Sonny Perdue at Dairy Expo

Speaking to reporters Oct. 1 at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue expressed doubts about whether family dairy farmers can survive in an industry where the factory farms are taking over.

Donald Trump’s secretary of agriculture came to Wisconsin last week to deliver the message that things are far worse for Wisconsin’s struggling dairy farmers than they knew. Speaking to reporters at the World Dairy Expo, Sonny Perdue expressed doubts about whether family farmers can survive in an industry where the factory farms favored by Perdue’s agribusiness associates are taking over.

“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, or any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability,” announced the man who is supposed to be concerned about keeping working farmers on the land.

Clearly, the future of the family-owned dairy farm is not a concern of Perdue; just as clearly, the future of rural America is not a concern of the trade-war-obsessed Trump administration.

That’s a reality that could have political consequences in 2020, if Democrats figure out how to talk about it.

Trump ran well in rural America in 2016, at a time when the Democratic Party was particularly neglectful when it came to reaching out to farm country and the small towns of states such as Wisconsin. The results were devastating for the Democrats. While Barack Obama had held his own in rural counties in 2008 and 2012, the numbers for Hillary Clinton in those same counties were insufficient to maintain Democratic advantages in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — the states where narrow wins gave Trump an Electoral College advantage even as he lost the popular vote by 2.9 million ballots.

Obama’s numbers were not the best ever for Democrats in rural areas, but they provide a good benchmark for thinking about 2020. In his days as an Illinois state legislator and later as a U.S. senator, Obama took his cues from National Farmers Union leaders and paid a good deal of attention to rural issues. That paid off for him when he was topping the ticket in Wisconsin. Exit polls in 2008 gave him 45 percent of the vote from small cities, towns and rural areas; in 2012, Obama still took roughly two-fifths of that vote.

In 2016, Democratic numbers collapsed. While Trump lavished attention on rural areas, the Clinton campaign disengaged from them. It was a terrible miscalculation. She won just 34 percent of the rural and small-town vote. How badly did that hurt Democratic prospects? Had Clinton been able to match Obama’s strength in rural counties, not just in Wisconsin but in a number of other states, her prospects for winning close contests in key states would have dramatically improved.

Democrats cannot win the races they need to win with just a third of the rural vote. But take that percentage up into the forties and possibilities open up.

So how do Democrats change the calculus?

By listening to rural voters and by responding to what they say. Don't presume that they care only about a single issue. Rural voters care about a lot of the same issues that concern urban voters: preserving Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, raising wages, addressing the opioid crisis. But rural voters also have some distinct concerns. They want to keep post offices open and they want to make sure that small businesses can survive in an era of big-box stores and online shopping.

One of the critical issues that pulls all these pieces together is rural broadband. “According to the FCC, in 2017 26.4 percent of people living in rural areas and 32.1 percent of people living on tribal lands did not have access to minimum speed broadband (25 Mbps/3 Mbps), compared to 1.7 percent in urban areas. And given the notorious loopholes in FCC reporting requirements, these figures underestimate the gap,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has proposed a sweeping plan to invest in rural broadband and to make it easier for small towns and rural areas to build publicly owned networks that serve their distinct needs. Warren said, “I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford. That means publicly owned and operated networks — and no giant ISPs running away with taxpayer dollars.”

As for the farm issues that Perdue and Trump are getting wrong, yes, of course they are a concern for rural America. The way to address that concern is not with mild rebukes but with big bold plans that reject the false promise of factory farming and recognize the value of small, family-owned farms. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gets it exactly right when he says, “Independent family farms have been decimated by past and current farm policies, in the pursuit of short-run economic efficiency. The food security of the nation still depends on farmers on family-scale farms who are committed to being good stewards of the land and good citizens of their communities and nation.”

To keep them on the land, Sanders proposes transitioning “toward a parity system to guarantee farmers a living wage. That means setting price floors and matching supply with demand so farmers are guaranteed the cost of production and family living expenses.”

It is right to call Perdue out when he dismisses the prospects of family-owned small farms. It is right to call Trump out when he uses rural America as a pawn in his trade wars. But that’s not enough. To win the votes they need in rural areas, Democrats need a platform as bold as what Warren and Sanders propose.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.