A New Progressive Agenda for Rural Wisconsin

Sometimes, for short periods of time, I give up hope that we can collectively pull ourselves back from the brink. Or perhaps I should say “brinks.” In those times, I get overwhelmed by climate change, insurrections, entrenched moneyed interests, pandemics, racism, fake news, and the politics of blame. I give up and watch a show or read a book. But giving up for me is only temporary, because deep down I have faith in the goodness and creativity of humans, both individually and in communities, especially in our rural communities. I know that we can bring ourselves and this planet through these crises by working together. We get to find ways forward by looking back at what worked in the past, by looking at how other people are facing similar crises, and by thinking creatively about the future. One place I draw inspiration is from the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th Century.

To me, the rural versus urban divide has been manufactured to keep people from seeing our fundamental connections. There is no real reason for urban people to think of rural folks as backward hicks who vote against their own interests, and neither is there a good reason for rural people to think of city folk as elitist do-nothings. Those stereotypes and the identity politics they spawn continue to benefit the wealthy in the increasingly unequal status quo, while undermining our ability to see our shared situation and common cause. I care about rural people and issues. I think that Democrats could make a difference in the lives of rural people, if we could take Progressive policies and values from the past and apply them to present day rural and urban issues to create a new Progressive agenda.

This essay is divided into two sections:

(1) The Gilded Age and the Progressive Response

First, I look at the Progressives at the turn of the 20th Century. There was a nationwide movement against the Gilded Age of robber barons and monopolies, and Wisconsin was in the vanguard for many of the reforms during what came to be called the Progressive Era. These Progressive reforms arguably made America into the nation it is today, and they have been under attack by reactionary forces ever since.

(2) A New Progressive Agenda for Rural America

In the second section, I look at what a new Progressive agenda might look like for rural America. I think that the Democrats have to offer solutions that empower regular folks, both urban and rural.

Before I start, I want to emphasize that as we look at what Democrats can and should do, we need to not look down on rural Americans. That prejudice is alive and well and needs to stop. We need to respect and empathize with rural voters, just like we should respect and empathize with people in other voting blocs and places. We need to talk to rural folks and listen when they/we answer. We also need to have real positive policy outcomes that meet the needs of rural people, not just identity politics and lip service.

Like most people I know, I want things to be better for rural people in Wisconsin. I think that politics might be a path to a better Wisconsin, and specifically that the Democratic Party could be key to making positive change, both at the local and the national level. This is new for me. A long time ago, I sort of gave up on politics as a way to make things better. I saw that we have a two party system, and both parties seemed to be controlled by moneyed interests. Like many Americans, I had a cynical view of politics as a swamp of corruption.

But in 2016, Bernie Sanders’ run for President energized me, partly because he offered simple solutions that made sense to me. Those solutions talked about making things better for everybody by making the wealthy pay their fair share. It turns out that there was another time that the wealthy were called to task: the Progressive Era from 1890–1920, and we can learn a lot about our current political situation by looking at that time period.

Disclaimer: I am a white male who lives rural. Those identities mean that I have big gaps in my experience and blind spots. My essays are an attempt to interrogate my own experience and identity, and I welcome criticism and other perspectives.

(1) The Gilded Age and the Progressive Response: We Look Back to Go Forward

Wisconsin is a state where Progressive values have been prominent for a long time. We consider ourselves the origin place for the anti-slavery Republican party in Ripon, Wisconsin. We had socialist leadership in a thriving Milwaukee for many years, which was partly born of an influx of civic-minded German immigrants. And we are the home of Progressive icon “Fighting Bob” Lafollette, who thought of our state as a “laboratory” for improving democracy.

Turn of the 20th century Progressives thought Wisconsin should be a place where the public institutions benefit everybody, and that experts should guide policy for the maximum benefit of the people. We even have a name for this: “the Wisconsin idea.” We believe in high quality education for all, and that our public universities should reach out and benefit the whole state by helping to improve agriculture and offering technical support to business. We believe in the people, but more than that, we believe in the ability of the people to create a government that can benefit the people.

When America Became Great: We can look to the Progressive Era for the birth of many things that we think of as foundations of the best parts of our society. Progressives fought against monopolies and trusts, they promoted labor rights, they started the first workers compensation programs, they emphasized access to education, they installed progressive income taxes to tax wealthy people at higher rates, they supported pensions, they passed laws prohibiting pollution and police brutality, and they generally sought to use the government to make things better for people, including and especially rural folks. For example, they brought roads and electric power to rural areas and technical support to farmers. Progressives promoted the growth of cooperatives and credit unions to counteract the power of wealthy individuals, banks, and corporations, and those co-ops flourished in rural areas. Progressives saw the effects of unchecked wealth and power at the turn of their century, and they elected leaders who would push for a government that would limit the power of the wealthy and elevate the power of the people. It is ironic when certain Republicans today say they want to make America great again, because much of that greatness was made possible by the Progressive reforms between 1890 and 1920, the same ones those Republicans are trying to roll back.

Voting Rights Are Progressive: Progressives also sought reforms that made elected officials more responsible to the will of the people. These reforms included primary elections to choose party candidates and the direct election of US Senators, who were previously chosen by state legislatures. Progressives sought to expand the vote, and advocated women’s suffrage.

The Progressive Era had momentum, and that momentum led eventually to the reforms of the New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, among many other reforms. There is a lot to learn by studying the reforms of the Progressive Era. It is lucky we have the internet and books to learn about this stuff (as in: I left a lot out).

The Party of “No”: We cannot understand modern day politics without realizing that much of 20th century and early 21st century politics is a reactionary attempt by the wealthy and the powerful to undo the reforms of the Progressive Era. Reactionaries have made it impossible to run for office without a lot of money, and both parties have become beholden to wealthy donors. They have created a bloated government that, instead of helping the people, funnels the people’s wealth to bankers, arms manufacturers, and fossil fuel industries. They created the Red Scare and continue to use “radical socialist” as a threat to smear opponents. They have pushed to privatize whatever public good they could. They have fought to lower taxes on the rich and corporations.They have undermined unions at every turn. There is an ongoing class war, and the working and middle class are losing, as the one percent has been looting and pillaging.

The Trickle is Actually Pee: This class war can best be visualized as Reagan’s America. Reagan suggested that government was not the solution, it was the problem. He said that we needed to shrink the government and give tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations. His trickle-down economics theory has been discredited, but it was really only ever a ruse to redistribute wealth and power away from the common people. Based on faulty trickle down logic, both Bush II and Trump have pushed through even more tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporations, and continued the class war by systematically pushing for an undoing of regulations, labor protections, and all the ways that Progressive-inspired programs have used the government to improve the lives of the common people, while at the same time using the government to enrich already wealthy people.

The Trees Keep Voting For the Axe Because “He is One of Us”: One of the ways that anti-Progressive reactionary forces in American politics have thrived is through co-opting Progressive tactics. Early Progressive politicians were populists. They appealed to the people with a message that the wealthy elites were hoarding wealth and power. This was an effective way to energize voters. Modern day Republicans have successfully mobilized anti-elite sentiment against a broad swath of people “who think they know better.” The Democrats have been susceptible to these attacks because for the last period they have been dominated by Neo-Liberals and not Progressives. Rural Americans voted for Trump partly because Clinton and Biden seemed like more of the same and Trump promise change. I think to win back rural America, we need to get the Democratic party back to Progressive values, reclaim the anti-elite sentiment from the MAGA people, and aim it squarely at the one percent.

(2) A New Progressive Agenda for Rural America

Fortune Favors the Bold: I think Democrats need to be bold and come out in favor of projects that benefit poor, working, and middle class rural people. Instead of moving to the center, we need to embrace a new Progressive agenda. At every level, including the rural areas, we need to find the equivalents of Bernie and AOC, both in terms of candidates and policies. The policy we need from these candidates is a new Progressive agenda that will transform rural America.

We Actually Like Government: I think it is false to say that the rural vote is strictly small-government conservative. It is more accurate to say that the rural vote is anti-elite and against corruption. These are actually both messages that Progressive Democrats can win on. In the past, Government has been okay with rural voters, when policies do something to benefit rural folks. We just haven’t seen much positive from the government in the last 50 years, and we have come to distrust the government as out of touch. Progressives could change that.

My recommendation to Democrats is to double down on being Democrats. We should stop trying to be small government Republicans. We need to be proud to own the things that Republicans accuse us of. This is like when a bully accuses a kid of something and the kid says “yeah, so what?” Own it, and make it look cool. This strategy could be called “positive integration.” We want people to look at the Democrats and see that we represent something that they also believe in.

We Already Have a Base in Rural Wisconsin: Democrats are already winning rural voters, possibly because we have a message that many rural people want to hear. Democrats would not have won key states without rural voters. In Dunn county, thousands of rural voters turned out for Biden and local candidates. It wasn’t enough turnout to tip all the gerrymandered state level elections, but it was enough to tip the state for Biden. Biden would have lost in Wisconsin and nationally if he didn’t have a sizable number of rural voters. There are various constituencies, but I will highlight a few. There are union workers, most notably teachers, health care, teamster, and manufacturing workers. There are small scale sustainable farmers. There are conservationists. There are people who like having healthcare through the Affordable Care Act.

In Wisconsin, without forgetting the amazing work by groups like BLOC to activate urban voters, it is worth noting that the mostly rural Native American vote went overwhelmingly for Biden, enough so that that could have been the deciding factor to tip the state blue. In Arizona, the rural Native vote was also a deciding factor in painting AZ blue. And in Georgia, rural Blacks were turned out to vote for Biden by Stacey Abrams and her people. Rural voters are part of the coalition and if Biden and Harris forget that, Dems will lose in 2022 and 2024.

Voting Rights Are a Rural Issue: So I recommend a new Progressive Era for both rural and urban America, and we will need both rural and urban programs to restore America to prosperity. These reforms will need to include comprehensive election reform. Voter suppression hurts both rural and urban people, and it really only benefits the one percent. To make politicians respond to the needs of the people, we will need to make “one person, one vote,” the law of the land. This could include: universal voter registration and mailing a ballot to every eligible voter; an end to the disenfranchisement of prisoners and ex-inmates; an end to the electoral college and instead going with a national popular vote; an end to partisan gerrymandering; getting money out of political campaigns by making them publicly funded; adding Puerto Rico as a state; making election day a National Holiday; making instant-runoff balloting the law of the land; and more. When everyone can vote, and we remove money from politics, then we might get more policies that benefit all of us, including rural people.

Small Farms, Small Businesses, and Labor Rights: As part of a new Progressive Era, we will need policy proposals that will benefit rural people, without imposing government bureaucracies. The historical Progressives found a middle ground. By breaking up monopolies and trusts and regulating and taxing the wealthy, they gave a chance for small and medium sized businesses and farms to flourish, without imposing the government. You just have to level the playing field and people will do the rest. Early Progressives strengthened labor rights, and this allowed workers to negotiate for benefits from a place of strength. Progressives supported co-ops and credit unions. And perhaps most importantly, they improved education. None of this was a “radical socialist” takeover of private farms and businesses. Instead it was the opposite. By limiting the power of monopolies, private enterprise and innovation grew and made America great. Capitalism seems to be good for the common people when competition exists and small farms and businesses have access to markets. Labor protections and wage protections improve American communities by stabilizing the workforce and enriching communities through the spending power of workers and small farmers.

Poverty is Crushing People: Democrats can win by being proudly anti-poverty. Rural communities have lost viable farms and manufacturing jobs and rural unemployment outpaces that of urban areas. Many rural people are forced to move to find work or drive hours to commute. Others are forced to take low-paying service sector jobs, like in big box retail or fast food. Times are hard. In this economic climate, Progressive anti-poverty policies are a winner. Raising the minimum wage is a perfect example. Nobody wants a hand-out. Nobody wants to be dependent on government aid. With a minimum wage set as a livable wage, then people can stand on their own two feet. Government aid and private charity should be reserved for people who are unable to work, not for people who are employed by predatory corporations. If small businesses need help to stay competitive while paying a livable wage, then that might be a good place for the government to step in. Likewise, early childhood education and care is an anti-poverty winner (see Warren’s plans). This gets people working, and breaks the poverty cycle.

Everybody Should Be Able To Become A Farmer: It is no accident that the profitable medium-sized family farm has become an endangered species. Almost every agriculture policy in the last 50 years has benefited large farms and corporations. Consolidation in farm size and in agribusiness has proven to be a boon for mega corporations and a bust for all but the largest scale farmers. That has to stop. We need to level the playing field. We need anti-trust policies to break up agricultural monopolies. We need to provide regulations, subsidies, and controls on prices, so that people can make a living at farming at a small and medium-sized scale. We need to finance and incentivize new farmers and small businesses connected to agriculture, especially BIPOC folks. We can use farm-to-school programs and provide grants to businesses that buy local agricultural products. We can use government money to incentivize farmers to care for soil and promote carbon capture in the soil, much like the CRP program paid farmers to prevent soil erosion. We can look to organic farming co-ops like Organic Valley as models of how to revitalize farming communities. Farming can become the backbone of rural communities again.

Jobs. Jobs. Jobs: We need to make rural jobs flourish again, and not just in extractive industries. Extractive industry jobs are by nature short term. Instead we could and should incentivize good paying jobs that are also sustainable for the long term. To do that we need to look at which businesses are good for the planet and give those businesses starter cash and subsidies. That category might include: sustainable forestry, recycling businesses, clean energy, sustainable building, commuter and freight rail, sustainable agriculture, sustainable fisheries, local production of secondary agricultural products, ecotourism, agritourism, and so on. We need to incentivize co-ops, including co-ops to produce renewable energy and to provide goods and services to farms. To make all of these businesses function we will want to improve our broadband access, our roads, and our public education, improvements which will have ripple effects in other areas of rural life.

Access to Education and Health Care Makes Rural Areas Thrive. In recent decades, we have seen rural schools and hospitals close across the country. We need to make the public schools in Wisconsin the best in the nation (again!), and we need to figure out how to have free higher education, including trade schools. Education is a big driver of wealth and innovation, and higher ed debt is a huge drag on the economy in both rural and urban areas. Likewise, high quality health care should be available to everyone, and health care related debt is dragging many rural Americans into poverty. Health care and education should not be free, but rather our taxes should pay for them.

Anti-Racism Work is Rural Work Too: Democrats can also win by being unapologetically for equal rights. The Democrats can double down on racial justice. The rural vote is not monolithically white nor should we assume all white people are racist. One in five rural voters identifies as non-white. Even families where most family members are white have some connection to a person of color. Latinx people work on Wisconsin dairy farms. Many rural white folks have adopted children of color. Many rural white families have children who married into families of color. If we can get rural white people to see that improving the lives of people of color would positively affect people who they know personally, then we can break the wall down. Anti-racism work appeals to our shared values, rooted in Christian teachings. Fighting against racism helps white people too, and we can make that clear to voters. We need to hear the message loud and clear that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

This is the new Progressive agenda that can be the positive driver of people into the Democrats: pro election reform; pro small business; pro small and medium sized farming; anti poverty; anti racism; pro education; pro health care; anti trust; anti corruption; pro people. In the long term, we need to proudly be Democrats.

Let’s Put Our Faith in the People: We live in a New Gilded Age, but I don’t want to say that people who have money are fundamentally bad, nor do I think that money is somehow inherently evil. For one thing, I have money, and it is quite useful to me and my family. It is more complicated than simple good versus evil. We don’t get to look at the one percent as “the other” and place all the blame on them. That would be sort of like looking at the KKK as the only place that racism exists. No. We live in a society of systemic racism that is part of each of us, whether we claim it or not. We need to commit to identify racism within ourselves and replace it with anti racism. Just like with anti-racism, to be anti-classism we get to work to end classist systems and policies, while realizing that we, ourselves, were raised within a classist system and we carry the patterns and prejudices that come with that upbringing. It takes courage to push through those prejudices and face our own fears of what might happen if we challenge power. With money and power, it is easy to see how people could get scared that it will be taken away from them. That place of fear can prevent people from making rational decisions around sharing power and money. The new Progressive agenda is about putting faith in people over fear. I have faith in rural people.

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Andrew Gaertner

Andrew Gaertner

To live in a world of peace and justice we must imagine it first. For this, we need artists and writers. I write to reach for the edges of what is possible.