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Building Bridges

I was quite impressed by a workshop at the state DFL convention in Duluth recently. It was put on by the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative, and the presenter offered some thought-provoking insights on what it will take to rebuild Democratic support in rural areas. It won’t be easy, but their suggestions make a lot of sense.

            Many of us scratch our heads in bafflement that a big-city grifter who talks like a gangster has gained such overwhelming support among rural voters. Yet Trump has clearly tapped into some deep-seated feelings, and it’s important to begin by understanding their roots in people’s lived experience.

            Rural America is hurting. Local economies are being hollowed out, and families that have lived there for generations watch as their young people drift off to the city in search of better opportunities. Small towns have lost their grocery stores, their schools, and their medical facilities. A friend of mine has spent a lot of time driving around and photographing rural buildings that are falling into ruin. A sense of loss has bred a “politics of resentment” among people who feel left behind and disrespected. These folks tend to perceive government as some far-off force controlled by out-of-touch “elites.”

Minnesota’s Iron Range is a good example of a rural area that was once solidly Democratic but has turned increasingly red. The DFL has been losing support up there for a long time because attempts to revive the mining industry have proved contentious. Tourism has largely replaced the well paid, union jobs of the miners, and what draws tourists is the beauty of the natural environment. At this year’s convention, it was the Friends of the Boundary Waters pitted against the LiUNA miners’ union over proposed legislation that would effectively bar copper nickel sulfide mining from the region. Environmentalist efforts to protect the waters look to many Rangers like a threat to their homes from privileged city folk who treat the area as their playground. The miners at the convention made the reasonable point that it would be better to obtain the minerals we need from a place where there are skilled miners and reasonable regulation than from the developing world where miners are brutally exploited. It’s been an ongoing dilemma for the DFL, though happily a compromise was reached this time.

            To my mind, the big problem with the miners’ position is the way that it omits corporate power. Yes, the miners themselves are skilled and conscientious, but the ultimate disposition of mine waste will be in the hands of a huge, multinational corporations. The result is distrust on both sides of the issue. Rangers distrust government regulation, while environmentalists don’t trust corporate promises. Both sides might well feel that the “system is rigged” against them.

            Maybe it is possible, though, that this shared feeling could be the beginning of dialogue. One of the more striking points I heard at the workshop was the observation that Trump has converted rural people’s sense of loss into a conviction that it wasn’t lost but stolen. Once that seed was planted, it was not a big leap to convince people that the 2020 election was among the things that have been stolen.

            Who are the real thieves, though? The right wing wants to blame immigrants, but many people are well aware that concentrated economic power is the source of many of their problems. They can see that the farming economy is dominated by Big Ag, and as the corporations reap huge profits, they’ve created the market conditions that compel farmers to “get big or get out.” Shrinking farm populations in turn make it difficult for small businesses to survive, and they too find themselves in an economy dominated by corporate titans like Walmart and Amazon.

            We need to build a progressive movement that unites people against the economic inequality that corporate power has wrought. To regain rural support, the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative emphasizes the need to rebuild trust among people who feel disrespected. They recommend listening more and talking less, focusing on the issues that immediately concern folks, addressing those issues in ways that give people more control over their lives, and being of service. You can learn more by going to


Paul Harris


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