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Rural Democrats, We Know You're Out There

All things considered, our “contactless” caucuses went well. After we received guidance from the state DFL, our Central Committee moved quickly and decisively to go with the option that would keep our members safe from the rapidly spreading omicron variant. By then, we had already printed postcards announcing when registration would begin for meeting in person, so we had to scramble to shift gears. By the end of the event on February 1, though, eighty people had filled out the non-attendee forms, and we received over fifty resolutions.

We were also fortunate not to being meeting in person because a blizzard struck that day, and our caucus locations at the Barnesville and Hawley high schools were closed. Truth be told, that meant we were spared the embarrassment of a poor turnout. That was the disappointing outcome of caucuses. Only eleven of those eighty participants live outside Moorhead, and just three precincts in central Moorhead accounted for thirty-five of the forms.

Those results reflect what has emerged as the deepest political division in Minnesota and much of the country: the split between rural and urban voters. Clay County stands as a lonely blue island in western Minnesota in large part because Moorhead is the largest city in this half of the state, a fact that may surprise people who think of Moorhead as being in the shadow of Fargo.

It wasn’t always this way. Not that long ago, Democrats held seats in the state legislature all up and down the western edge of the state. I have to believe that if the DFL was strong in rural areas once, it can be again, but rebuilding the party there is a huge challenge.

What happened? One other distinction about Clay County stands out for me. Besides being the most Democratic and the most urban county in western Minnesota, it is also the only one around that gained population since the previous census. That is not a coincidence. Rural areas are shedding population, and I’m convinced that a sense of loss has had a profound effect on the politics of rural voters. As their communities are hollowed out, it’s understandable that they would be drawn to a slogan like Make America Great Again, however delusional that promise was when coming from Donald Trump.

If the plight of rural America no longer feels so great to those who live there, it is certainly not the result of a Democratic plot. A case could be made that government has failed rural America, but it has been a bipartisan failure, one that facilitated major changes in American agriculture. Farms have grown ever larger and more mechanized, and as the number of farmers has decreased, it has a ripple effect on their communities. Small businesses have fewer customers, schools have fewer students, clinics have fewer patients, and young people move away to find better opportunities.

Sadly, rural politics has become caught up in culture wars that do little to address their real problems. Those cultural issues are fueled by stereotypes that only serve to harden the divisions. Rural dwellers imagine that cities are peopled by a mix of violent, drug-addled criminals of color coddled by elitist, bleeding-heart liberals. Urbanites picture a countryside full of ignorant yokels armed to the teeth and fodder for bizarre conspiracy theories.

As we think about doing rural outreach, we need to remember that there are many people out there who don’t fit the stereotype, and they deserve to be heard respectfully. Democratic and independent voters may be intimidated by Republican bravado, but if we can connect with them, we can work together to develop a vision for rural revitalization.

Paul Harris

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