There’s a story Republicans tell about the politics of rural America, one aimed at both rural people and the rest of us. It goes like this: Those coastal urban elitist Democrats look down their noses at you, but the GOP has got your back. They hate you; we love you. They ignore you; we’re working for you. Whatever you do, don’t even think about voting for a Democrat.
And for the most part, they don’t. Donald Trump won 71 percent of White rural votes in 2020, a significant improvement over the 62 percent he got in 2016.
That story pervades our discussion of the rural-urban divide in U.S. politics. But it’s fundamentally false. The reality is complex, but one thing you absolutely cannot say is that Democrats don’t try to help rural America. In fact, they probably work harder at it than Republicans do.
Let’s talk about just one area that has been of particular interest to Democrats, and to rural people themselves: high-speed internet access, a problem that’s addressed by hundreds of millions of dollars in funding that the Biden administration announced this week.
The problem is straightforward: The less dense an area is, the harder it is for private companies to make a profit providing internet service. Laying a mile of fiber-optic cable to reach a hundred apartment buildings is a lot more efficient than laying a mile of cable to reach one family farm.
So you need government to fill the gaps. That’s because the lack of high-speed service makes it harder to start and sustain many kinds of businesses, have schools access the information students need, and allow people many of the basic pleasures of modern life, like rewatching all six seasons of “Peaky Blinders.”
The Biden administration has now rolled out $759 million in new grants and loans for building rural broadband. This money comes from the infrastructure bill, but the other big spending bills President Biden signed, the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, also had a wealth of money and programs specifically targeted to rural areas.
While those programs cover a variety of needs, broadband is particularly visible. The administration is using the money to fund rural broadband projects from Alaska to Michigan to Minnesota to Oregon. And of course, when that federal money provided by Democrats over the objection of Republicans comes to red states, Republican officials rush to take credit for it.
This isn’t new or unusual. Every Democratic presidential campaign puts out a plan for rural America. The Biden administration created the Rural Partners Network to coordinate executive branch initiatives affecting rural Americans. Every big spending bill Democrats write makes sure to direct money to address the needs of rural areas.
Liberals sometimes say rural dwellers have been fooled into voting Republican — and therefore against their economic interests — based on social issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. That’s not the argument I’m making here. It’s legitimate to put those issues first if they’re what you care about the most. If you live in rural Kansas and your opposition to abortion is profoundly important to you, it would be unreasonable to expect you to support the pro-abortion-rights party, even if it brought broadband to your town.
But it would be wrong to ignore the extremely hard work Democrats do to improve the lives of rural Americans, even as they won’t win most of their votes. We could argue about the value of different programs or economic policies in such areas, but you can’t say Democrats aren’t trying.
That’s all the more notable because Democrats are in fact a primarily urban and suburban party. Even if they don’t campaign in rural areas as much as they should, when it comes to governing, they do just about everything they can to help rural America.
This doesn’t work politically partly because of cultural issues, but also because of the power of the story of liberal disdain for rural folks. “We pretty much own rural and small-town America,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this year. Not only is he right, but Republicans know they don’t have to do much of anything to maintain that support.
So if nothing else, we ought to give Democrats credit for working to improve the lives of rural Americans. Even if the people who benefit probably won’t.