Washington — After the mid-term elections, which saw rural voters across the nation vote overwhelmingly for Republicans, a friend and colleague of mine asked pointed questions:
"Many people, especially Democrats, make the assumption that rural voters are only hurting themselves by voting Republican so consistently, but does actual evidence support it? Can the relationship be graphed and if so, would presenting it make any difference to voters?"
So I went looking for answers. A good baseline year, I thought, would be 1960, when rural areas were still well-populated with small farms, when agricultural policy under President Eisenhower followed much of the framework established in the New Deal by President Roosevelt, and when Democrats were competitive in rural areas in federal, state, and local elections. The baseline should be well before President Nixon installed Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture, who set a new course* for farmers: "Get-big-or-get-out" and "plant fencerow-to-fencerow." Many in rural America embraced the slogans and have been voting Republican ever since. President Trump's Secretary of Agriculture, G.E. "Sonny" Perdue, phrased it this way: "In America, the big get bigger and the small go out." The economic and health consequences of these Republican policies have been profound, as farm consolidations and rural depopulation have been proceeding accordingly.
I have not found a study with a baseline that looks back to pre-Butz years, but an impressively rigorous, peer-reviewed work encompassing the last five presidential elections has recently been published. Analyzing mortality rates, with an abundance of graphs, it concluded:
...Americans living in counties that voted Democratic during presidential elections from 2000 to 2016 experienced lower age adjusted mortality rates (AAMRs) than residents of counties that voted for a Republican candidate, and these patterns were consistent across subgroups (sex, race and ethnicity, urban-rural location). The gap in overall AAMR between Democratic and Republican counties increased more than sixfold from 2001 to 2019, driven primarily by changes in deaths due to heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory tract diseases, unintentional injuries, and suicide. These patterns were similar when we assessed mortality rates by state governor election results, with evidence of an increasing gap between Republican and Democratic voting areas over the study period.
The authors suggest many causal factors to explain the relationships they found. They did not look at rural population declines (as in "get out") as a direct factor, which should be explored in further research. Closed hospitals aren't saving lives.
The study ended before the Covid-19 pandemic began, which hit rural areas especially hard. Provocative headlines such as "How Many Republicans Died Because the GOP Turned Against Vaccines" suggest the trends will only worsen when new data are added.
Rather than join a Democratic chorus saying rural Republicans are stupid for killing themselves, I think it's time to look at Democrats' own responsibility for the calamitous state of affairs.
In the 1970s, Republican Senator Robert Dole and Democratic Senator George McGovern began a decades-long collaboration on rural policy in the Senate Agriculture Committee, through periodic iterations of the Farm Bill. Dole's primary interest was production agriculture (farm subsidies), while McGovern's focus was nutrition (food stamps, school lunches). Their combined efforts attracted the political support of rural Republicans and urban Democrats, which defused urban versus rural conflicts.
Over the years, however, successor politicians came to simplify the tradition into a raw political understanding that Republicans set rural policy and Democrats are indulged on food stamps (SNAP) as a trade-off.
What has been lost is that both Dole and McGovern had strong interests in the priorities of the other, and shaped legislation accordingly. Dole was sincerely committed to nutrition, as was McGovern to farm supports. Now the positions have hardened: Republicans show little interest in SNAP other than to cut funding; many Democrats have lost interest in nutrition as well, devoting their efforts to ensuring that SNAP recipients can buy the same junk food as others do. Worse, Democrats have lost interest in rural policy, often not campaigning for the rural vote, leaving rural America to its fate.
Democrats may find satisfaction in shaking their heads at the reckless obtuseness of Republican voters, but Democrats have fared much worse politically under the trade-off. They lost the presidency in 2016 and the House in 2022 to a failure to compete effectively in rural areas. Republican politicians have won disproportionate political power by leveraging the rural vote.
Meanwhile, rural Republican voters themselves have paid a disastrous price, many giving their very lives. That's clear from any study of the conditions and the ongoing, downhill trends in rural America.
Democrats bear some of the responsibility, to the extent they have given up on rural America. A good way to own up to it would be to begin anew on the 2023 Farm Bill with no assumptions of political trade-offs. Democrats must offer an aggressive set of proposals to address the ills of rural America and prepare to fight for them within the current structure of the Farm Bill. (Don't know any? Ask, and we'll provide you some, and lead you to others.)
In other words, for the sake of everyone, blow up current misguided political expectations associated with the Farm Bill reauthorization. And announce it now, through the highest levels of House and Senate elected leadership — looking at you, Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer.
*Ag policy writers Rosenberg and Stucki argue that Earl Butz was not a pivotal figure in that he did not inaugurate the programs his critics say he did, because they were well underway before he became Secretary, in part under Democratic auspices. While this is a useful perspective, it was under Butz that corporate agriculture — Big Ag — completed a highly visible capture of federal ag policy and has never since loosened its grip. Butz himself, who served on Big Ag corporate boards, was proud of it.