A few weeks ago, Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor, released his economic agenda for rural Virginia.
It drew virtually no attention outside the rural parts of the state. The probably didn’t bother Northam. After all, there probably aren’t too many voters in Northern Virginia interested in what either candidate has to say about rural Virginia.
Northam’s plan was both politically smart and politically clever. The plan was smart because Democrats have run poorly in rural Virginia in recent elections; they really need to cut those margins. The plan was clever because it didn’t sound much like a traditional Democratic tax-and-spend approach to problems. Indeed, the centerpiece of Northam’s plan is to waive certain taxes for new businesses opening in rural areas. His plan was both modest and creative, an unusual combination to achieve.
For Northam, this plan comes in the context of his attempt to win the governorship against Republican Ed Gillespie. It also comes against the backdrop of an even broader question being debated not just across Virginia but across the country: Should Democrats even bother paying attention to rural areas?
Some liberals say focusing on rural areas is a ridiculous waste of time; we looked Sunday at some of those voices. Others, though, contend that “rural” and “liberal” do not necessarily need to be contradictions in terms —and shouldn’t be if Democrats hope to regain seats in Congress, state legislatures, or win statewide elections.
To further explore this movement, we turn not to Northam, but to Anthony Flaccavento.
Political junkies may recognize Flaccavento as the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the 9th District seat in Congress in 2012. Why should anyone pay attention to someone who polled only 39 percent of the vote? Well, consider this: That’s 11 percentage points better than any Democrat who has run for that seat since. And it’s 12 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton ran in that district last year.
In fact, no other Democrat running statewide since then has run better in the 9th District than Flaccavento. Not Mark Warner. Not Tim Kaine. Not Terry McAuliffe. Northam matched that 39 percent four years ago in the lieutenant governor’s race, but only because Republicans fielded an exceptionally weak candidate.
So maybe Democrats ought to pay attention to what Flaccavento has to say, eh?
Flaccavento, a farmer from Washington County and consultant on rural economies, has been waging a different sort of campaign in recent years. He’s been trying to persuade fellow liberals that rural communities are not a lost cause. He’s authored some thought-provoking articles that have appeared in prominent liberal journals. The Nation published “Progressives Need To Stop Ignoring Rural Communities” last summer, before the full import of the Trump phenomenon was clear. Earlier this year, Yes Magazine published his “3 Ways Progressives Can Reconnect With Rural America.”
More recently, Flaccavento fired up a website called Rural Progressive Politics and this summer issued a Rural Progressive Platform. Democrats would be wise to read it. So would Republicans, just in case national Democrats decide that rural communities really are worth fighting for again.
There’s the usual shopping list of liberal ideas, such as free community college — although the Republican legislature in Tennessee just enacted that, so maybe that’s not such a liberal idea, after all. Elsewhere, though, the platform challenges Democratic orthodoxy in some surprising ways. National Democrats are big on regulating banks; the Rural Progressive Platform urges “regulatory relief for community banks” on the grounds that they’re the ones most likely to be serving rural communities. That’s not the only place where the platform calls for “regulatory relief” — a phrase that usually only Republicans utter. It calls for “environmental regulations that are ‘scale appropriate’, i.e., less burdensome on small to mid-sized farms, businesses and manufacturers.”
In fact, the most interesting part is where the Rural Progressive Platform urges Democrats to rethink how they approach environmental issues: “Because the environmental movement has emerged most strongly in cities or suburbs, its focus has been on protecting the environment, more so than using it well to meet people’s needs. It often seems that environmentalists forget just how much everyone depends upon the food, materials and energy that primarily come from rural areas, thanks to the work that rural folks do.”
That’s why, the platform says, rural voters often resent environmentalists as meddling outsiders. Instead, “progressive policies must make partners of those who live from the land, rather than just regulating and restricting what happens in the countryside.”
The most provocative passage in the platform even hints that maybe Democrats shouldn’t adopt one particular litmus test that usually fells their candidates in rural areas: “Mountains, forests, valleys and streams are a practical part of our lives and economies. No doubt this is at least part of why we look at a chainsaw or a rifle so differently from most city folks.”
A “progressive” platform that urges a re-thinking of environmental regulations and gun control? Now that’s interesting. It’s also interesting that Flaccavento is not some Wall Street centrist from a D.C. think tank, but an on-the-ground liberal in the heart of Appalachia. That ought to give him more street cred with fellow “progressives.” So far, they’re the ones most resistant to Democrats who call for devoting even the slightest amount of attention to rural communities.
In The Nation last summer, Flaccavento hit on the cultural disconnect between “progressives” and rural voters. It’s not necessarily God, guns and gays, although there is that, too. “The plain fact of the matter is, excepting recent transplants from the cities, most rural people see progressives as elitist, dismissive of their concerns, largely ignorant of both their problems and their contributions to the nation. And too often, living ‘in their head’ rather than getting their hands dirty.”
Flaccavento says if Democrats want to win again in rural America, they need to get their hands dirty. We’ll see now how many are willing to listen to him.