In deep-red rural and exurban Missouri, the Democrats’ progressive economic and political policies are pretty popular, while the Democrats themselves are toxic. Democrats can change that if they would go back to being 1938 Democrats and abandon 2018 support for minority rights, abortion rights, and gun control.
Rural and suburban white-flight Missouri voters often aren’t conservatives as much as they are racist religious populists. They’ve given control of state government to a GOP super-majority, purged all Democrats from statewide offices except for auditor, and tossed out center-right Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill in favor of Republican Josh Hawley, a pro-Trump theocrat who has said sexual assaults are due to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and that contraception is the same thing as abortion.
But those same voters rejected an anti-union right-to-work law, voted to reform state legislative re-districting by giving the job to a professional demographer, approved raising the state’s minimum wage by an overwhelming majority, and green-lit medical marijuana. Missouri’s conservative free-market GOP establishment opposed all of them and were ignored by its base voters.
The explanation is pretty straightforward. Republican trickle-down-cut-taxes-for-the-rich-free-enterprise economics have destroyed rural and small-town Missouri the same way they’ve impoverished urban areas. Unions have been gutted, wages have stagnated, corporate capitalists have shipped good jobs overseas, and full employment means holding down two jobs at minimum wage without benefits. Small-town downtowns have been hollowed out, and a wave of Chinese or Big Pharma-produced opioids have killed or addicted people looking for something to numb the pain.
Raising the minimum wage and rejecting right-to-work holds out the real promise of putting more money in the pockets of people whose towns have been turned into zombies by voodoo economics. The progressive voter initiative to take drawing state legislative boundaries out of the hands of career politicians got traction because it was pitched as a campaign against political elites. And medical marijuana passed because rural America, like the rest of the country, has been smoking weed for decades.
All of those were progressive initiatives, but they were also populist: I’ll take power away from fat cats, raise my wages, join a union if I’m lucky enough, and maybe I can even get a prescription and stop smoking skunky ditch weed.
They all would have failed if the word “Democrat” were attached to any of them. Decades of on-point messaging by the GOP and propaganda from Fox News and radio and internet flamethrowers have painted Dems as a party that wants to take away guns and slaughter fetuses and is filled with un-American black and brown radicals who want revenge against white people.
Since the majority of white rural Missouri voters agree, while at the same time supporting progressive economic policies, Democrats have a dilemma that comes down to three choices.
Democrats can field white candidates in rural areas who are pro-gun and anti-abortion. Or they can stick with the party’s principles and resign themselves to not winning much of anything outside of St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia, home to the University of Missouri. Or they can hold fast to principle, try to slowly chip away at GOP support, and get the economic policies they want by simply putting them on the ballot.
Progressive activist Patricia Scott lives and works in fire engine-red Poplar Bluff, in the state’s southeast corner, and thinks pandering to rural pro-Trumpers might be a waste of time. “It’s about abortion and guns. Nothing else seems to matter,” she said. “One of their main complaints is that people in the city just don’t understand us here in the country. They want to take all the money and not give us any for infrastructure or schools. They feel folks in the city talk down and disparage them.”
McCaskill did her best to meet with them, holding dozens of town halls in rural Missouri. She still lost. A pro-McCaskill activist in Springfield largely agrees. He doesn’t want his name used because, in pro-Trump southwest Missouri, speaking out can get you fired, assaulted, or harassed.
“Abortion is all many rural ‘Christians’ need to vote against Democrats,” he said. “And don’t discount misogyny as a factor against Claire, either. The big national issues kill us in rural areas: abortion, LGBTQ rights, ‘Antifa radicals.’ Republicans have successfully messaged us-against-them and stoked class and racial distrust.”
In Poplar Bluff, Scott agreed that racism is a huge factor. “Many of the people I’ve canvassed hated Obama and made it clear to me it was because he was black,” she said. “Trump didn’t visit the graves of Americans killed in World War I because of a little rain. Nary a word from my Republican friends. But I heard for weeks how disrespectful Obama was when he casually saluted a Marine with a cup of coffee after disembarking from his helicopter.”
A St. Louis-area elected Democrat told me most of the blame for the midterm wipeout belongs to McCaskill’s right-of-center politics and trying too hard to play to the rural vote, saying, “Democrats, including people of color, are pretty angry with her, going back to her Kavanaugh and abortion comments. They may have skipped voting on her race.”
There may be something to that. The medical marijuana initiative had 52,000 more votes than were cast in the McCaskill-Hawley U.S. Senate race. The proposition to raise Missouri’s minimum wage attracted 43,000 more voters than the Senate contest. Even the wonky re-districting amendment got 7,500 more votes than were cast for U.S. Senate.
But despite all the people who opted out of voting for senator, Democrats still have to decide what to do about rural voters whose racist, religious, and/or pro-gun positions mean they’ll vote for Republicans, no matter what.
Local Democrats running in those areas may be doomed by the culture war demographics of bigotry. But statewide Democrats need to give non-racist pro-choice gun control voters a reason to turn out in huge numbers. Pandering to Republicans isn’t it.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.