By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
The 2020 election has been crazy with Trump’s never-ending rage-filled seditious shenanigans to illegally alter the outcome. Still beyond the nonsense, some crucial lessons can and must be gained by the recent election, including some essential opportunities to “build back better” in rural areas.
First, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ran on a platform of addressing the pandemic by calling for mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing, and other critical measures to stop the flood-tide of a run-away health crisis. Meanwhile, Trump promotes the virus with his many maskless rallies and White House events that continue to this day.
Biden has already announced his stellar healthcare team. The newly appointed Biden team understands the daunting task before them. Millions of Americans ignored Thanksgiving warnings and are now getting sick and overflowing hospital beds. Many more will probably ignore warnings about gatherings during the extended Christmas-New Year’s holiday period. The Biden team plans to launch a thoughtful implementation strategy for vaccine distribution and an educational campaign to encourage vaccinations and foster mask-wearing for 100 days. Biden will assist the state and local governments with needed resources and support hospitals and exhausted healthcare workers in any way possible.
Second, coupled with fighting the pandemic, President-elect Biden also made it clear that he would make a massive investment in the energy and transportation infrastructure to address the climate crisis. The climate crisis is upon us, destroying western forests and communities, flooding Gulf coast communities, and threatening farm communities with extreme weather events. It is hard to overstate the urgency of addressing the climate system by working with the world’s nations and establishing strong policies and investments at scale.
Third, while Biden and Harris won, Republicans retained control of the U. S. Senate despite a terrific effort by several democratic opponents. The outcome of the two senatorial elections in Georgia will define the possible during the next two years.
Republicans gained ten seats in the U. S. House and added seats in many state legislatures, capturing two more legislative bodies. Republicans had majorities in 59 chambers, and Democrats had majorities in 39 chambers before the 2020 elections. Republicans added two more, having gained majorities in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and State Senate. The Democratic Party has retained narrow control of the U.S. House with 222 votes. The Republican Party now holds 211 seats.
College-educated voters are deeply concerned with COVID, climate change, and racism and were a critical voting block for Biden, especially in the suburbs. While Biden has long been a labor union champion, he did not do well with the working-class or rural voters. These losses should warn the Democratic Party to give much more attention to the working class. Workers are experiencing declining wages, and lost benefits. They have justifiable fears of machine learning that may automate the industries where they work. AI is emerging as a fast-growing force that will eliminate jobs in every sector, including the entire transportation sector. Biden understands the working class needs help. He promises to create 18 million new good-paying jobs while rebuilding the energy and transportation infrastructure. In addition to advancing a clean energy revolution, Democrats must seek to understand how the future of work will change and focus on training workers to be prepared for the transition during a rapidly changing paradigm.
Fourth, Democrats must help rural America. The GOP has been winning about two-thirds of the rural votes in America’s heartland while doing very little to deserve that support. In Wisconsin, Bill Hogseth, Chair of the Dunn County Democratic Party, observed in an opinion piece in Politico, “Any election results map you look at offers a bleak visualization of the political divide between rural and urban voters: a sea of red dotted with islands of blue.”
President Biden has started right by promising to be the President of all Americans, whether from blue states or red states. In addition to helping working-class Americans, President Biden and the Democrats must address rural America’s critical needs if they ever hope to reclaim the Senate from do-nothing Republicans.
While Democrats should never expect to win the guy who drives around in a pickup with oversized wheels flying a Trump flag or the farmer who painted his barn with a huge Trump 2020 message, however, Democrats have largely neglected the Red State rural voters yielding far too many states to Republicans. Democrats now have an opportunity to meaningfully impact rural voters with several thoughtful actions to build back better in rural communities, including the following:
- The digital divide is stifling rural economic growth. As a part of the infrastructure investments, 5G and high-speed internet must be made available to rural America. Because it is not profitable for the mega-corporations to extend service there, perhaps it can be accomplished much like the rural electric was as part of the New Deal. Farmers need high-speed internet to buy seeds and negotiate crop sales from their homes. Other rural residents starting new businesses find it nearly impossible to function without high-speed internet. People who have learned how to work from home during the pandemic may want to pursue a more rural lifestyle with less expensive living but find the digital divide as a stopper.
- •Farm Aid warns, “A handful of corporations control our food from farm to fork. Their unbridled power grants them increasing political influence over the rules that govern our food system and allows them to manipulate the marketplace – pushing down the prices paid to family farmers and driving them out of business.” As Hogseth pointed out in his piece, the average farmers’ share from retail food sales has fallen from about 50 percent in 1952 to about 15 percent today. Family farmers are being squeezed as profits have moved from farmers and local businesses to an international oligopolistic agribusiness that has grown unchecked. The hollowing out of rural communities is a real thing as far too many local businesses have shuttered. The Farm Bureau has been too entwined with agribusiness interests who fund them to stand up for farmers. Republican Senators and House members have done nothing to prevent recent damaging mergers. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to challenge several sweeping mergers in the food industry under anti-trust laws. Monopolies are now vertically integrated as they control patented seeds, chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizer. Instead of selling farmers inputs at a reasonable price and giving them a fair shot at an open market, farmers must sell their grain, milk, and meat with chronically low commodity prices in constrained markets controlled by oligopolies. Often they must deal with the same agricultural monopolies that sell them the high-priced seeds. The Biden administration should investigate the concentration of power, antitrust violations, and the lack of competition in agriculture and explore every legal avenue possible to tackle corporate abuses and re-engage the farm community to push for meaningful reforms. The anti-trust laws must be dusted off and used to protect farmers.
- The health care system in the middle of the pandemic is on the verge of collapse in many places. Health care in rural America is a complete disaster. It has not been profitable for hospitals to operate in low-population areas. Nearly 180 rural hospitals such as the Elwood City Hospital have closed across the country in the past ten years. Many rural hospitals struggle to survive as elective surgeries, testing, and other routine visits are being postponed. Health care is failing rural people as essential institutions are closing. As a part of the promised improvements to “Obama Care,” Democrats should find ways to revise and fund this needed public health service for rural residents.
- Farmers can participate in the green revolution by receiving compensation for farm practices that increase carbon storage in soils. Farmers can store carbon as organic matter in their soils and be compensated for deploying sound practices that reduce atmospheric carbon. “Building Back Better,” can and should fund farmers to help them solarize their farm operations lowering their energy cost of operation.
In recent years, Republicans have ignored their farmer’s and rural communities’ real needs. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans held up relief funding to protect the corporate packing house owners from liability for their failure to protect workers from COVID. Republicans have not hesitated to take money from the four massive agribusinesses that control eighty percent of the corn and beef industry. Yet, with a straight face, Republicans claim to represent farmers. Democrats should hold them accountable for their failures and demonstrate that democrats care for family farmers and rural communities. This is an excellent time for Democrats to start expanding the legislative map for 2022 as part of efforts to build back rural America better.