3 Ways Progressives Can Reconnect With Rural America

First, understand the environment is not only about climate change—it’s about livelihood for miners, drillers, loggers, and farmers like me.
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Photo by JamesBrey / iStock.

The disastrous election of Donald Trump has forced some long-overdue soul-searching among liberals, Democrats, and progressives, much of it focused on the neglect of working folks who live in rural areas, especially in the Midwest and Appalachia. I’ll confess to a bit of amusement at the liberal establishment’s collective “how did we miss this?” moment, especially given that writers like Sara Smarsh, Dee Davis, and yours truly have been ringing the alarm bells for some time.

Nevertheless, as a farmer and a consultant on sustainable economic development who works in many of these places, I welcome this examination, belated as it may be. Let me be clear: The progressive movement has not only ignored the needs of rural people, but also the many innovative ways through which rural people addressed those needs themselves. I’m talking here about the emergence of economic alternatives that are beginning to bring about a transition to the so-called new economy, one that is more diversified, just, and ecologically sustainable.

I’ll confess to a bit of amusement at the liberal establishment’s collective “how did we miss this?” moment.

In places like southwestern Virginia, where I live, we’ve been grappling with economic transition for more than 50 years. The most recent phase began with the offshoring of furniture and textile jobs in the 1980s, continued through the collapse of tobacco farming at the turn of the century, and is now well into what may be the final decline of the coal industry. Most Appalachian people know all too well the consequences of bad public policy, of what it means to fuel the wider economy, only to get burned by the politics of the elites. It’s a large part of why rural communities like mine have historically been so resilient, able to find new ways to make do with less. It’s also part of why so many country people are fed up with establishment politics and economics.

Though halting and incomplete, the shifts in economic thinking and practice that have arisen among rural people during these transitions demonstrate the potential to develop economies that work for people and the environment. I’m convinced that understanding rural communities and embracing these emerging transitions will help build a far broader and stronger progressive movement.

What follows are three steps progressives should take to help make this happen.

1. Understand the environment as livelihood.

Compared to folks in the country, urban and suburban liberals are much more likely to identify as “environmentalists.” Yet their everyday relationship to the natural world tends to be more spiritual or recreational than pragmatic; their priorities are usually more global than local, more long term than immediate. Rural people, by contrast, experience nature first and foremost as livelihood, as a source of food, energy, and material for living and working, here, today.

Understanding the environment as livelihood would significantly alter the perspective and priorities of progressives, and might begin to build a bridge to the miners, drillers, loggers, and farmers who for the most part view environmentalists as their enemies. This does not mean that we ignore the big issues like climate change. Rather, we need to understand how fighting and mitigating the impacts of climate change might look from a rural livelihood perspective.

2. Lift up rural innovators.

There is an extraordinary amount of ingenuity emerging in rural communities, particularly in the realm of self-reliance and resilience. From Bren Smith’s “vertical ocean farming” to MACED’s on-bill financing of energy efficiency for lower-income households, rural people are pioneering bottom-up, low-cost solutions to complex problems. The common thread among these initiatives is how they help build local capacity to meet real needs.

But rural innovators usually fly below the radar, unseen by the media and unknown to policymakers.

This, of course, is happening in cities as well, from PUSH Buffalo (Buffalo, New York) to the Corbin Hill Food Project in Harlem and the South Bronx (New York City). But rural innovators usually fly below the radar, unseen by the media and unknown to policymakers and so-called thought leaders. Hence the widespread perception that the country lags behind the city, that people there are “stuck,” unable or unwilling to change. I’ve found that notion to be all too common among progressives, helping to explain why the Democratic Party and so many urban elites have written off the country as hopelessly “red.”

Overcoming our cultural and political polarization will require that we move beyond the dominant narrative that pits progressive cities against a reactionary countryside. Learning about, understanding, and then supporting the emerging new economies in rural communities would jumpstart that process.

3. Talk less, and differently.

How we talk about things is almost as critical as what we talk about. And on both counts, Democrats, liberals, and progressives consistently miss the mark with rural folks. First off, we talk too much. Way too much. And too often, we don’t say much of anything. I’ve called this “losing liberal language,” and indeed, the past several elections have borne this out.

I’m not suggesting that we dumb things down; quite the contrary. We need to raise the bar in our speaking and writing, elevating our messages with what the poet and farmer Wendell Berry once called the “elegance of the particular”—that is, of the concrete rather than the abstract. That’s the way most rural folks think and talk—grounded in experience, often in the local realities of life and livelihood. Progressives don’t need to abandon our principles or values. We just need to learn to speak about them simply, and in the context of everyday experience.

Donald Trump's election was 40 years in the making. 

Donald Trump’s election was 40 years in the making, the ultimate fruit of an extraordinarily well-funded and comprehensive right-wing project to degrade the common good, deify the market, and attack the vulnerable and the different. Unfortunately, the progressive movement’s neglect of working people and rural communities has played right into that narrative. We can change that by understanding rural communities’ perspective on the environment, by recognizing the innovations coming out of those communities, and by grounding our messages in those experiences.

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