2004: How the Democrats Lost the Heartland of America

In 2004, the Democrats didn’t win a single state that had a farm or ranch in it — with very few exceptions. This article shows what they overlooked — and why they may not be able to do anything about it until we get the money out of politics.

Originally published 2004

Never before in history has a sitting President been more vulnerable. Never before have more votes been cast against a sitting President. And yet, the Republicans won. It’s an astonishing result, worthy of examination.

How did the Republicans Win?

George W. Bush was re-elected, despite an astonishingly list of reasons why he should have been defeated:

  • despite alienating virtually every ally we have in   the international community, save Britain, Australia, and Japan
  • despite economic policies that show businesses are doing better, while jobs and real income are way down
  • despite letting Osama Bin Laden get away at Bora Bora, and choosing instead to invade Iraq
  • despite “tax relief” that is causing communities to vote taxes on themselves for schools and roads, because the federal government isn’t doing it

He was reelected, despite what can only be called cynical duplicity:

  • despite calling it a “war” on terrorism, when the reality is that it is an international police action aimed at finding 3,000 terrorists,
  • despite continuing to call it a “war” in Iraq, even though it is has become an under-staffed, less-than-truly-successful occupation,
  • despite calling it “tax relief”, when the reality is that you get back a buck, while the wealthiest among us get back millions, and you live with roads that aren’t paved and schools without teachers, until you vote additional taxes on yourself,
  • despite calling it a “Clear Skies” initiative, when the reality is that it weakened air quality standards,
  • despite calling it a “Healthy Forests” program, when the reality is that it allows clear-cutting and increased logging.

How, in the face of all that, could the Democrats possibly lose? With all that ammunition at their disposal, how could they have wound up shooting so many blanks?

The Disturbing Electoral Map

But it was the way the Democrats lost that was especially disturbing. The map of the electoral results showed that the Democrats won zero states in the heartland of the country. Those states are marked by religious fervor and a strong sense of patriotism, it’s true. And the religious right was certainly riled up enough by the issue of gay marriage to vote in unprecedented numbers.

Those factors seem to be the ones that most observers account as the reason that the Democrats lost the rural states. But they’re overlooking a critical card that the Democrats left unplayed: The economy.

The Democrats won in the Northwest, where there is a strong liberal tradition. (There are 90 colleges in the Boston area alone.) They won in Pennsylvania and Michigan, where the industrial economies have been decimated by foreign competition. They won in Wisconsin and Minnesota, home to a Scandinavian population that is apparently as strongly progressive as the countries their great-grandparents called home. And they won on the West Coast, where liberal social-policy and technology-interests go hand in hand.

But everywhere else, the Democrats lost. And since money continues to dominate the political process, they may be constitutionally incapable of making the economic arguments they need to make to be effective in those areas.

Democrats Handicapped by Need for Corporate Money

The Democrats are between a rock and hard place. They need money to win elections, so they can’t alienate corporations. But since they can’t win hearts on minds in rural America on liberal social issues, the only way to win votes there is to make a strong economic argument — an argument that must of necessity strike at the heart of agribusiness corporations.

Basically, the Democrats are handicapped:

  • They have no strong connection to the issues and problems of rural America (a problem that a system like the Citizens’ Advisory could help to solve). If they did, they would know how strong the economic argument could be, and how necessary it is.
  • But they need corporate money, and they don’t support a system of corporate welfare that would endear them to corporations.
  • If they make a strong economic argument that attacks corporations, they bite the hand that feeds them.

So either the Democrats don’t know about rural America’s economic problems, or they can’t afford to say anything about it. Either way, the result is the same.

In the 2004 elections, all the televised sound bites and debate statements on economic issues were about the problems of the middle class and factory workers. But rural Americans don’t consider themselves to be part of either group, and there was nothing in the nationally-reported news that exhibited any sign of interest in their issues.

It’s the Economy, Stupid — And Agribusiness

The economic problems faced by rural America are very real, and growing worse by the day. Many of them can be attributed to policies endorsed by the Bush White House. But the Democratic party totally failed to make that connection, and to make it apparent to rural Americans.

Take small towns for example. For decades, they’ve been dying — slowly disappearing from the American landscape as their young people move to the cities where they can find a good job. They’re not always in love with the lifestyle — especially for their kids. But it beats starving.

That decline begins and ends with agribusiness. Perhaps the Democrats are too much in love with their corporate contributions to make the case they need to make. But if they ever again want to win a rural state, they’ll have to make the connection clear.

As agribusiness grows, small family farms disappear. Instead of starting a farm and making a decent living, about the only way to go into farming is to take a low-paying job working for one of the conglomerates, if you can get one.

With their huge tax breaks, corporate welfare, and agricultural subsidies, the agribusiness corporations can invest in machinery that does the work of dozens of people. Food quality may suffer, and American health along with it. But corporate profits rise, so where’s the problem?

So jobs decline and wages decrease — partly from competition, and partly because the only available jobs are minimum wage jobs. The impacts on the small towns that grew up to support those farming and ranching communities are severe:

  • People have fewer jobs and less to spend.
  • Young people move away and raise their families in cities.
  • The rural population dwindles over time.

These factors combine to produce rural blight. And it starts with the unconscionable advantages afforded to corporations that raise crops and cattle.

The connections are easily established. They are issues that could have made a difference in Grainger halls and stables throughout the heartland. But the Democratic party never once made them a centerpiece of their campaign.

They may have made some promises locally, but rural Americans aren’t dumb. If the promises are never made to a national audience, it’s easy to tell how much they’re worth.

A Voting Advice System can Help

Basically, there is a huge disconnect between the Democratic party and the people who make up rural America. The Democratic campaign focused on factory workers and the suburban middle class. With only a state in the middle of the country, they could have won the election. But they got none. Zero. Nada. Zip.

A Voting Advice System could have helped them identify and resolve that issue. It would have given them the ongoing feedback they needed to know for sure when they had addressed the concerns affecting the lives of rural Americans.

First, the number of people who listed advisors sympathetic to the Democratic party would have been visibly low — enough to alert them to the fact that there was a problem, if they weren’t aware of it before.

One suspects that they actually were aware of the problem. They invest a lot of money in polling, for just that reason. But polls don’t show them what they can do about it.

A Voting Advice System would have given them two major advantages. First, they could identify the influential organizations and individuals that people respect and are listening to. They would then know where to focus their persuasive efforts.

Second, they could strive to build voting coalitions, and know when they were successful. Since the only way to achieve success in that endeavor is to offer rural Americans the policies they need, the Democratic platform would have been visibly altered.

In the process, of course, the Democrats would have to identified policies that would appeal to both rural America and to their socially progressive constituents. With the platform planks they needed, the result would have been a strong connection with rural America that gave them a better chance to win, instead of the obvious disconnection that was apparent in the 2004 election.

The Voting Advice System would have made their potential success visible. That visibility would have forced the Republican Party to be more concerned with progressive, humanitarian ideas to maintain their position. No longer could they be the party of the corporation, regardless of the corporation’s effects on the environment and on humanity. No longer could they measure “economic growth” as an increase in corporate profits and national productivity, despite the loss of well-paying jobs and the increasing decline of middle class Americans into poverty, at a rate that now averages 3 million per year.

In other words, both parties would naturally and inevitably find themselves moving towards the middle — where the vast majority of Americans wish they had a candidate they could vote for.

Copyright © 2004-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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