Where could Democrats win if they just started trying? Where should Democrats fight harder for rural communities, regardless of how their residents vote? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Jane Kleeb. This present conversation focuses on Kleeb’s book Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America. Kleeb is an experienced organizer, political strategist, and nonprofit entrepreneur. Profiled in the PBS film Blue Wind on a Red Prairie, Kleeb is currently the Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, and founder of the grassroots group Bold Nebraska.
ANDY FITCH: Could we start with your introduction’s claim that “Without rural voters, our party and our country will never reach full potential”? At a time when progressives feel compelled to correct for their own unexamined biases, what broadest moral case might you make for why we all should measure our commitment to democratic equality in part through our proactive efforts not to forget, not to marginalize, not to stereotype and dismiss those voters, families, and communities that our particular side tends to neglect — and why, for many Democratic Party members and fellow travelers, that means rethinking their relationship to Americans living in rural places?
JANE KLEEB: One fundamental value we as Democrats hold in our hearts and in our guts tells us that we don’t leave people behind. We don’t forget working-class folks. We don’t forget the people struggling and the people hurting. And yet, the Democratic Party has done all of that to rural voters since the 1980s. We have left rural Americans behind. We have stereotyped them. We have written them out of the policies that we most fiercely fight for.
Think of Democratic work around climate change and developing the Green New Deal. Democrats didn’t bring a single rural legislator into the room — even though rural communities will face devastating climate change, even though rural communities already are confronting climate change today, with solutions everybody could benefit from. And as a party, I do think we need to get back to our roots, which means fighting for the little guy, especially by standing up to big corporations. Today, we have rural communities just getting swallowed up by either Big Ag or big fossil-fuel companies, just getting written right off the map.
Your book also makes the basic point that today’s Democratic Party does not need to choose between representing either the interests of a young, urban, diverse Coastal America, or an older, largely white, rural Middle America. So could you first sketch how addressing acute strains on rural voters means directly engaging concerns in indigenous communities, in LatinX communities, in African American communities in the South, in immigrant communities? And could you then outline how strong advocacy for core Democratic Party principles often can mean supporting both an older socially conservative married couple in Nebraska, and a queer feminist gig-economy worker in New York or the Bay Area?
Again, let’s take the Democratic Party’s operatives and consultants. I love them all. But I’ll watch them find some shiny new object and grab onto that, until the next new shiny object comes into view. Young voters might become that shiny new object. Or for a while soccer moms had that shine. But in each case, and for every single election across the US, you actually face a diverse set of voters. We can and should be reaching out to the widest possible range of voters, and we don’t even have to change our message. We really just have to talk to these communities. Every single state has rural communities.
And when we talk about rural communities, we do need to remember that Native Americans, African Americans, white voters, Latino voters all live together in our small towns. When we silo up those groups, and target our message to only reach some of them, we first of all miss out on this really beautiful diversity already happening in our small towns. Especially in agricultural states, Latino residents have reinvigorated so many towns by opening new small businesses, and by working in our fields and our processing plants, and re-enlivening our schools and many social organizations.
As a party, Democrats need to recognize the fact that we have stereotyped both our urban and our rural communities. We need to reacquaint ourselves with America’s real racial and geographical diversity. I travel a lot as the state Democratic Party chair, and through my work with Bold Nebraska. I talk to so many people facing these daunting fossil-fuel projects. And the words I’ll hear from a black grandmother in a North Omaha diner won’t sound so different from what a distressed young white woman in the Nebraska Sandhills tells me. Both want high-quality public schools for their families. Both don’t see that right now. Both want mental-healthcare access for the people they love. Both can’t get it right now. Both desperately want their communities to maintain hospitals staffed with quality doctors, so that their daughters (or they themselves) do not literally face mortal danger when they deliver a baby.
So here I see Democrats’ fundamental responsibility to start making these connections between rural and urban communities, and not stereotyping any voters. But instead, right now I hear way too many Democrats blaming certain voters for our party’s own problems. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a room of operatives saying: “You know what, Jane? We just don’t care about rural voters, because they can’t help voting against their own best interests. We need to focus on black voters, because they vote with us 90 percent of the time.” That way of thinking seems to me to lead straight down a path where Donald Trump wins another election.
To stick with stereotypes for a minute, reading your book clarified for me how, for many progressives, our whole conception of rural American life really comes from our own urban projections, from a media fiction. So could you introduce us to the quality-of-life improvements (and, of course, the graceful continuities) that you see characterizing a place like Hastings? Could you begin to sketch how guilty white urban liberals might move beyond seeing solely a history of racialized oppression, capitalist exploitation, environmental degradation in the rural American heartland (though that is of course there too — as in every community), and instead might discover both legacies of and possibilities for a progressive American past and present?
We almost can’t help stereotyping and closing off our minds to communities that we don’t know or don’t understand. That just makes our life simpler. That makes it easier to focus on the communities we do know, and already feel comfortable with. But in the book, I discuss Frank LaMere, the longest-serving Native American member on the DNC (who has since passed away). Frank always told us that change only comes when somebody gets uncomfortable. And I think that the Democratic Party has to go through that kind of change right now. We need to get uncomfortable. We need to start showing up consistently in communities we’ve never even set foot in.
We’ve maybe seen hillbillies on a TV screen, and that’s how we picture rural folks. But in Hastings, Nebraska, 25 percent of our school kids come from Latino families. White working-class and middle-class kids play on soccer teams and take dance lessons with kids from working-class and middle-class Latino families. They all go to church together, and eat meals together. And then the further west you travel, in the Southwest especially, you meet white rural folks working side-by-side with Native American farmers and ranchers. You meet many black farmers in the South, and Native American farmers in the Southwest, and Latino farmers everywhere.
And when I mention farmers, I don’t mean Big Ag corporations. I mean family farmers and ranchers, and some of our best environmentalists. I think of them as even more environmentalist than Bill McKibben and all these other environmentalists I love, because they know they just have to protect this soil and this water — to pass this land down to the next generation in their family.
Similarly, our small towns’ Main Streets went through a phase with boarded-up storefronts and historic brick buildings crumbling. Now you can see all of that being rebuilt. Loft apartments have come to our little town. Some stores sell cowboy boots, then next door you’ll find a craft brewery.
So again in terms of how rural Americans’ struggles crystallize so many central democratic concerns, I think of a preceding century’s automation-driven job displacements in the agricultural sector helping to get the Great Depression going. I think of late-20th-century family farmers’ struggles to stay afloat (amid mounting debt, diminishing profit margins, and industrial-scale competitors) as foreshadowing society-wide financial predation in the decades that followed. I think of your contemporary account of corporate intrusion into rural America, of monopolistic Big Ag contracts giving individual farmers no chance to compete in a fair marketplace, as demanding the types of robust antitrust interventions that we also need for dominant Silicon Valley firms. So here the question becomes: how to reinvent a populist politics not focused on right/left or rural/urban cultural divides, but on concentrated corporate power’s threat to vulnerable American individuals, families, communities, ecosystems?
Well for a lot of voters, whether in rural or urban communities, we hate Big anything, right? We hate big corporations, and that includes Big Ag. And here I see this pretty straightforward way to connect the dots at the national and state and local level, for Democratic values and candidates and party operations. Family farmers and ranchers hate the Monsantos and the Purdues just as much as any urban Whole Foods shopper does. So Democrats should be helping family farmers and ranchers to break up these Corporate Ag monopolies.
That also means going after companies like Costco, sometimes held up as a hero in urban communities, for getting your family that five-dollar rotisserie chicken they love so much — but also exploiting family farmers in small communities, forced to enter these contracts restricting them to growing and processing their chickens for Costco, and forbidding them from selling to anybody else. Costco locks in a price. But Costco also might lower that price whenever they want, or can essentially leave these farmers holding the bag. A family might have just built all these barns to grow the chickens. And Costco then will say: “Well, we could just move to the town next door. So, sorry, you’ll be out of luck, with no contract, and with two million dollars in debt from those chicken barns we just forced you to build.” I think any Democrat should consider that fundamentally wrong.
And when I see this room for urban progressives and rural populists to unite, I’m not just wearing rose-colored glasses. I do recognize major cultural differences between urban and rural voters. I do call on rural voters to build their own bridges as well, because stereotypes of course run both ways. Many rural voters think that if they drive into an urban community, they’ll get shot or asked to buy drugs. So we all have to push past our stereotypes and figure out how to link arms and work on issues together, like we did on Keystone XL.
So how can the Democratic Party make itself much more effective by harnessing the poignant concerns (as well as the intellectual and organizational capacities) of rural citizens? How should national leaders and donors understand their own role in helping to revitalize the Democratic Party in rural places? And why should progressive forces prioritize rebuilding state Democratic parties?
Good question. First, Democrats do have to show up and start investing in red-state parties, so that these parties themselves have the resources to reach out to communities, even when a candidate can’t always be on the ground. We have to invest in the actual infrastructure of how a party operates and turns out voters.
Second, at the national level, whenever we have a Democrat on camera, we have to push back against Republicans. Republicans right now can just claim the ground that they love farmers and love rural communities — even as their policies literally kill off our rural communities. Suicide rates have skyrocketed for family farmers, alongside bankruptcies. But we haven’t made that case effectively at the national level. So we do need to show up at the local level, but we also have to point to where Republicans aren’t showing up either. And we have to recognize this wide-open space today for Democrats to do right.
For a couple of concrete case studies, could you first contrast what went wrong in the national rollout of Obama-era cap-and-trade initiatives, compared to what went right (again at local, regional, and national levels) in the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline? Where have progressives most failed and best succeeded at recognizing, appreciating, and supporting rural communities’ place on the front lines of so many pressing climate-change concerns?
Back in 2008, following the conventional playbook for environmental and climate groups meant you walked the halls of Congress and lobbied members in order to get these bills through, especially while Democrats controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. Both in progressive climate groups and in Democratic circles, everybody assumed that, once Obama got elected, a big cap-and-trade bill would pass and we could check the box on solving climate change. That all went down in flames for a couple reasons. First, both the environmental groups and the Democrats failed to involve the people on the front lines — already feeling these climate impacts, and facing the worst potential hits to their livelihood. Democrats didn’t bring Native Americans to give Congressional testimony. They certainly didn’t include farmers and ranchers in any scalable effort. They didn’t show the faces of anxious moms whose kids have asthma from living near coal plants. And they absolutely did not bring this campaign to the state and local level.
Of course, in 2008, barely 50 percent of Democrats actually named climate change as a critical issue. We hadn’t even convinced our own party yet of the necessity to solve this issue as quickly as possible. So Democratic politicians didn’t face much pressure from the party, and didn’t listen to the voices from their states and local communities.
Contrast that with how we approached Keystone XL. The environmental community (not everybody, but some of the smartest strategists in the room) got together, and said: “Okay, we’ve literally reached our lowest point when it comes to climate change. We have nobody in politics really on our side. We heard some lip-service several years ago, but no action has taken place. What have we done so wrong?” I myself was not in that room. But thankfully some smart people did say: “We have to go where the fight is. We need to involve these people directly impacted by the pipelines, the fracking, the coal plants.”
And you know, I also have to give credit to Michael Bloomberg. He certainly engaged those front-line communities by working with the Sierra Club to close down coal plants, and then on the pipeline front. Bill McKibben, and the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the League of Conservation Voters all did just that. They started seeking out people in Montana and Texas and South Dakota and Nebraska, people on the front lines of this fight, and asked them to sit at the table. That just does not happen normally. Normally, the Democratic Party sends in (from out of state) a bunch of high-paid consultants to lobby legislators, rather than engaging people at the grassroots level. Finally with Keystone they figured out a better plan.
Could you likewise sketch both overlooked social-justice concerns and missed political opportunities in how Obama-era healthcare debates played out in rural communities? And could you describe what you see as the most important lessons to learn from the successful Medicaid-expanding referenda in multiple rural states in 2018?
Just this week I talked to a farmer thinking about running for office here in Nebraska. He described being on Obamacare, and how he has a preexisting condition because he had to donate a kidney to one of his children who has lots of health problems. He knows a bunch of farmers who for one reason or another have entered the “preexisting condition” category, but many just have too much pride to participate in the Obamacare system and actually get the healthcare they need. And we have so many families right now who, even if they can sign up for healthcare, still have to pay 30 or 40 percent of their monthly income.
So I know that the phrase “Medicare for all” sometimes gets demonized by centrists and moderates in our national party, but I can tell you that, at the local level, people don’t give a damn what you call it. They don’t care if they get “Medicare for all” or Medicaid. They just want access to healthcare and health insurance, so that they can raise their families and go to work every single day. So I do think we have a responsibility to start pushing very, very ambitious programs to make sure we cover everybody. And here again, in a lot of rural areas, we don’t have the money we need as a state party or as candidates to get this message out.
The national party just writes off our communities, even with a lot of potential for us to win elections. For me, when I see Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska voters all opt to expand Medicaid coverage, when I see some of us pass minimum-wage increases, I really appreciate how national groups have supported these ballot campaigns, by putting a ton of money into political strategy and get-out-the-vote operations. Too often that doesn’t happen when we have good candidates. But we know we can win in these red states, and especially the Plains states — which consistently had Democrats in statewide offices until the national party walked away from us and started focusing on this kind of swing-state strategy. We’ll all continue to lose if we keep playing on that map.
Amid your calls for Democrats to show up and learn what rural voters’ interests really are, I appreciate your own autobiographical accounts of what showing up feels like — particularly in those first couple minutes when inevitably one gets tested (with, of course, any number of racialized, gendered, age-based, class-based dynamics potentially in play), and when a self-deprecating joke or some first magnanimous gesture can actually get you quite far towards building a sense of trust. Could you describe one or two moments from your own political work when it seemed best to just authentically (but not antagonistically) disagree, even perhaps on some of the sharpest wedge issues of the day, and then move on together to more important shared goals?
I have so many stories I could tell. I’ll just tell one here. I’ve been organizing in rural Nebraska for 15 years. A lot of folks know me by now, but obviously not everybody does. I still have to go into communities and show my authentic self, and I often use humor in order to do that. You can’t just show up with some whitepaper and expect to win hearts and minds.
So I was working with farmers and ranchers trying to fight the development of a big Costco plant in their small town. We had supper together, and talked about who should speak first at this local zoning-board meeting. One of the guys I’d just met told me I could follow his pickup on the way to town. So I get in my minivan and follow him. Of course I look at his bumper stickers — because I have bumper stickers on my own car, right? I self-identify just like he does. One of his bumper stickers has this Tea Party “Live free or die”-type motto. Another says: “If you think guns kill people, then pencils misspell words.” So I step out of my minivan, and sure enough, he walks over and asks first thing: “So what did you think of my bumper stickers?” And I just laugh. I just put my arm around him and say: “Look, we’ll probably disagree about gun reform, but I’m standing here protecting your property rights and your water. I don’t see any Republican leader standing here. So let’s get in there and win this fight.”
Somebody asked him later to recount this experience of being a conservative Republican working with a progressive Democrat. He said he could trust me because I didn’t hide where we had disagreements, and I made it clear where we had common ground. Because look, we won’t always agree on gun policies or abortion or even immigration in some of our small rural communities — just as we won’t with some urban voters. But we have to be honest about it.
We can’t compromise our values, right? I’d never go into a small town with a lot of pro-life voters and tell them I support making abortion illegal. That’s not authentic. That’s not what I believe. That’s not what the Democratic Party believes. But we can build common ground around providing access to birth control in order to reduce abortions, or making sure women get the prenatal care they need so we have healthy babies and healthy moms. We have to walk in knowing these cultural and political differences won’t just go away. We have to stand with Roe supporters. And then when pro-lifers face flooding, or some new pipeline, or their rural hospital closing, we have to fight just as hard for them. That’s how we earn the respect of rural voters.
For one particularly tricky point of focus for urban progressives, could you describe the importance of Democrats learning how to speak meaningfully of “the land,” of the land that is “everything,” again to quite a diverse range of Americans? How can a sincere appeal to the land speak more broadly to many rural residents’ fierce sense of independence, fierce sense of social solidarity, and fierce sense of responsible ecological stewardship — all at once?
The land truly is everything for rural communities, whether white farmers, or Native American ranchers, or Latino families who have chosen to build on a vast plot, and to seek out a low cost of living and safety and clean air for their kids. For many people, their ancestors walked on this land, have been buried in this land. Again for black and white and Native American and Latino farmers, long family lines might have had their livelihood tied to this land. So rural people get upset when they hear urban progressives just kind of flippantly blame them and their meat production and their farming for climate change — when in fact everything they do raising cattle and raising crops (whether for food, fuel, or fiber) involves protecting the land, so that they can pass it down to their kids.
When you step onto the soil of a Nebraska family farmer or a Native American rancher, you can feel the connection and love they have for this land. One of the most important ways, say, for urban elected officials to build relationships with rural voters comes from going out and visiting with families. Families want to tell their story. They don’t want you thinking of them as zoo animals. We’re not asking officials to get on a bus from the city and point to some farm or barn and take a selfie and then leave. No. We want you to come, share a meal with us, let us talk to you about why we choose to live in a rural community, what struggles we face, but also what we find so beautiful about our rural town. And if you want to build a relationship with these voters, you first have to understand how everything in that rural town ties back to the land.
Questions of the land also point us to perhaps the most glaring example of both parties abetting predatorial corporate intrusion into rural America — as manifest in eminent-domain claims that bring along with them a host of coercive, bullying, fraudulent tactics. For readers who don’t find the abstract phrase “eminent domain” all that galvanizing, could you make this much more concrete, in terms of what you see play out in so many people’s lives right now — again both in rural communities and in urban communities of color?
First, that’s absolutely right. For bridging urban communities of color and rural communities, I consider this a key issue. Today we have big corporations targeting mostly older and vulnerable communities, knocking on people’s doors, and telling them: “We’re taking your land. We’re taking your house for this private project we’re building. You don’t have any power to fight us.” These corporations literally knock on people’s door and tell them that. These corporations know our political leaders won’t listen much to rural people and communities of color. These corporations know that rural and impoverished urban communities don’t have the resources to fight them in court.
For urban residents, this means a big condominium, or casino, or sports arena just gets built as if you and your home and your life never existed. For rural residents, this often means a big pipeline or other fossil-fuel or Big Ag project. I mean, how could we move further away from the American Dream than having some big rich corporation knock on your door and take away your home and your land like that? The entire Democratic Party should rally against this — in our national convention platform as well as in our federal and state laws.
Eminent-domain concerns again show Republicans’ own political vulnerabilities in rural communities right now, with Donald Trump of course one of eminent domain’s loudest advocates. So just in terms of pure political pragmatism, could we pause on what happened to the Democratic Party’s seemingly successful 50-state strategy from 15 years back?
Sure, but you might need to cut me off if I get started on this topic.
Go for it.
So in 2005, we needed to elect a new Democratic Party chair, right at this low point for us. We didn’t have the White House. We couldn’t stop losing elections. And this fierce fight broke out for Democratic National Committee control, with Howard Dean considered the insurgent candidate. The establishment definitely did not want Dean. But the state-party chairs, organized by their chairman from New Hampshire, Ray Buckley, got together with Howard Dean and said: “Within the DNC, we control the most votes. So we’ll give you our voting bloc on the condition that you fund a 50-state strategy — with resources and support coming every month, to every single state party (no matter whether blue, or purple, or red states), with significant resources to hire staff and keep the offices open, and focus on raising money for get-out-the-vote programs and party-building operations.” Howard Dean agreed, and that’s the only reason Dean won that race.
For the next several years, state parties got 25 thousand dollars a month, significant resources at that level. They could hire staff, and keep the doors open. We started to win elections left and right. So then outside donors, quite frankly, started to see the DNC having success and concentrating a lot of power. So these donors decided to create this outside infrastructure called the Democracy Alliance, creating new progressive groups that could essentially shadow the infrastructure the Democratic Party was building.
Around this time Barack Obama started his rise to political prominence. Then when Obama ran for president, you could argue that he had to run against the Democratic Party establishment. So President Obama had no love for the DNC and for much Democratic Party infrastructure. When Obama became president he chose (rather than holding an election) the new DNC chair. The monthly 25 thousand dollars dropped to 25 hundred. And of course we lost 12 hundred seats at the state and local level during the Obama presidency.
State parties, the backbone of all campaigns, lacked the resources to keep their doors open and to compete in elections. Big donors who could have funded state parties chose instead to chase that new shiny object. And again, I love a lot of these shiny new objects. I don’t want to take an ounce of appreciation away from Democracy Alliance efforts and successes. But that often has come at the expense of state-party infrastructure, and we’ve seen the consequences.
By extension, with your experience leading Bold Nebraska in mind, how do rural progressives themselves push against defeatist and/or complacent Democratic politics at the local, state, and federal level? And what do such on-the-ground leaders have to teach progressives nationwide about how to make an impassioned political pitch while working with (rather than against) a “don’t rock the boat” sensibility so common among rural voters?
You know, in order to create strong progressive coalitions between rural and urban voters, in order to start winning elections again and creating good policies, we have to go where the fights are, in real communities. We have to show up, and stand with these communities, and make sure they get the resources they need. These communities see their schools closing. They see these immigration raids. In O’Neill, Nebraska, a tomato plant got raided — but the public school only could stay open because of all the children from immigrant families, filling the seats. Same with the church. Same with the hospital in that town. Then when the tomato plant got raided, you saw a lot of urban lawyers get in their cars and drive up to O’Neill, because they knew these families wouldn’t have the legal support they needed. Folks from urban communities showed up to make sure kids actually had a place to stay, and the superintendent opened the school for these children to sleep.
Again that shows how small rural towns can create a sustainable supportive infrastructure for our immigrant families, and how urban folks can take part in that support system. That whole experience will stay with this community forever. You saw teachers talking to the newspaper about how demonizing our immigrant families and children will essentially mean the school shuts down and the town will die.
Often in small towns, especially when I first moved to Nebraska, people would come up and sort of whisper in my ear that they vote Democrat. But now I’ve started to see a real shift in our small towns, with people proud to call themselves Democrats, to call themselves progressives. They actually don’t care much about which label. They just want to live by these values. They want to protect our land and keep our schools open. They want to help a young person who hopes to get into agriculture, or who hopes to take over the family farm or ranch, but who finds it economically impossible right now to compete against big corporations. I can’t think of many causes more progressive than that.
So finally, for one speculative long-term vision, what could it look like for left-leaning Americans to stop complaining about disproportionate US Senate representation, and instead to pursue the apparently cost-effective objective of winning more rural Senate seats: as a test-case perhaps of whether Democrats really are the party that succeeds by representing the interests of everyday Americans — or should stick to a focus on mega-fundraising in an elite group of urban enclaves already quite friendly to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi?
I’d say we should recognize a couple of basic structural facts. First, in order to change the Electoral College or US Senate allocation, you need around 65 senators on your side. That’s just not going to happen. But what could happen might start with actually investing in some red states which already have proven that they can get progressive bills passed. Again, I think of minimum-wage increases and Medicaid expansion, in plenty of states like Nebraska, Kansas — the list is long. And it would cost us much less to fight for Senate seats in some of these “small” “red” states than to win in some huge media market.
By 2040, the vast majority of our population will have concentrated in 15 to 17 states. As a result, just 50 percent of the population will elect 84 US senators. Urban progressives might call this unfair, but that won’t change the political structure. So it does sound like a much smarter strategy to go to rural states and ask: “Okay, where are the best candidates? Who can we train? What on-the-ground resources do Democrats need to start winning elections again?”
We’ll also need to recognize that the John Testers of the world (the Tractor Caucus of one, literally the one working family farmer right now in the US Senate) bring much more to the table than most Washington-based officials realize. If Senator Tester had been in the room when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outlined the Green New Deal, that Green New Deal would look much different — much stronger, not weaker. We have to drop this mindset that when we bring in red-state Democrats, we make our party and our policies weaker. I hear that all the time. No. In fact, rural voices make our policy stronger, just as urban voices do. That combination of urban and rural perspectives can make our healthcare bills much more effective in Americans’ lives, and also politically unstoppable. That combination can make climate-change bills both better and unbeatable. That’s the winning strategy across the whole US — not writing off half the country from the start, and then scrambling to get to 51 percent.
Photo of Jane Kleeb by Mary Anne Andrei.