We could write a longer article on what the debating Democrats didn’t say about rural America than what was mentioned.
The five Democrats didn’t mention farms, coal, agriculture, small towns (or small anything, except business), roads (how can you have a group of Democrats who never mention roads?), religion, health and safety, fracking, beef, dairy, monopoly, land or religion. There was one reference to Native Americans, by former Rhode Island governor Linc Chafee.
What was mentioned? Guns.
Democratic presidential candidates have been wary of the gun question, and for good reason. In 2000, a late pro-gun rally in southern West Virginia featuring Charlton Heston tipped that state and the election away from Vice President Al Gore and to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
The gun question came up early in this debate, when host Anderson Cooper asked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders about one of the “most pressing issues facing our country right now….” Guns and gun control.
Cooper listed Sen. Sanders’ sins: He had voted against the Brady gun control bill, for a bill allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains and protection from lawsuits for gun manufacturers. So, Cooper asked, was Sanders sufficiently anti-gun to be the Democratic nominee.
This question eventually got into the difference in living in a rural area and a city. “As a senator from a rural state,” Sanders explained, “what I can tell Secretary (Hillary) Clinton, that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing.”
Later, after former Gov. Martin O’Malley bragged about passing gun control legislation in Maryland, Sanders came back to the rural difference:
“We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not.”
O’Malley disagreed. Here is the transcript:
O’MALLEY: Senator, it is not about rural — Senator, it was not about rural and urban.
SANDERS: It’s exactly about rural.
O’MALLEY: Have you ever been to the Eastern Shore? Have you ever been to Western Maryland? We were able to pass this and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas.
Sanders has a point. In Maryland, according to the Census, only 12.7 percent of the population lives in a rural area. In Vermont, 61 percent of the population is rural, the largest proportion of non-urban residents in the 50 states.
There was a bit more cross talk — you can see the whole transcript here — and they were off to the next topic.
That was it for rural in the first Democratic debate, except for one interesting comment by former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Cooper asked Webb about his earlier opposition to affirmative action laws. Here is what Webb said:
“The Democratic Party, and the reason I’ve decided to run as a Democrat, has been the party that gives people who otherwise have no voice in the corridors of power a voice. And that is not determined by race.
“And as a clarification, I have always supported affirmative action for African Americans. That’s the way the program was originally designed because of their unique history in this country, with slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed. What I have discussed a number of times is the idea that when we create diversity programs that include everyone, quote, “of color,” other than whites, struggling whites like the families in the Appalachian mountains, we’re not being true to the Democratic Party principle of elevating the level of consciousness among our people about the hardships that a lot of people who happen to be have — by culture, by the way.”
We think we know what Webb meant. We think he was saying that there are all kinds of inherited disadvantages and those disadvantages aren’t always defined by skin color. Webb says that people from Appalachia face discrimination, too, and that needs to be recognized.
At least, we think that’s what he’s saying. You be the judge.