Commentary: Making Small Towns and Rural Areas Part of the Solution

Democrats have failed to show up in rural America with policies and candidates that appeal to voters. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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There is a lot of speculation right now about what is going on in rural America. The perspectives vary wildly from the Hunger Games to the Hallmark Channel – abject poverty and perfect prosperity.  As with many things – the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

I was born and raised in Longview, a small town in southwest Washington.  Growing up, my town thrived by supplying raw materials and manufactured products used all over the world.  We had strong middle-class families built on abundant natural resources, union jobs, good schools, and connected communities.  

Like so many kids from rural areas, I moved away for school and to build my career as an advocate. My parents stayed in Longview. Twelve years ago, I moved back to be with my folks as they aged.  Since then both of my parents have passed, but I continue to be deeply committed to my community. 

Teresa Purcell

The community I moved back to was different than the one I left.  It’s a harder place to live now. Most of the traditional resource industries and agriculture have been reduced or shut down.  We lag in access to basic infrastructure like broadband and cell service. The results are predictable – high unemployment, high suicide rates, opioid use, generational poverty, and a feeling of being left behind. 

Well-intentioned policies coming from the left often ignore or harm small towns and rural communities – not necessarily on purpose, but due a lack of knowledge and understanding.  Over the past few decades Republicans have done very focused work in rural areas, while Democrats have largely been absent.  

For many, the 2016 election brought to light a change that has been taking place in rural areas and small towns for decades – a shift from blue to red politically.  

Unfortunately, this has fostered the impression that people who live in rural areas are “rednecks” or whatever “othering” term one wants to use.  This isn’t actually the case. Research supports that people in rural communities actually share Democratic values (ruralorganizing.org) and according to the last census, people of color make up 75% of the new population growth in rural areas.  The challenge is that Democrats have not been showing up with either policies or candidates that connect to small towns and rural communities.   

In 2016, I ran for the State Legislature to bring a progressive voice from a rural community into the Democratic Caucus.  I lost the general election to a Republican by 559 votes.  All five counties in the district voted decisively for Trump. For three of them it was the first time they had voted for a Republican presidential candidate in over 36 years:  Pacific County (1928), Grays Harbor County (1932) and Cowlitz County (1980). I won two of the three and lost the third narrowly. That means that thousands of people voted for both a progressive Democrat and Donald Trump. I connected on issues of economic opportunity and infrastructure, access to health care, education, and making government work for all of us.   The Republican who won is solely focused on dismantling government and feeding the urban/rural divide. 

The politics of division and the absence of policies that help rural communities must be addressed. Not just for the sake of politics, but for the sake of people’s lives and livelihoods.     Our nation can no longer default to “no” when jobs and investments in small towns and rural communities are on the line. We must stop feeding the urban/rural divide.    

Across the nation people in rural America are coming together to revitalize their communities. There is a new generation working to create a brighter future for rural America. Together, we can increase investment in and support for environmentally sound economic opportunities in farming, ranching, forestry, and manufacturing practices that protect our land, air, water and help address climate change.   Innovation, technology, and collaboration are leading to new practices, products, and industries that could provide jobs in rural areas.     

Through policy change, organizing, and creating economic opportunity, we can accomplish the key goals of shared prosperity while tackling the major issues of our time – democracy, equity, and climate change.

People who are fostering division are winning right now. People and the planet are losing.  As a life-long environmental advocate and progressive living in a small town, I know we can the build bridges necessary to find common ground to solve problems.  We can and must do better. 

Teresa Purcell lives in Longview, a city of 37,000 in southwest Washington. She is the founder of the Working Democracy Center/Project.  She consults on rural organizing projects and helps recruit and train women and people of color political candidates around the state and nation.

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