Rural areas have been underfunded, and there is an opportunity to fund progressive civic engagement that will transform our communities and the country.
A strong coalition of rural farmers and urban laborers built the progressive movement. But in recent decades, progressive leadership and funding infrastructure have withdrawn from non-metro areas. Only 7% of grant dollars go to rural communities, but 19% of U.S. residents are rural.
During this period of civic disinvestment, regressive interests poured money into massive organizing, policy, and communications machines to spread misinformation and ignite fears among rural electorates, promoting their own political agendas to deepen urban-rural divides. As a result, between 2008 and 2016, Democrats lost 11 points in rural areas. And rural communities have suffered from the ensuing regressive policies with loss of jobs, dwindling healthcare, and a fractured civic climate.
Despite the trends and media coverage, our rural communities are ready for progressive change. That is, if we support progressive rural organizers and organizations.
Many people don’t realize who actually lives in rural America. One in four rural residents are people of color. Public opinion research (created in partnership with RDI-grantee RuralOrganizing.org) shows that rural voters support progressive policy more than their candidate voting records indicate.
Some of this stems from a communication gap, where rural working people don’t see how progressive candidates have their backs. At the request of our partners in the field, RDI is helping to lead the Winning Jobs Narrative to create a compelling economic messaging blueprint to unite working people across race and place.
In recent years we have also seen the power of rural organizing. Grassroots movements, often led by rural women, people of color, and young voters fueled a historic progressive surge in rural areas. This rural organizing profoundly affected both the 2018 and 2020 elections — changing statewide outcomes in several states. Rural organizing has also led to countless policy successes, such as the groundbreaking police reform legislation passed in Indianapolis led by Faith in Indiana.
In future elections, rural margins will matter even more. Despite shrinking numbers, small town and rural voters maintain disproportionate power to shape national politics. By 2040, 30% of the nation’s population will be spread across 34 states, controlling 68 Senate seats — a supermajority. In the near term, rural voters will have a pivotal role in the 2022 and 2024 elections.
The challenges facing our country can only be met by a progressive movement that transcends the key divides holding us back — racial, economic, and geographic.