In December of 2012, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered a harsh message to those of us who live in farm country.
In a Washington, DC speech to leaders of ag-intense states, he pointedly said, “rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country.”
Vilsack railed against farmers and rural lawmakers who had embraced so-called wedge issues such as regulation, even going so far as to criticize the fight against the Obama Administration’s proposal to remove minors from almost all work on the farm (a fight farm families won in large part because of this column).
The Democrat appointee said that conservative chorus of rural America would only be drowned out in the future because 50 percent of rural counties had lost population in the previous four years and that was causing them to be overlooked by the nation as a whole as the country’s population continued its ongoing shift to cities, suburbs and exurbs.
Now, fast forward four years. Those alleged irrelevant whiners are now very relevant again, and their whines were obviously a well-defined call for a mandate that manifested itself in a shocking victory by Donald Trump, overcoming the electoral efforts of the urbanites who had previously overwhelmed them.
Across the breadbasket of this country, in places where people work with their hands to ensure the rest of the nation has food, lumber, minerals and energy, his message to bring glory back to their much-maligned roles, industries and communities resonated with them. On average, in predominantly rural counties across the union he trounced Hillary Clinton 2-to-1.
In states that Clinton thought she had in the bag, the rural folk pushed Trump over the top. Farm communities and small towns in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin posted 57%, 71%, and 63% wins, respectively, for the Republican.
Their relevance is made obvious when one looks at the Electoral College map – the nation was a vast sea of red, except for the population centers on the west coast and in the northeast.
It’s a shocking change in fortunes: Those who had been forgotten, even mistreated, for so long now have someone who seems to genuinely care for them and vice versa.
That was apparent in the campaign’s discussions about their well-being. The poverty rates are much higher in rural America than in metropolitan areas, yet they don’t receive the press or the dollars. Trump obviously knows that and righting that wrong through economic development was an important part of his message and the concerns shared with him at his countless rallies. If he holds true to his promises, we could see resurgence in energy sectors ruined by his predecessor, as well as the development of smaller manufacturing facilities and job shops, and the critical economy-inspiring high-speed broadband networks that leaders always speak of but do little about.
Trump also knows the value of farming, one of the few wealth creating sectors of our economy and the engine that ultimately drives rural America. Obama didn’t (as made apparent by Vilsack’s 2012 commentary), because agriculture was constantly under attack in his 8 years. To list just a few of the slights: his administration attempted to inhibit almost all minor labor, proposed that all farm workers get commercial drivers’ licenses, totally redefined the Clean Water Act, instituted elaborate food tracking procedures and set new standards that severely limited rural residents’ abilities to heat their homes and facilities with wood. 8 years of that was too much, and they would have gotten the same from Clinton. It’s no wonder they revolted at the polls.
Trump’s jaw-dropping upset of Clinton shows that reports of the death of the rural voice were exaggerated. Residents of the plains, the forests, Appalachian communities, and the south were heard, and heard mightily, at the rallies and, more importantly, at the polling stations. Rural America is relevant again. Hopefully, something great comes of it.
From the 14 November 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers