Can a Rural Progressivism Work in New Jersey? Part I

Bumped by Rosi

Over the next few weeks I will be exploring what progressivism could look like in the relatively rural areas in New Jersey, and why that matters to our 2018 Congressional races. That conversation will do deep dives into the races, districts, and more — but I want to start by framing the discussion with three maps, and thoughts about the classic Democratic approach to such districts.

The first map is from the Census and is of New Jersey’s rural/urban areas — the second map, is of gubernatorial results from the recent governor’s race, the third map is New Jersey of congressional districts.

There is an obvious correlation in the first two maps between the more dense I-95 corridor, where Democrats dominate, and the relatively more rural regions outside that corridor that lean more Republican. The same correlation holds in the critical Congressional races. Cook has New Jersey up for five competitive races in 2018: NJ5 as lean Democrat,  NJ2 and NJ11 as toss-up Republican, NJ7 as lean Republican, and NJ3 as likely Republican. All include significant rural strongholds, which poses a strategic for Democrats.

There are a couple of typical strategies in the playbook for Democrats in purple or red districts. One would be to play to the base, double-down on Democratic policies, and try to win on turnout alone. A second is to tack towards the center, adopt a couple of high profile centrist or conservative positions, and try to peal off moderate Republicans. Rarely is there a turn towards progressivism, in part because in 2016 Bernie Sanders struggled with rural voters, southern voters, and African-American voters.

But, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, there’s been a discussion about rural progressivism in which the conversation about the farming industry parallels the more traditional progressive frustration with Wall Street and the banking industry. Take these examples from Joe Maxwell’s The Hill piece titled The death of the American dream for family farmers:

A handful of large agricultural corporations with monopoly power control an excessive amount of the market, allowing them to dictate prices farmers receive and the terms of any contractual business relationship between them.

This sort of egregious and anticompetitive behavior takes place because of today’s unprecedented vertical integration and monopsony power in agricultural markets – in other words, a large percentage of family farmers only have one buyer for their products. That means that these enormous companies not only dictate the terms of business to squeeze family farmers to the max, but also have the power to put them out of business overnight if they complain or speak out – a power that they threaten to use liberally.

The examples are striking, and should resonate deeply with progressives:

In the late 1990s, ranchers raised the issue of predatory and unfair pricing in the cattle market. An Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) board member and colleague of mine, Mike Callicrate, and others filed litigation, only to have the meat packer monopoly take action against Mike, refusing to buy any of his cattle. With no market, Mike was forced out of the cattle feeding business.

Another OCM board member, poultry contract grower Jonathan Buttram, felt the sting of corporate retaliatory action when he spoke out against the injustices of the poultry industry. He told us that his poultry processor then refused to deliver any more flocks to his family’s farm. With only one poultry processor contracting in the area, the Buttrams have effectively been forced out of the poultry business.

The case made by Joe Maxwell and others is that the types of arguments progressives are making about Wall Street may be structurally similar to the types of arguments that can reach family farmers and those in rural communities whose livelihoods are put at risk by industrial farming. The wider argument is that there are potential progressive strategies in districts that traditionally have been districts where Democrats have either run to the center or depended entirely on turnout from the base.

The Nation’s David Dayen highlighted Maxwell’s efforts emphasizing successes in Oklahoma:

Maxwell and his colleagues have already shown they can reach rural voters. Last year, while Donald Trump was romping in Oklahoma, Maxwell ran a statewide campaign to beat a corporate-backed “right to farm” initiative that would have gutted regulations on agribusiness. He brought together animal-welfare groups, environmentalists, and farmers, and crushed the initiative by over 20 points. Even this year, Democrats have picked up two state legislative seats in rural Oklahoma, an small reversal of the carnage of the past eight years.

Those successes should cause those involved in races in key New Jersey congressional races (as well as state seats) to ask: can this rural progressivism work in New Jersey? In future installments of this series, I’ll be diving into just what this rural progressivism looks like, and what it means for these our New Jersey congressional races.

Comments (6)

  1. Rosi Efthim

    I live in the rural, traditionally crimson section of a targeted congressional district; in Hunterdon, in CD7 (Lance).

    Here’s where this interests me: For the last umpteen cycles, the “red” portion of this district in play has been treated like a drag on campaign resources. That’s not a slur and it isn’t without reason: Expectations are low here – history says so – and that means campaign resources have been spent more freely where Democratic performance is better, and the county Dem orgs are better.

    But the idea of recognizing the potential of a coalition of allies, like Maxwell’s animal-welfare groups, environmentalists, and farmers … that resonates. And maybe even better in some of the other districts of untapped progressive potential, here in NJ and in other gettable seats.

    Most of the Democratic infrastructure focuses well and more effectively on urban/suburban dwellers. Makes sense. But this kind of thinking is creative, and we may indeed be able to build some possibilities with it – not only in federal elections, not only in upping the ante in rural parts of mixed congressional districts, but in legislative races which should not be ceded to the Republicans year after year after year.

    Can’t wait to see where this series goes, Steve.

    Reply
    1. Stephen Danley (Post author)

      Thanks. I’ve been diving into this for the past few weeks, and it’s finally starting to sort out into some coherency. More feedback welcome!

      Reply
  2. zoe bleck

    I think it’s an interesting way to think about pulling in more Democratic votes, and forming coalitions is a great idea, but, I also live in Hunterdon County, and while I’m sure that animal welfare activists and environmentalists are most likely voting Dem., I question how many actual farmers we have in Hunterdon. The younger ones are probably Dems., but the older ones that I know are deeply conservative. The summer before last I watched appalled as a constant stream of fairgoers walked out to their cars with Trump lawn signs. I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a common cause to pull more people in to vote Dem.

    Reply
    1. Stephen Danley (Post author)

      Zoe – thanks for commenting. This is what I’m going to dive into in part II — the specific policies and causes embedded in a rural progressivism, and where we can expect it to be powerful. I’ll also be doing more specific dives into the demographics of specific districts moving forward. But I don’t think a rural progressivism is about farmers specifically — rather that farmers are an example of where there are cultural opportunities to apply progressive values in a way that will resonate with people.

      Reply
  3. Dan Preston

    Thanks for this Stephen.

    This seems to be an interesting group:
    http://www.ruralorganizing.org

    Not sure if a NJ Farmer-Labor party is in the offing like what we saw in the upper Midwest a century ago. But it’s way past time that the Democrats once again become the party to unite all working people, urban and rural.

    Reply
  4. Hopeful

    Looking forward to the rest

    Reply

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