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Bright Blue Cities in Dark Red States: How Progressives Build Power Amidst The Rural-Urban Divide

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There was a lot of discussion before the election about women vs men and BIPOC vs white voters, and even those of Puerto Rican descent vs the Cuban American community in South Florida and those groups’ priorities connected & clashed. Yet as one watched the returns, it was hard not to be struck by the fact that even in very red states, cities and suburbs almost universally were light red or dark blue. This provides both a challenge and an opportunity for progressives looking to build positive power to change lives in America.

First the opportunity – Georgia, Michigan, WI and Arizona show that focused attention on bringing out the vote especially among people of color is a real route to flipping an otherwise red state blue. We have to build upon the success in GA. NC is close but… so might be Mississippi if we actually tried! Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy… worked and we should double down.

Now the challenge: it seems clear that something is happening in rural and ex-urban America that is very different than the reality that urbanites face. Some might say – yeah the high penetration of opioids and meth in rural communities are the kind of thing that might make a person more open to QAnon and voting against your own self-interests. I don’t mean that to be flip – Trump clearly tapped into a vein in 2016 when he spoke rather forcefully about the opioid crisis impacting desperate families across America, especially in rural areas, in a way that no other candidate ever had before. 

So many digital organizers know little to nothing about life in the country – myself included. I grew up in the suburbs, went to school in cities and live in a suburb now. My trips to rural America have not gone much farther than wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma, pumpkin & apple picking or corporate retreats held in quiet yet luxurious locations. That sounds bad, I know – but it’s true for me and it might be true for you reading this or a lot of people you know and work alongside. 

That doesn’t mean we don’t care and aren’t compassionate about the challenges rural communities cope with! It doesn’t mean that the common sense reforms many of have been working on such as climate change, education, healthcare and corporate welfare aren’t important for people in every corner of the U.S. Yet the deep cultural divide has metastasized into a near political armageddon in which the frailties of our electoral ethics and legal framework from the Constitution down have been tested at their very limits. 

It’s true that in cities and suburbs, you are forced to navigate a less homogenous environment among people with different backgrounds and educational levels. You are exposed to high quality local and national news. You are likely more affluent. All of this impacts how you see the world when you have to deal with people who see the world differently than you and incorporate that new information into your worldview.

I imagine that if you are based in rural America, a lot of concerns that are high priorities for city-dwellers such as criminal justice reform and gun safety may seem intellectual at best and impossible to understand at worst. It seems clear that rural dwellers have concerns that are similarly outside of my grasp or imagination and that means the Race/Class Narrative (learn more at DBT’s former client Demos) for example might not work as well as it does in the suburbs. It’s easier to stereotype and condescending rather than understand the level of desperation that would lead you to pin your hopes and dreams for a better life for you and your kids on a brazen, unapologetic, elitist, despotic and criminal con artist like Trump. 

Bill Hogseth at Politico has some better answers than me: “What rural voters want is a glimmer of hope that things will change. They want politicians who see a future for rural communities in which food production is localized, energy is cheap and clean, people have good jobs, soil is healthy, Main Street is bustling with small businesses, schools are vibrant and everyone can see a doctor if they need to.“ That sounds like a lot of the priorities that people in cities have, too. There is a progressive path here that can bring us together, if we are willing to meet people where they are.

In order to win everywhere, we need to go everywhere. And that means reaching rural and exurban Americans. Digital ads and influencer engagement can help here in terms of both testing to get effective messaging and finding trusted messengers to push the persuasion outward. We also need to erect and empower organizers on the ground reaching rural America with more robust digital infrastructure relational organizing online that’s appropriate for their audiences.  

We are working in every state with groups like PL+US, Supermajority, One Voice One Vote America, Mi Familia Vota, Advance Native Political Leadership, Advancement Project, Battleground Texas, 97 Percent, The League and more. At DBT, we’re willing to go where others fear to tread in search of common ground in concert with our partners. 

Yet ultimately I believe the next level of victory starts with an acknowledgement that we don’t know our fellow Americans who live out beyond the burbs and that we must get to know them better in order to join forces for a better future for all. There are challenges ahead but if we also open our minds to the opportunities, we can continue to build an America that makes us proud even faster. 

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