Holding Center: Rural America’s issues cannot be forgotten in 2020 election

With the 2020 presidential elections in sight, many have reflected on the different communities that have voted in past elections, as well as the ideas that motivate them to do so.

Author and political scientist Katherine Cramer found that rural communities are pervaded with resentment, partly directed toward decision makers in Washington, D.C., with their conversations routinely failing to include small-town America. Their anger is also directed toward urban liberals — who have received their fair share of resources and attention — while neglecting and maligning rural conservatives. We have a responsibility as citizens to give oft-neglected communities our attention and understanding, rather than blame rural voters for their voting tendencies.

Rural resentment is not unfounded and is undoubtedly aggravated by the troubling state of small town economies. A decades-long decline in productivity, income and employment has weakened the livelihoods of many small counties. The coal plants that have propped up rural towns are closing in numbers, and many Americans have watched factories displace their jobs overseas. Opioid dependency has become a rural epidemic, and small town populations are aging as younger workers move to cities in search of work. Rural America is rusting, and there is little being done about it.

Though these generalizations do not apply to every rural community, they still point to a number of distressing trends evident in rural life. It should come as no surprise that feelings of economic and social injustice have been brewing in especially affected communities. These communities face budget cuts, hospital closures and infrastructure decline, while cities gather funding for another high-speed railway.

It is not surprising that rural voters turned out in mass numbers to support President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. His campaign was successful because he gave these communities the attention and assurance they felt deprived of. When Ford Motors released a plan to close down a Michigan factory and relocate it to Mexico, Trump said he would impose a 35% tariff on any cars the company imported. He promised to “Make America Great Again,” and it won him the rural vote.

Trump’s victory did not bring attention to neglected American towns so much as it brought blame. Resentment, after all, is not a one-way street. There is a distinct perception that the average Trump supporter is undereducated, authoritarian and even racist. This designation only widens political divisions and neglects valid reasons as to why rural voters cast their votes for Trump.

With the 2020 election on the horizon, it’s important to recognize the factors that shaped Trump’s victory. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign largely failed to  appeal to the rural vote, neglecting to set up a rural council as former President Barack Obama did in his campaigns. To a population that feels disregarded by mainstream politics, this did little to assure rural populations that their issues would be prioritized.

The aim of identifying Clinton’s missteps is not simply to secure a victory in the upcoming election by addressing rural resentment. The goal is to be more understanding of the these communities’ struggles and to offer them our attention. With the next election only a year away, we have to consider which issues will be at the center of our political discussions and the issues of rural America are surely worth including.  

Dillon Cranston is a freshman writing about politics. His column, “Holding Center,” runs every other Tuesday.