Power or Policy, Rural Voters Demand Neither

Last week, I wrote that rural voters deepening support for the Republican party, and Trumpism in particular, has been a poor investment. My father corrected me where I used soybean farmers as a rhetorical stand-in for rural America, in that soybeans are at a record global high right now. Considering, however, that the current high price of soybean futures is due to a number of factors completely unrelated to Trump, and rural America as a whole is not entering another Golden Age on the strength of the mighty soybean, I figured I would let it stand.

No, what I want to look at is the nature of the return groups get on the “investment” of their support. It can be a tricky subject to tackle. The more obvious the transactional nature the easier it is to measure, but also more unseemly and possibly illegal. If a man gives a mayor $100,000 in cash, and the mayor turns around and awards a $1,000,000 contract to the man’s company we call that bribery. If that same man gives the same money to a PAC who then donates it to/spends it on the same mayor, and the man gets his contract, we call that free speech. Either way, ethics aside, one can certainly argue that this hypothetical shrewd operator is getting a good 10 to 1 return on his investment.

Of course, it gets even harder when you consider that the most common form of support is a vote instead of money, and the most common form of return is emotional validation rather than policy change. Only the super-rich are actually in a position to seek contracts from the government or plead for personally lucrative tax and regulation exemptions. The vast majority of us are not Bond villains or Koch brothers. We don’t have personal requests from the government. We have broad notions of what is good and bad and support people we think share our values. We usually share these views with the people we identify with the most closely. It is to these aggregate worldviews that political leaders pay attention.

I would argue that the desired return from political support falls onto a Power to Policy spectrum. On the far right of that spectrum, the most pure example I can think of is the NRA. Though odious, the NRA has traditionally been highly effective because their ask is so limited. They don’t care if NRA members are elected to high office. They don’t want veto power over Supreme Court nominees. They don’t care about Senate rules, tax policy, or foreign affairs. All they want is complete inaction on guns in the United States; all they require is a sufficient base of single-issue supporters.

A clear set of examples for the Power end of the spectrum are black Americans and Evangelicals. There are, of course, policy goals in both groups, but what they really desire is a political home. Black Americans vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic party, and, despite what a few cherry-picked and highly-touted contrarians say, have clearly gained a lot of power in the Democratic party. A black President, now a VP and the Secretary of Defense, Senators and a Congressional Black Caucus with more than one member, they are arguably the single most powerful constituency in the party. Like Evangelicals in the GOP, black Democrats have veto power over most things from presidential nominees to the Supreme Court. They often get leaders who either look and speak like them, or at least go out of their way to show that they understand and appreciate them.

Which brings us, finally, to rural voters. I would place rural voters weakly on the left-hand side of this Power to Policy spectrum. They don’t make consistent and clear policy demands. If they did, the agricultural economy would be treated as lovingly as the energy sector, and family farms like tech start-ups. There would be federal support for rural hospitals and schools, and curbs on Big Agra. As there are not, the confusion is widespread and spawns books like What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Yet the demands from rural America are not effective Power demands either. The last farmer President was Carter, 45 years ago and a Democrat to boot. They don’t demand rural leaders or rural policies, a seat at the table, or veto power and thus hold very little influence over the party that depends almost completely on their support. What they get instead are conspiracy theories, tribalism, and cultural validation.

Again, this is separate from any ethical or partisan calculation. I will readily admit the NRA and Evangelicals get a solid return on the investment of their support from the GOP, even if I generally disagree with their aims. The current wave of rural support for Trumpism however, feels like watching my grandmother put her savings under her mattress. It may have made her feel safe, but in the end she gained nothing.

Failed soldier, professor, and politician.