By Dave Harden
The writer is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland’s First District. He grew up on a small farm in Carroll County, Maryland. He can be reached at [email protected]
Democrats lose 90% of all rural counties in America. Why? Because they run weak candidates who simply do not align with the culture, values, hopes, aspirations, concerns and worries of rural folks. The messaging and policies for urban and suburban communities are not tailored to rural communities. The Democrats simply dismiss “those people” as politically expedient at best, or a lost cause at worst.
Even today, there is little evidence that the Democratic establishment understands these failures. Politicians endorsing politicians, party elites tipping the scales, political hacks who are “ahead of their time,” none of this works for rural folks. The result: the Democrats’ rural strategy has failed — election after election.
The Democrats’ failure to appeal to rural voters has consequences. Extreme polarization — exacerbated by partisan gerrymandering and the growing urban-rural divide — increases the risk that America slips into authoritarianism. We see three challenges right here in Maryland.
First, working class, rural communities on the Eastern Shore are marginalized by the unrelenting consolidation of political and economic power between Washington and Baltimore along the I-95 and 270 corridor.
Second, this consolidation of power is happening while poverty rates in some communities on the Shore are worse than lower middle income countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Third, the census revealed that four Eastern Shore and two western counties lost population in the last decade. Declining populations mean fewer jobs, fewer services, fewer opportunities, less of a tax base — and more grievances.
Most worryingly, these political-economic trends are happening amid the accelerating threats to our democracy. The January 6 attacks on our Capitol may just be practice if Donald Trump runs for president in 2024 and his enablers, like Andy Harris from Maryland’s First District, remain in power.
America needs the Democrats to be competitive in rural communities — just like we need Republicans to be competitive in big cities.
Here is what rural folks want: we want to close the wealth gap. We want our kids to have opportunities at home. We want know-it-all politicians to stop speaking to us like we are a bunch of rednecks who are too stupid to vote our economic interests. We want to be valued and heard on our terms.
Democrats can, of course, deliver economic opportunities — and the related respect. Broadband, infrastructure, localized renewable energy, decentralized energy grids, rural accelerators and incubators, less regulations on small businesses, tighter connections to high-end markets, next-generation vocational schools can all lead to revitalized growth and economic opportunity in our rural communities. But this requires that the Democrats compete in local elections by charting an independent path forward which aligns with the sensibilities of communities that too often feel left behind and forgotten.
I was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate to lead our democracy efforts and conflict stabilization activities around the world. I have worked in fragile countries for decades. Given these experiences, I believe democracy in America is at risk. If the Democrats get it wrong in 2022 by losing to authoritarian incumbents like Andy Harris yet again, America could very well slip into a full blown authoritarian state by 2024.
Despite its imperfections, our generation was given an extraordinary gift of democracy. It is our responsibility to protect and defend our nation’s legacy. We must begin by electing pro-democracy candidates to safeguard our sacred democratic institutions and norms. All other issues are secondary.