Rural Progressivism: Land, Livelihood, and Community Part II

As promised, I’m reposting Stephen Danley’s series, Rural Progressivism today, which Progressive Hunterdon Democrats requested last night so they can read up after Danley and former Assemblyman John Wisniewski discussed, What is a Progressive last night in Flemington. Bumped. We’re getting a lot of feedback on this series from across the state on this series, because it talks about progressive organizing along lines that aren’t usually considered – by parties, by candidates, or even locally among voters. The biggest response has been from those already organizing for the 2018 midterms – and even 2019 legislative races. You can also get the whole series (more parts to come) in the slider above.
Just catching up? Here, also, is Part 1 & Part 3, which focuses on CD7 & CD2. And Welcome to Blue Jersey, newbies.  – Rosi. 

Last week I launched the Blue Jersey series on rural progressivism (here’s Part I), showing how in many of the key races in the upcoming 2018 elections have significant rural regions that represent an opportunity for candidates, and I introduced the concept of rural progressivism particularly as it’s catching fire in certain Oklahoma races. This week I want to dive into the policies and ideas caught up in that rural progressivism and how they overlap with progressivism as traditionally understood, but are drawn deeply from the experience of rural lives — and as such, have more potential to resonate with voters in rural communities.

At the heart of the discussion of rural progressivism is a challenging puzzle, perhaps most famously discussed in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. Frank argues that Republicans have adopted a strategy of focusing on social issues, which causes Kansas voters to vote against their economic interest. The book is a flashpoint, of academic discussions about the importance of class in American politics, of conservatives who find the premise condescending, and of liberals who struggle with the premise that economically favorably policies are being rejected in places such as Kansas. In many ways, though written in 2004, the book is even more pertinent now, as the increase of partisanship means that the “us-against-them”ism makes it even harder to reach voters across party lines.

The ideas behind rural progressivism is that there are elements of progressivism that have the potential to deeply resonate in rural communities but need to be built up from the lives and experiences of rural communities. That’s distinct from the idea that a Bernie Sanders-style progressivism as-is can reach rural communities — an effort hampered by the ways liberalism has been politicized, as written about by Frank. Rural progressivism is about forming a progressivism that draws deeply from the rural experience. This video by Family Farm Action lays out the heart of that movement:

At 3:53, a farmer captures the central argument:

There used to be local businesses that were built around receiving the products from the farms. And there were local businesses providing products to the farmers. Those are going away and it just hollows out the rural community.

Rural Progressive Politics captures the sentiments and expands them beyond farming, landing on three core values of rural progressivism: land, livelihood and community.

Dive into the Rural Progressive Platform and common themes and language emerge: a language that acknowledges agreements (and differences) with other progressives, but reframes those values through the lens of a rural life that is endangered by elements of the role of agriculture corporations within the global economy. Take, for example, this explanation of land and environmental policy:

We love the land and all it has to offer. However, we want people who don’t live from the land, who experience nature mostly through tourism or recreation, to understand this: It’s hard to make a living from the land without harm, without impact. Farmers understand this, as do fishermen, hunters, loggers and miners. Those of us who farm, fish or hunt see ourselves as good stewards, because we know that our livelihoods depend on healthy land.

If we’re going to do a better job sustaining the environment while still meeting people’s needs, progressive policies must make partners of those who live from the land, rather than just regulating and restricting what happens in the countryside. Progressive policies should make major investments in the most promising rural sustainable businesses, particularly in communities historically dependent on coal. Rebuilding local economies so that people can care for themselves and their families should be as much of a priority as protecting the environment. We need to see that we are truly in this environment thing together, sharing the challenges equally.

This language around land, nature and environmentalism is extremely powerful. It’s easy to imagine it mapping onto sustainability issues in a way that deeply resonates with rural communities. Here are policy examples from the Rural Progressive Platform:

Policy examples:

* Increased investment in sustainable farming, fishing, forestry research and practices, rather than subsidies for  corporate farming, fishing, and forest products
* Support for the RECLAIM Act and reinvestment in coal communities
* Investment and tax credits for community wind energy, solar gardens and other renewable energy that also provides revenue to local communities, in combination with a modernized electric grid that supports distributed energy
* Environmental regulations that are ‘scale appropriate’, ie less burdensome on small to mid-sized farms, businesses and manufacturers

That platform document reframes a variety of issues, from development (it cites a need for ‘Asset-based’ economic development that addresses real community needs, rather than subsidies for big boxes and outside corporations), to education (including a call for free community college), to infrastructure (asking for dramatically increased internet access, including publicly owned options), to health care (calling for an expansion of rural health clinics, addiction treatment and prevention, and incentives for doctors and health practitioners to work in rural and underserved communities). Each of these policies is described in terms of the ways they support a rural life challenged by corporate and global structures that take away simple things necessary to make rural life work — such as selling farmed goods in one’s own community.

The platform speaks to the same frustrations and challenges addressed by the Farmers Bill of Rights. The Farmers Bill of Rights calls for a variety of protections from corporate interests, described as “big agriculture” or “Big Ag”.  It calls for a right to fair and open markets and a right to feed the community, a right to protect natural resources and a right to local control of land. That bill of rights captures the fundamental challenges and threats to rural life like this:

9. Right to Rural Opportunity
Monopolies have hollowed out local economies and taken away the traditional pathways of opportunity for free enterprise that helped communities thrive. No farmer should have to choose between continuing to operate their farm and getting access to good schools and health care. No farmer should have to choose between farming and providing a future for their children. Farmers need the right to basic services in rural communities.

Family Farm Action has done the work of developing this rural progressivism as it applies to farmers, describing the root challenges of the modern economy in terms of the indignity of not having a right to feed one’s own community because of “multi-national corporations.” And it has had electoral success in doing so.

Rural Progressive Politics has expanded these farmer-specific critiques to general principles and a full platform that addresses priorities as diverse as health care, internet access and more.

Rural Progressive Politics calls on communities to take rural progressivism a step further and map these values onto local issues, local economies, and local communities. I’ll be taking that next task and starting to apply this rural progressivism to New Jersey in the next installment of this series. I’ll talk about how the language and values behind rural progressivism can apply directly to our communities and our local races, and which policies from the rural progressive platform are particularly pertinent to our own rural communities in New Jersey. If you have thoughts about that, the core ideas of rural progressivism, or more, don’t hesitate to reach out or a leave a comment!

Comments (2)

  1. Stephen Danley (Post author)

    Working now on applying this to some of the races in NJ in 2018 — if folks have thoughts, please share!

  2. Michelle R Shevlin

    I really enjoyed your articles on Rural Progressivism. Like so many other elements of our economy, the small farmer has been hurt by the global economy, and the mega corporations which wield all the power and well, money, which is power. I am interested in whether you think that District 7 in NJ has a possibility of changing the farmers historic Republican voting record if Democrats empathize and promote better policy for the Hunterdon County farmers. That being said, did the Tax bill just passed in Congress give anything to the small farmer? I wonder.


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