that community; it gets extracted and shipped off to corporate hubs in the cities. A serious antitrust crackdown would break up the business arrangements that make that exploitation possible.
The second policy is what's called a land value tax (LVT), which would be directed at cutting cities down to size. An LVT is a levy, not on the value of a whole property, but on the value of the land specifically. Since the supply of land is fixed, the price of the land that everyone wants to live on — almost exclusively in cities, these days — keeps rising higher and higher. A sufficiently steep LVT would mean land owners could no longer make money by just letting the value of their plots keep rising. They'd have to develop their land and make it more usable as quickly and ambitiously as possible. This would encourage more affordable housing to be built in cities, but it would also make it far less appealing for rich people to park their money in urban real estate and related projects. Like antitrust enforcement, an LVT would break up the massive concentrations of wealth in metropolitan areas, forcing that capital to disperse and take a chance in more neglected, rural areas instead.
So that's the agenda: Return jobs to rural voters, bust up big business, and cut the big cities down to size. There are certainly other worthy policies. But the strength of this tri-part agenda, I believe, is that it speaks directly to rural Americans' sense of decline and alienation.
Democrats, rural America just made its play. The ball is in your court.