Cold carrier

Subzero temperatures on a day in January 2014 didn't keep this U.S. Postal Service worker from making his rounds in Portage. His protective wear included four layers of tops, storm pants, boots, gloves and a face mask. FILE PHOTO/PORTAGE DAILY REGISTER

Lyn Jerde/Daily Register

The Democratic Party has been out of touch with rural America for a long time. This has harmed Democrats nationally. And the harm has been particularly notable in Wisconsin.

The 2014 election was a catastrophic one for Democrats. Yet the party generally maintained its traditional numbers in urban areas — just as Republicans generally maintained their numbers in suburban areas. Where things fell apart for Democrats was in rural America.

Republicans were victorious in the voting for U.S. House seats in 82 percent of America’s 3,143 counties. With an assist from gerrymandering, Republicans won dozens of congressional seats and hundreds of state legislative seats in rural areas that were once considered safely Democratic. As The Washington Post noted just before that election, “There really are two Americas. An urban one and a rural one.”

The national patterns were reflected in Wisconsin. Republican Gov. Scott Walker carried 60 of the state’s 72 counties in 2014, even though he won just 52 percent of the vote statewide. Had Democrat Mary Burke simply carried counties that were historically Democratic — and that still tend to vote Democratic in higher-turnout presidential years — she would have been dramatically more competitive.

The inability of Democrats to hold their ground in rural areas that were once strongholds of the Progressive Party in the 1930s and the 1940s, and of the modern Democratic Party in its glory days, is a serious issue for the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Gaylord Nelson and Pat Lucey — all of whom ran well in rural regions.

But it is not a well-understood issue.

Vapid national media presume that Democratic doldrums in rural areas can be traced to social issues — on the theory that rural voters tend to be more conservative on questions of abortion rights and marriage equality. There’s some truth in this. Yet, a few years back, when South Dakota voted on a proposal to ban all abortions except for those performed because of rape, incest or a concern for the health of the woman, the measure lost 55-45. And recent referendums in states such as Minnesota have seen notable — and increasing — support for marriage equality in rural areas.

In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012 as the nation’s most prominent lesbian elected official, and as an outspoken supporter of abortion rights. Yet she carried the majority of the state’s counties — sweeping rural western Wisconsin and winning more than a half dozen counties across the far north. Baldwin did this in part because she was running in a high-turnout presidential election year and in part because she traveled to rural counties (a lot) and talked about rural issues (a lot).

While social issues can still be a factor in some races, they do not provide a sufficient explanation for why Democrats struggle to get traction in rural areas.

The real problem is the neglect by too many Democratic candidates — and by the party leadership — of the distinct economic, public service and infrastructure concerns of rural Americans. At a time when austerity-minded Republicans are constantly proposing cuts, Democrats have a genuine opening to make appeals based on these concerns. But for the most part they fail to do so.

As a result, Democrats are not identified in the minds of rural voters as a party that is focused on their needs. In nonpresidential years, when turnout is low and the debate is frequently unfocused, this failure to connect is devastating. And if Republicans ever begin to moderate their message, presidential years could become just as devastating for Democrats.

What to do?

Democrats should become advocates for rural regions.

This, of course, involves getting serious about sustaining family farms. It also involves defending rural schools, which are threatened by the funding cuts and privatization schemes proposed by conservative Republicans.

It also involves defending the U.S. Postal Service from assaults by congressional Republicans.

Rural post offices are more than just places where people pick up mail. They serve as informal community centers. They give small towns definition. They keep rural businesses connected to markets.

If Democrats were identified as absolute and unequivocal defenders of rural post offices, the party would benefit. That’s simple, practical politics.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders knows this. It’s one of the reasons why he is running well in rural states. The senator from Vermont is ahead of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in polls from the first primary state of New Hampshire. And he is pulling even with Clinton in the first caucus state of Iowa.

The senator has a long record as a defender of the Postal Service, maintaining that “it makes no sense to downsize the Postal Service by tens of thousands of workers, slow mail delivery service, and devastate rural communities by closing their post offices.”

American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein, who will appear Saturday at Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob Fest (along with Congressman Mark Pocan, an outspoken defender of the Postal Service), said: “Bernie Sanders has been an outspoken champion of postal customers, postal workers and the public Postal Service — demanding expanded services for all Americans, an end to mail delays, and an end to the closure of postal facilities.”

Sanders defends the Postal Service — and especially rural post offices — with the same passion that he defends Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Instead of accepting austerity lies and death by slow cuts, he calls for investing in the renewal and extension of the Postal Service.

“The Postal Service should be speeding up the delivery of mail, not slowing it down,” said the senator. “We should be working to strengthen the Postal Service, not sending it into a death spiral.”

Sanders is precisely right about this.

No matter where he finishes in the presidential race, the Sanders approach to rural issues in general, and to postal issues in particular, ought to be embraced by the party of FDR and the New Deal. It makes no sense for Democrats to talk about preserving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but not to talk about preserving a Postal Service that is vital for all Americans — but essential for rural Americans.

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

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times