Democrats Last Chance in Rural America

       Show up in rural areas.

Dodge City, Kansas. Hastings, Nebraska. Hays, Kansas. Hutchinson, Kansas.

JFK in Dodge City, Kansas. (photo courtesy of Stafford County Historical Society.)

JFK went everywhere. When he launched his campaign for President in 1960, some considered the Massachusetts Senator with the clipped Cape Code accent to be a tough sell in rural areas. So Kennedy went everywhere and asked for the support of local officials who had never been asked by a Presidential candidate for support: County Commissioners, small-town Mayors, farmers, and small businessmen. Norb Dreiling of Hays, Kansas. Papa Saia of Pittsburg, Kansas.  Jack Janssen of Lyons, Kansas.

JFK knew very little about farming in the Midwest, but he listened. When Kennedy was elected as a U.S. Senator in 1952, he passed over scads of Ivy Leaguers and chose as his top aide 24-year-old Lincoln, Nebraska native Ted Sorensen. Kennedy chose someone who knew things he did not.   In one speech to farmers, Sorensen helped Kennedy craft an unforgettable line: “The farmer is the only man who buys everything he buys at retail, sells everything he sells at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.” Sorensen was everything Kennedy was not: a rural, Bible-quoting Unitarian. Kennedy referred to Sorensen as his “intellectual blood bank.”

Once Kennedy got the Democratic nomination for President in 1960, he showed up in Kansas again, on October 22, 1960, two weeks before the general election. What was a Democratic nominee doing in Kansas with just two weeks left until the general election?  His own words at Lawrence Stadium in Wichita, Kansas speak for themselves:

“Governor and Mrs. Docking, my old friends, Frank Theis, who is going to be the next United States Senator for the State of Kansas (applause), Bill Robinson, who is going to speak for this district and the country in the United States Congress (applause) Congressman Harcott, Congressman Hugh George, Congressman Floyd Greiting, and Congressmen to be Davis, Maxwell, and Avery, ladies and gentlemen: I saw a list  Mr. Nixon’s headquarters put out of the states that they had for sure, the states that were doubtful and one or two states that maybe we had—(laughter)—and among the states that they had sure, that they did not have to worry about was Kansas. I don’t believe it. (applause.)

  If you can tell me how any farmer in the State of Kansas who has complained for eight years about Mr. Benson’s policies can vote for a candidate who is putting forward the very same policies–can you tell me how anyone who works in the plants here in Wichita or in business across Kansas, that works at a time when we are moving ahead at the slowest rate of economic grow since the last recession of 1958, can vote for Mr. Nixon and the Republican Party?”

The reference to Benson was a reference to Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture.

JFK got 44% in my home county of Barton County in Western Kansas. Last year Democratic nominee Biden got less than 20% in Barton County. In nearby Ness County,  Biden got 9.8% of the vote. And that, my friends, is a cancer on the Democratic party. Democrats are expected to lose rural areas. But getting single digits in rural areas means the end of the Democratic Party.

Republicans are envious that Democrats get 90% of African-American votes. Democrats certainly deserve it.  Democrats JFK and LBJ initiated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and have been loyal to black Americans since. But Republicans are pining for their 90% voting bonanza in rural areas. And that would put the Democratic Party out of business. Democrats are always going to lose rural areas. But losing rural areas 60/40 versus 90/10 makes a big difference.

To use a Catholic word, there is something sacramental about SHOWING UP.  Would a Democrat vying for the Presidential nomination TODAY  knock around in Hays, Kansas or Hastings, Nebraska in their fight for the nomination? Not for a second. Would any Democratic nominee for President today show their face in Kansas two weeks before the general election? Never.

People know you like them if you give them the gift of attention. People know you like them if you try to understand their problems and offer to help. Kansas knew that a Harvard grad with a funny accent actually liked them and wanted to help.  JFK sent a message that he respected their way of life.

Fight for workers and farmers. Blast the oligarchs.

The ideas that JFK pushed for transcend identity politics: they involve uplift for everyone, regardless of color, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Those changes included a strong program for workers and farmers.  Long before JFK, Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908 showed how economic populism energized the Democratic Party. He spent his career blasting the giant corporate behemoths, the robber barons that vexed everyday farmers and workers. Although the three-time Democratic nominee for President lost all three times, Republican Theodore Roosevelt later adopted and passed much of the legislation he had in mind. President Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech at Osawatomie, Kansas sums it up. Big Business must play fair and act in the public interest.

Even though labor unions have declined drastically, any Democrat today who is not talking about helping workers and farmers is wasting their time. Do you realize how many laborers and farmers there are compared to oligarchs?  Most of the elected officials in Washington are not there to help  everyday Americans. They are there to help themselves. And they stay in power by cozying up to the massive corporate behemoths that rule Washington, D.C.  Two political scientists at Princeton did a study in 2014 that concluded that America was a Democracy in form,  but controlled by oligarchs who fund the campaigns.

Those who work hard and play by the rules deserve fair taxation and a fair shake on wages. Farmers deserve a fair price for their products.  But everyone knows that corporations and oligarchs pay taxes at a lower rate than common laborers and farmers. I chuckled when I heard a woman in Wichita say: “It’s expensive to be poor.” But then when I listened to her, I realized she was right: everything costs more if you are poor: borrowing money, the sales tax on food (the billionaires have to eat, too, but food sales tax takes up .001 of their disposable income, but for poor folks, it takes up 6.5% of their disposable income), the cost of fixing things–like your health or your car–if you can’t afford routine maintenance,  you pay more when the bottom drops out. Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Those who have done well should expect to pay a higher marginal tax rate. But there is so much “corporate welfare” passed out in tax cuts, plus those who have done well are clever about avoiding taxation with offshore deals. Every day workers and farmers can’t hire fancy tax lawyers to look for loopholes.

I’m happy for those who have done well. I’ve probably purchased 500 books from Amazon since 1996. I’m glad Jeff Bezos is rich. Good for him. But asking those who have done well to pay their fair share and treat workers fairly is nothing new.

The ideas that  William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt and JFK pushed for transcend identity politics: they involve uplift for everyone, regardless of color, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Those changes included a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, a federal securities commission, anti-trust enforcement to break up unfair monopolies, help for farmers, and a raft of anti-corporate measures.

The problem then is the problem now: domination of politics by big business.  The oligarchs then—Vanderbilt, Ford, and Rockefeller— have been replaced by the oligarchs of today: Zuckerberg, Bezos, the Waltons. And gaining a monopoly is much easier today because the internet allows for centralization and creates “winner take all” industries.  Google, FACEBOOK, Wal-Mart, and Amazon rule our country.

They not only engage in unfair competition, some of them, such as FACEBOOK, are carrier pigeons for misinformation and lies that are decaying our democracy. The tech conglomerates eviscerate our privacy. In Europe, there are laws that prevent eavesdropping and invasions of privacy via electronic devices. Privacy is embedded in the Bill of Rights. But no Democrat is trying to clip the wings of big tech.

And what about outlandish interest rates charged on credit cards and Pay Day Loan vendors? When my Uncle Robert P. Keenan blasted proposed laws allowing usury as a State Representative from Great Bend, that was considered normal conduct for a Democrat.There needs to be a party that fights the excesses of big business. The problem isn’t that the Democratic Party went too far to the left: it went too far to the right on economic issues, and too far to the left on social issues. Watch what JFK had to say about U.S. Steel, and name one Democrat that would do that today.

Ditch the Clinton-Gore corporate money grab.

The Democratic Party I grew up in changed radically in the 1980s when the Democrats under Bill Clinton got the idea that they could become “New Democrats” and take tons of corporate cash. This destroyed the Democratic Party’s image as the party of workers and led to Trump’s victories in the Rust Belt. Democrats quit showing up in rural areas and at factories. They catered to their corporate paymasters.

Clinton, eager to defeat Bob Dole in 1996, signed a veritable wish list of Republican bills to help massive transnational corporations. Repealing Glass-Steagall turned banks into casinos and led to the 2008 crash.  The Crime Bill enlarged the prison-industrial complex, a favorite of Republicans.  Clinton and Gore ceaselessly advocated for “free trade”—NAFTA, CAFTA, “Most favored Nation Status for China.” They told us it would be great.

Clinton-Gore gave the corporations what Democrats had always denied them before: the chance to shut down factories in America and move them to China and Mexico to cut labor costs. Why didn’t anyone listen to Ross Perot? The Clinton-Gore corporate wing of the Democratic Party became dominant, and the Democratic National Committee even tilted the pinball machine against populist Democrats.  But the people don’t elect the President, the states do. And Al Gore and Hillary Clinton won more votes, but lost more states. The Presidential election is rigged in favor of small, rural states. Why was JFK in Wichita, Kansas two weeks before the election? Because he knew that.

Read Thomas Frank. Blast the Ag monopolies and oligopolies back to the Stone Age

Everybody reads Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas” (2004), but nobody does what he suggests.  In that book and subsequent writings, he tells Democrats how to fix the problem, but he knows they won’t. Farming has been decimated by giant corporations that wipe out competition and have monopolies or oligopolies that cripple farmers. There are very few small farmers left. Mechanization has been a big factor, but ruthless monopolistic practices have been worse.

Democrats, even Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer—from San Francisco and New York–their states have lots of farmers. They should challenge the corporations that have devoured the small and medium-sized farmer: Tyson Chicken, Archer Daniel Midlands, Cargill, etc.  But they won’t. They take money from these corporations.

Or maybe they look down on rural folks, hunters and fishermen, religious folks. If you do so, don’t expect them to vote for you. JFK’s idea of outdoor sports was winning the annual sailing regatta at Hyannis Port. But when Kennedy spent the night at LBJ’s ranch on November, 16, 1960, Johnson insisted that Kennedy go on his first deer hunt. JFK didn’t want to, but he was a good sport, and bagged two bucks: a 6 pointer and an 8 pointer.

Respect free speech. Ditch political correctness.

There is a reason “freedom of speech” is in the First Amendment. It was important to the Founders. It should be very difficult for any American to get in trouble for what they say. You can’t threaten people. You can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. You can’t slander people. Other than that, free speech should be applauded, even if what is said is repugnant to you.

The “political correctness” movement that emerged from universities was so rigid and nonsensical that common folks saw it for what it was: a backdoor way to prevent free speech. As Voltaire said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to your death your right to say it.”

Political correctness and the “Cancel Culture” is a loser, because it flies in the face of a primary constitutional right: free speech. There is nothing worse than a Democratic group demanding that someone resign because of something they said. There are exceptions if the person is a public employee and says something “beyond the pale.” But generally, don’t shame people for what they say. If somebody says “Indians” instead of “Native Americans,” let them. The important thing is that you say “Native Americans” or whatever you think is right.

Lots of people in rural areas speak in ways that are different than college professors at Harvard. When you tell them how to talk, you insult them.

Trump was elected President for two reasons: 1) the Democrats abandoned workers and farmers, and 2) Political Correctness was so stifling that people were relieved to hear a candidate say taboo things. Trump said some crazy ass shit. But that’s his right. And many people liked it.  The important thing is that you use language that you find appropriate, rather than trying to “catch” someone being politically incorrect.

Trump did the impossible: he stole the populist mantle of William Jennings Bryan by appealing to angry voters. But his authoritarian populism is not Democratic populism. Instead of basing his populism by blaming the real culprits: the robber barons and oligarchs and the politicians who cater to them, he scapegoated blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, women immigrants, etc. as the culprits.

Explain that Democrats in power reduce the number of abortions.

The issue of abortion has demolished Democrats in rural areas.  Right or wrong, there is a way to fix this. And that is to talk about it. The problem is that Democrats today are so rigid about abortion rights that they won’t say abortions are unfortunate and avoidable.

How can we reduce the number of abortions? Republicans say the answer is to outlaw abortion and throw women and girls in jail.  Democrats reduce the number of abortions every day by passing laws that give financial assistance, health care assistance, child care assistance, and tax credits to women and children. The Democratic party values women and children, while still believing that women are capable of making their own choices. But no Democratic candidates ever say this. That’s because they are afraid they will offend the pro-choice lobby by suggesting that abortions should be reduced.

Clamoring to make abortion illegal does not prevent a single abortion. It gives legislators a moral victory, but does not help even one woman bring a child to term. Democrats offer a practical way to make abortions unnecessary.  The two top reasons women chose abortion is fear that they will not be able to afford a child, or that they are not ready for a child. But any woman making the difficult decision on whether to terminate a pregnancy has one party in their corner: Democrats.

Democratic programs cut infant and maternal mortality. Quality health care for women is not cheap. However, the fetus needs many things to avoid pre-natal damage. The fetus needs good nutrition, a non-stressful maternal environment, and routine sonograms to help the pregnancy be successful.

The expansion of Medicaid would cut the number of abortions. But Republicans in red states have stopped Medicaid expansion for years.

Refusing Medicaid expansion sends a message to child-bearing age women that red states do not want to help you or your child. Voting against proposals to help women and children, such as child care naturally would cause a woman to wonder if that state legislature actually wants her to bring a child to term.

And what about after the baby after it exits the womb?  Democrats are the only party to help the newborn get good health care, child care, and tax credits to help the child. Infant mortality rates have been cut drastically by quality health care.

Minimum wage laws are unfair to working women. Pay for waitresses is even worse, with the customers often paying more in tips to a waitress than the owner of the restaurant pays the waitress per hour. Democrats want maternal-age women to make a fair wage so they can confidently know they will have money

Agree that we should reduce the number of abortions, but we disagree about the means.

After John Kerry narrowly lost the presidential election in 2004, he was speaking to an abortion-rights group, and he drew audible gasps when he said: “We need to convince people that we do not like abortions.”

In the last Presidential debate in 2016, Trump mentioned that Democrats believe that a woman has the right to have her baby torn out of her womb and killed, even one minute before birth. A complete lie. But what did Hillary say in response? Nothing.

If we can reduce the number of abortions through birth control, adoption, and helping women and children, that is a good thing. It is better than having a woman have to go through invasive surgery to terminate a pregnancy. Democrats used to routinely say: “I’m against abortion personally, but the decision should be up to the woman after consulting her doctor and her pastor.” No Democrats say that anymore.

And revoking the Hyde amendment to allow Medicaid to pay for abortions? Forget about doing better in rural areas.  Abortion is such a difficult issue that the idea of the government paying for abortions is a death move, politically.

Democrats should make clear that they want to reduce the number of abortions, but that abortion should remain “safe and legal and rare.” Democrats ditched the “rare” word about five years ago.

 Read the Sermon on the Mount.

Everybody loves Jesus of Nazareth. It’s Christians they can’t stand. And I’m one of them.

When Jesus said that in the Last Days there would be false messiahs, I always thought he meant individuals claiming to be the promised Messiah from the Old Testament. But I was wrong about that. I believe he meant beware of false, counterfeit versions of Himself: G.I. Jesus, Supply Side Jesus, Prosperity Jesus, Tax Cut Jesus, Rock Thrower Jesus.

Whether you believe he was God or not, Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most influential lives in history, maybe the most influential. His message was simple: universal love, helping the least of these;  non-violence, anti-materialism, living in the present moment, living off the land, living simply, community, don’t judge others; clean up your side of the street. Mind your own business. He hung around all the wrong people and his biggest criticism was for the self-righteous.If any politician is wearing their Christianity of their sleeve and their policies conflict with the clear teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, call them out on it.

Regarding non-violence, America certainly needs a “peace party:” Hillary Clinton and John Kerry both voted for the Iraq War Resolution. That’s why they lost. Barack Obama blasted the Iraq War as a “dumb war” as a State Senator. That’s why he won. There should be a party that fights dumb wars and challenges the Military-Industrial Complex and the National Security State.  Rural folks covet privacy as expressed by their “Don’t Tread on Me” mentality. But the National Security State guts privacy. JFK was the last President to challenge these forces.

Remind people that Democrats started Social Security and Medicare.

Rural areas would be vast wastelands but for Social Security and Medicare. Because rural areas have so many 65+ voters, Social Security and Medicare prevent a total collapse in most small towns. Remind people that FDR, a Democrat, founded Social Security, and that Republicans fought him every step of the way. Remind them that  Democrats JFK and LBJ passed Medicare, giving basic free health care to people over 65. And Republicans fought them every step of the way.  The oligarchs who fund most Republican candidates believe that Social Security and Medicare never should have been passed. They would abolish them if they could.

Don’t quit talking about January 6

Democrats stand for democracy. There is not one shred of courtroom admissible evidence that Trump won any state that he lost. Voter fraud is a fraud. January 6 was a failed coup’ de taut. 5 dead cops? Which party is for “law and order?”

Quit Complaining About the Rules

If you lose at any game: chess, checkers, baseball, politics, etc. and you complain that the rules of the game are unfair, it makes you look petty and weak. The national popular vote is irrelevant in presidential elections. The states elect the President, not the people. How much is it worth that Democrats won the national popular vote in 2000 and 2016? Nothing.

Over 11,770 amendments to the U.S. Constitution have been proposed. You know how many have passed? 27. The Electoral College is here to stay. Stop complaining about it.

The U.S. Constitution says each state gets two U.S. Senators, regardless of population. Face reality. That isn’t going to change. The odds of amending the Constitution on these two issues is basically zero, because the small states would kill it.

Everybody has a relative who tips over the chessboard because they are about to lose. I have more respect for those folks than I do for folks who lose and then complain: “Whoever invented Chess never should have given the Queen so much power! It’s unfair!”

Don’t waste one minute talking about how horrible the electoral college is or how horrible it is that the U.S. Senate is undemocratic.The Constitution is rigged in favor of small, rural states.  Since the electoral college gives each state two bonus electoral votes regardless of size, that means 100 electoral votes are out there to the side that wins the smallest states. So why do Democrats ignore the small states? The U.S. Senate is deliberately rigged in favor of small states, with two Senators per state. So why do Democrats write off so many Senate seats? Accept the rules.

                                            Conclusion

One thing I love about the Democratic Party is that it stands up for oppressed groups: African-Americans, gay folks, Latinos, women, immigrants, etc. But if that is the only thing you do, people think the party is just a collection of interest groups that Democrats hope add up to 51%. Democrats should keep helping oppressed groups. But they need to realize that minority groups are not only oppressed by their status, they are also victims of the economy rigged against them by oligarchs.

And it’s not just minority groups that are oppressed: unfair taxation, lousy wages, the death of the middle class, and demonization of the poor have led to more people than ever being disaffected in America. The Democratic Party was doing very little for workers and farmers. And along came a strongman and said: “I’m rich. And I can help you become rich, too. What do you have to lose?” A lot, it turns out.