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A rural home with "Trump 2020" yard signs in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, a swing state in the 2020 election. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty images)

A rural home with "Trump 2020" yard signs in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, a swing state in the 2020 election. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty images)

How Do You Flip Rural Trump Voters? Talk to Them.

In 2016, establishment Democrats all but ignored rural communities. Groups like People’s Action are changing that, one conversation at a time.

George Goehl

 by In These Times

Much ink was spilled over ​“Trump Coun­try” in the wake of 2016. Rur­al coun­ties that helped elect Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma in 2008 and 2012 had seem­ing­ly switched over to Trump in 2016. At People’s Action, the grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion I direct, many of us grew up in or live in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, and we had a gut instinct about what had hap­pened: The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (and orga­ni­za­tions in its orbit) retreat­ed from rur­al America. 

We want­ed to under­stand what moti­vat­ed peo­ple in those coun­ties to swing so dra­mat­i­cal­ly—up to 25 points. What were they feel­ing and search­ing for? And what about all the folks who didn’t vote? 

Cer­tain that poll­sters were not going to find those answers for us, we start­ed orga­niz­ing. And the best orga­niz­ing begins with listening. 

From the Iron Range in Min­neso­ta to the Pied­mont of North Car­oli­na, we had thou­sands of con­ver­sa­tions in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and small towns across 10 states, start­ing in 2017: Alaba­ma, Iowa, Maine, Michi­gan, Min­neso­ta, Mis­souri, New Hamp­shire, North Car­oli­na, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin. We learned what we already knew: Peo­ple are strug­gling and try­ing to make sense of those struggles. 

Our lis­ten­ing cam­paign start­ed with People’s Action affil­i­ate Down Home North Car­oli­na going door-to-door to talk with work­ing-class peo­ple in the back­yard of grow­ing neo-Con­fed­er­ate and white nation­al­ist groups. In the hills of Appalachia or on (for­mer) fam­i­ly farms in the Mid­west, we heard the same refrain: ​“No one ever asked me.” 

With few excep­tions, there was no pro­gres­sive infra­struc­ture where we went knock­ing. The pow­er of orga­nized labor had weak­ened, local Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty offices had closed and much pro­gres­sive phil­an­thropy had direct­ed its dol­lars to urban enclaves. 

The unwill­ing­ness of main­line Democ­rats and cor­po­rate media to name the true caus­es of rur­al people’s pain left folks feel­ing alien­at­ed. Run­away cor­po­rate eco­nom­ic pow­er, mixed with racism as a tool of divi­sion, cre­at­ed a vac­u­um. Trump and his fel­low white nation­al­ists sim­ply filled it. 

These con­ver­sa­tions informed our work on the issues peo­ple told us were most impor­tant — access to health­care, qual­i­ty jobs, clean air, clean water and addic­tion. By orga­niz­ing on these issues, we came togeth­er in mul­ti-racial orga­ni­za­tions and have won real tan­gi­ble changes — Med­ic­aid expan­sion, a rur­al liv­ing wage, fac­to­ry farm mora­to­ri­ums and more. From there, the trust and rela­tion­ships grew into tough con­ver­sa­tions about racism — as a sys­tem that cre­ates dif­fer­ent out­comes for peo­ple based on race, and as a tac­tic that sows divi­sion to block pow­er­ful majori­ties. Racism cre­ates incred­i­ble pain, suf­fer­ing and loss of life for peo­ple of col­or, but the 15 mil­lion white Amer­i­cans who live in pover­ty — often in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties in so-called red states — are rarely its beneficiaries. 

Still, we kept run­ning into one sub­ject that seemed a bridge too far: a more wel­com­ing immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy. We launched a deep can­vass pro­gram in North Car­oli­na, Penn­syl­va­nia and Michi­gan, hop­ing to learn more about how peo­ple under­stood the chang­ing demo­graph­ics of the coun­try and their eco­nom­ic realities. 

Caitlin Hom­rich-Kniel­ing, a can­vass­er with People’s Action affil­i­ate Michi­gan Unit­ed, describes deep can­vass­ing — which she has prac­ticed in small towns sur­round­ed by corn and soy like Imlay City (pop. 3,577) and Emmett (252) — as rela­tion­ship-build­ing. “[We’re] strangers, [we’re] start­ing with a blank slate,” she says. ​“And in that con­ver­sa­tion, we … real­ly hon­or their sto­ry and their wis­dom and their dignity.” 

Most peo­ple wel­comed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore a com­pli­cat­ed issue in a non-dog­mat­ic and non-judg­men­tal way. In many cas­es, it was as if we can­vassers had offered a gift — a chance to final­ly be lis­tened to. Often, peo­ple would acknowl­edge they didn’t have much lived expe­ri­ence of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, that they were informed by tele­vi­sion. These con­ver­sa­tions, dri­ven by sin­cere curios­i­ty, opened up a space to reex­am­ine things. 

Our deep can­vass effort was extreme­ly effec­tive, with a 15% increase in sup­port to include undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants in pub­lic ben­e­fits — which has last­ed at least 4.5 months, the most recent time we measured. 

Down Home North Car­oli­na, Michi­gan Unit­ed, Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment, New Jer­sey Orga­niz­ing Project, Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up and Hoosier Action have all, in dif­fer­ent ways, mod­eled what mul­ti-racial, mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments can look like. In Michi­gan, we are deep can­vass­ing around immi­gra­tion. In Iowa, we are fight­ing for clean water. In the Pied­mont of North Car­oli­na, peo­ple are stand­ing down white suprema­cy. On the South Jer­sey shore, folks are com­ing togeth­er on wind ener­gy. In my home of south­ern Indi­ana, peo­ple are fight­ing a pitched bat­tle with addic­tion and learn­ing to be vul­ner­a­ble, to see each oth­er and to build the pow­er need­ed to win. 

We’ve learned the hard way that, if we are not present, oth­ers will be. That is not a les­son we need to learn again.

© 2021 In These Times
George Goehl

George Goehl

George Goehl is the former executive director of People's Action and People's Action Institute, a national organization of a million people in 30 states fighting for economic, environmental, racial, and gender justice.

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