Helen Waller is feeling lonelier these days. She names the families that have moved off farmsteads along the road where she lives in McCone County, Mont. There are so few folks left that the post office's route drivers deliver mail only three times a week. And when Waller makes the 19-mile drive to Circle, the nearest town, she notices that it is emptying out as well. The old hospital is now closed, as is the "junior department store."
"I remember when I was a girl, going to town to buy a pair of shoes was a big deal," recalls Waller, a lifelong resident of McCone County. "Now, I can't get shoes in Circle. I used to laugh when people said there might come a day when there was no one left out here, but I don't laugh anymore. I just get angry."
Waller's anger, which is echoed on the front porches of farmhouses and around the cafe tables of rural America, is not directed at neighbors who have left the area of eastern Montana where her family settled after World War I. Still farming at age 69, she is well aware of how hard it is to make ends meet in these parts. What angers Waller is a sense that the deck keeps getting stacked against rural America by powerful corporations and by politicians of both political parties who pay more attention to promised rural panaceas -- like free trade and a bigger-is-better attitude toward farming -- than to the painful realities of the countryside.
"I ask myself: How can people in Washington let this happen?" she says. "I wonder if it's because they've gotten so used to measuring everything in economic terms that they don't recognize that behind all these numbers from all these forgotten places, there are people who are hurting."
The hurt Waller describes is a political force Democrats must reckon with if they hope to regain the White House and Congress in 2004. Less than a quarter of America's population now lives beyond this country's cities and suburbs -- in rural parts of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain states and even Eastern Washington and North Idaho. But even as their percentage of the national population dwindles, rural states still elect two U.S. senators each, and more than 50 U.S. House members represent predominantly rural districts. The electoral votes of even the least populous state can decide close national elections. In 2000, for instance, Al Gore fell just three electoral votes short of winning the presidency. That means that the electoral votes of a single rural state -- such as Helen Waller's Montana, where rural support for the Democrats tumbled in 2000 -- could have rendered Florida's disputed electoral votes inconsequential.
The Flyover States -- Polls show that rural Americans are even more concerned than urban voters about access to healthcare, education and the jobs that have gone missing since George W. Bush became President. But rural voters also bring unique demands to the table -- for constraints on agribusiness conglomerates, new approaches to trade policy and a renewed federal commitment to rural development. The ability of Democratic candidates to answer those demands with significantly more populist responses than did their predecessors in 2000 and 2002 will determine whether the party has a chance in 2004.
"A lot of Democrats at the national level continue to look at where the concentrations of population are. They want the most bang for their buck. States that are less populated look, at first glance, like they aren't worth the investment," says North Dakota Progressive Coalition Director Don Morrison. "What they haven't quite figured out is that there are two places in America where you see the most pain, the most economic injustice: the inner city and rural America. Democrats win the inner cities, and they could win the rural areas. But first, they have to recognize that there is pain out here. Then, they have to make it a whole lot clearer that they're going to do something about it."
The prosperity of the 1990s never reached most of rural America. During that decade, 676 of the nation's 3,141 counties lost population, and the worst population losers were in what is still referred to as America's heartland. More than 60 percent of the counties in the Great Plains have experienced depopulation so profound that an area the size of the original Louisiana Purchase again qualifies for the "frontier" designation that the U.S. Census Bureau gave remote regions before the great waves of settlement in the 19th century.
This isn't a case of people leaving because they don't like country life, says George Naylor, a Greene County, Iowa, farmer who recently became the president of the National Family Farm Coalition. "The people I know who've given up felt sick about it. But they couldn't go on living in poverty." Poverty rates are now higher in vast rural stretches of the Great Plains than in America's big cities; nine of the nation's 10 counties with the lowest per capita income are found in farm states west of the Mississippi. Twenty-seven percent of rural workers earn a wage that is insufficient to lift a family of four out of poverty. Rural hospitals are closing. Medicare and Medicaid payments are getting squeezed. Incomes for the vast majority of farm families remain stagnant. Free-trade initiatives like the North American Free Trade Agreement have been so unsuccessful in delivering a promised boom for family farmers that the federal government is now setting up a Trade Adjustment Assistance program to help farmers displaced by trade deals that were supposed to assure their prosperity. And the same free-trade policies that have failed farmers have devastated the small manufacturing concerns that once allowed farm couples to stay on the land by providing work -- and health benefits -- to the spouse who worked "in town."
"Rural America is being eviscerated by contract farming, by the loss of control of the food chain, by the lack of rural healthcare, by trade policies that are particularly destructive to rural economies," says Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, the ranking Democrat on the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Kaptur is angered that many in Congress, including fellow Democrats, fail to understand the small "d" democratic value of having a countryside populated by farmers and small-town residents who keep control of the nation's food supply in diverse hands. It is not just a romantic attachment to old ways of farming that causes Kaptur to fear rural depopulation. Rather, she says, something fundamental is lost as rural folk who considered themselves stewards of the land are replaced by sprawling factory farms that treat the landscape as a commodity to be dosed indiscriminately with chemicals and despoiled with livestock "waste lagoons." Democrats must recognize, Kaptur says, that "rural America is hanging on by its fingernails. There's a sense of urgency in the countryside. It's real, it's volatile."
Populism in the Past -- Such urgency was once the stuff of political legend. In 1896, a 36-year-old Nebraskan named William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination for President with an appeal to farm-state frustration. Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech and his alliance with the independent populists began pulling rural voters toward Democrats and away from Republican moorings some had clung to since Civil War days. That process culminated in the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal restored a measure of prosperity to Depression-worn farm states. When that prosperity came, the Republicans reasserted themselves. But the recession of the late 1950s wrenched farm-state voters back to the Democratic fold and sent South Dakotan George McGovern, Minnesotan Eugene McCarthy, Idahoan Frank Church and other young liberals to the Senate, where they transformed not just farm policy but the Democratic Party. As recently as 1986, when Democrats retook the Senate six years into the Reagan era, they did so by electing a fresh crop of senators from recession-ravaged farm states that included South Dakota's Tom Daschle, North Dakota's Kent Conrad and, four years later, Minnesota's Paul Wellstone.
Today, the party of Bryan has a hard time speaking to rural America. Since 1988, support for the Democrats among rural voters has dropped from 56 percent to around 36 percent. In the early 1990s, the Congressional Rural Caucus had 88 Democratic members to 54 Republicans; less than a decade later, the breakdown was 84 Republicans to 58 Democrats.
"If we were to write off the [partisan shift in the] rural vote as simply echoing national trends, we'd miss a seismic shift in American politics," says veteran pollster Bill McInturff. Yet, for the most part, Democrats continue to stumble in the countryside. Things aren't quite as bad as in 1999, when Representative Patrick Kennedy, head of the party's campaign to retake the House, was quoted as saying Democrats had "written off" America's rural areas in their 2000 strategy. But the party still strays from the economic populism that can counter Republican appeals based on social issues like abortion and opposition to gun control.
After the 2000 presidential election, colored maps showed that while the East and West Coasts and inland metropolitan areas were blue for Gore, the vast majority of the country was red for Bush. In the West, you could walk a line from Mexico to Canada and not set foot in a single county -- or a single state -- carried by Gore. Bush won 59 percent of the rural vote, compared with 46 percent for Republican Bob Dole in 1996 and 40 percent for Bush's father in 1992. "It should have been a wake-up call for the Democrats," says National Farmers Union President David Frederickson. "But they went right into the 2002 campaign and made a lot of the same mistakes."
Kaptur says that's because the party has been peddling gimmicks rather than populist substance. "Most of the people who run the Democrat Party, like [Democratic National Committee Chair] Terry McAuliffe, they're city people," she says. "They think it's just a matter of tinkering with the party's image."
Democratic consultants have created a mini-industry that tells candidates to go "country" by sponsoring NASCAR teams, joining the NRA or fuzzing positions on abortion or gay rights to mollify social conservatives. Rural folks just laugh. "You can be ardently pro-choice and support gay rights and still win rural areas if you have an economic message," says Rhonda Perry, a family farmer who is program director with the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "I don't think too many people in rural Missouri sit up nights worrying about gay rights. But they do sit up nights worrying about how they are going to keep the farm or how they are going to get health benefits after the meatpacking plant shuts down."
Supporting All Farmers -- If Democrats want to speak to rural America, they should start listening to the Rhonda Perrys and Helen Wallers. They'll learn quickly that bland, one-size-fits-all "rural strategies" are losers. The corporate owner of a 4,000-cow factory farm in California has different demands from the family that milks 100 cows in Wisconsin. Companies like Monsanto and Tyson are not the "partners" of wheat farmers trying to keep genetically modified seeds out of North Dakota, or of Missouri hog farmers who want to use antitrust laws to prevent meatpacking companies from cornering markets. Wal-Mart has a different vision for rural America from mom-and-pop stores on Main Street. And while a Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement might open foreign markets for agribusiness, it will collapse prices for family farmers here and abroad. "It's about making choices," says Waller. "Most of the time the choices are between what the agribusiness companies want, which is to rig the markets so they can make money, and what's good for rural communities."
Under the $249 billion, 10-year farm bill President Bush signed in 2002, two-thirds of farm subsidy payments go to the top 10 percent of farm-subsidy recipients. More than 50 percent of the conservation funds paid for by the bill go to the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which provides subsidies to corporate factory farms that are major polluters. More than $100 million goes to trade promotion schemes that are often boondoggles.
Democrats must understand that trade is a big rural issue. Just as NAFTA, most-favored-nation trading status for China and other trade deals fail to benefit family farmers, they also have caused de-industrialization that hits rural America particularly hard. Maytag is moving factories to Mexico from Midwestern towns where, for decades, it has been the prime employer. "Farmers used to be able to ride through the rough times by taking a job at the machine shop. Now, in a lot of places, the machine shop is closed," says Niel Ritchie, head of the League of Rural Voters, a farm-labor coalition that is organizing a November 15 presidential forum in Iowa. "You can't talk about rural development without talking about trade."
Offering rural voters something real -- in the form of a populist alternative to the Republicans -- may be the greatest challenge that Democrats face in the 2004 campaign. But it is also the greatest opportunity. "Politics is the name of the game, isn't it? Politics decides whether we can stay in business, whether there's a future for our children and grandchildren here," says Helen Waller, as she looks out across the wheat fields of eastern Montana on a fall afternoon. "There's a lot of us who take this all very seriously because we know what is at stake. I just wish the politicians would take politics as seriously as we do."
This article first appeared in The Nation (www.thenation.com)