Dems Need to Get Out More

Good Sunday morning. For your Sunday jazz selection, and in keeping with the season, let’s try John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.”

Today we’re going to hear from former Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Bullock ran for president in 2020 and then U.S. Senate. He lost both races, but I was impressed with him during the presidential debates. While he never had a serious chance at the nomination, I thought he was articulating an approach to issues that could sell in parts of the country that are turned off by other Democrats.

Bullock wrote this for the New York Times. I’ve added emphasis to lines that I thought were especially important.

Here goes:

I take no joy in sounding the alarm, but I do so as a proud Democrat who has won three statewide races in a rural, red state — the Democrats are in trouble in rural America, and their struggles there could doom the party in 2022.

The warning signs were already there in 2020 when Democrats fell short in congressional and state races despite electing Joe Biden president. I know because I was on the ballot for U.S. Senate and lost. In the last decade and a half, we’ve seen Senate seats flip red in Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota, and more. Democrats have lost more than 900 state legislative seats around the country since 2008. And in this year’s governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, we saw the Democratic vote in rural areas plummet, costing the party one seat and nearly losing us the other. It was even worse for Democrats down ballot, as Democrats lost state legislative, county, and municipal seats.

The core problem is a familiar one — Democrats are out of touch with the needs of the ordinary voter. In 2021, voters watched Congress debate for months the cost of an infrastructure bill while holding a social spending bill hostage. Both measures contain policies that address the challenges Americans across the country face. Yet, to anyone outside the Beltway, the infighting and procedural brinkmanship hasn’t done a lick to meet their needs at a moment of health challenges, inflation and economic struggles. You had Democrats fighting Democrats, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and desperately needed progress was delayed. It’s no wonder rural voters think Democrats are not focused on helping them.

Steve Bullock

I was re-elected as Montana’s governor in 2016 at the same time Donald Trump took our state by more than 20 points. It’s never easy for Democrats to get elected in Montana, because Democrats here are running against not only the opponent on the ballot, but also against conservative media’s (and at times our own) typecast of the national Democratic brand: coastal, overly educated, elitist, judgmental, socialist — a bundle of identity groups and interests lacking any shared principles. The problem isn’t the candidates we nominate. It’s the perception of the party we belong to.

To overcome these obstacles, Democrats need to show up, listen, and respect voters in rural America by finding common ground instead of talking down to them. Eliminating student loans isn’t a top-of-mind matter for the two-thirds of Americans lacking a college degree. Being told that climate change is the most critical issue our nation faces rings hollow if you’re struggling to make it to the end of the month. And the most insulting thing is being told what your self-interest should be.

Get out of the cities and you will learn we have a libertarian streak, with a healthy distrust of government. We listen when folks talk about opportunity and fairness, not entitlements. We expect government to play a role in our having a fair shot at a better life, not solve all our problems.

We need to frame our policies, not in terms of grand ideological narratives, but around the material concerns of voters. Despite our differences and no matter where we live, we generally all want the same things: a decent job, a safe place to call home, good schools, clean air and water, and the promise of a better life for our kids and grandkids.

For me, that meant talking about Obamacare not as an entitlement, but as a way to save rural hospitals and keep local communities and small businesses afloat. It meant talking about expanding apprenticeships, not just lowering the costs of college. It meant framing public lands as a great equalizer and as a driver for small business. It meant talking about universal pre-K not as an abstract policy goal, but being essential for our children and for keeping parents in the work force. It meant talking about climate change not just as a crisis, but as an opportunity to create good jobs, preserve our outdoor heritage, and as a promise not to leave communities behind.

These lessons apply broadly, not just to swing states. We need to do the hard work of convincing voters that we are fighting for every American, regardless of party or where they live, or it’ll only get worse for us in the 2022 midterms and beyond.

It’s in the void of inaction and failure to solve problems real people face that racially tinged cultural fights, like we saw in Virginia, take hold. My children are in high school and have never heard of critical race theory — nor have their teachers. What voters want to know is that Democrats will fight for racial justice and to improve the lives of rural Americans, no matter the color of their skin. After all, that’s what we’ve always done.

In the parts of America that are completely rural, there are nine infants and toddlers for every daycare slot, one in eight lack health insurance and one in four pays over half their income in rent. High-speed internet has eluded many parts of our country. Voters in my state may have grown cynical about the legislative process, infighting and eye-popping price tags in Washington, but enacting the Build Back Better bill, along with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, gives Democrats something to run on: proof that we have voters’ backs, including those who live in rural America.

It’s time for Democrats to get uncomfortable and go beyond friendly urban and suburban settings to hear directly from folks in small towns who are trying to run a business, pay the bills, and maintain access to health care. They have stories to tell and ideas to share, and we should listen. When then-candidate Barack Obama spent the Fourth of July 2008 in Butte, Mont., he didn’t go there because Butte was suddenly key to winning in November, but showing up there sent a loud and clear message to places like Butte all across our country that he gives a damn about us.

Butte and Scranton may be a long way away geographically, but they’re not that far apart in terms of working-class roots, values and attitudes. President Biden can help rural Americans know and believe Democrats are tackling the challenges they face. Democrats need to get off the polling and consultant calls, get into the community and engage voters directly: Do you have a decent job that covers the bills and leaves a little left over? Can you afford your home and pay for health care? Do you feel safe? Do you believe we are doing right for your kids, educationally, environmentally and economically? Do you see a path forward toward a better life for you and your family?

Fighting for every American means that, whether you live in Manhattan, N.Y. or Manhattan, Mont., you have an opportunity to climb the economic ladder and a temporary safety net to catch you if you stumble. Too often the Democratic Party comes off as a buffet line of policies, each prepared for a different group of voters. If we talk about — and work to address — the issues that people discuss around their kitchen table or at the fence line, the issues that fill endless hours of cable television become a hell of a lot less relevant. Our kitchen tables might look and feel different, but we need to learn to talk in a way that makes sense around everyone’s table.

Voters are facing real challenges — and so is our country. They need to know that Democrats are listening, working, and fighting for them. The voters deserve that level of respect and need to know we have their back.

Welcome to the 290th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

9 thoughts on “Dems Need to Get Out More

  1. Bullock: “We have a libertarian streak, with a healthy distrust of government. We listen when folks talk about opportunity and fairness, not entitlements. We expect government to play a role in our having a fair shot at a better life, not solve all our problems.”

    Blaska: In other words, vote Republican.

    C’mon, Dave: name one Wisconsin Democrat who talks like that and I’ll give you five that talk like Mark Pocan, John Chisholm, Satya Rhodes Conway, Francesca Hong, and Mandela Barnes.


    1. Hard to come up with one today, but there used to be several: Jim Holperin, Jerry Van Sistine, Marty Reynolds, Mary Hubler and a dozen more. Point being that you CAN be both a Democrat and a centrist who appeals to rural voters. My point in this post and most others on this site is that the Dems cannot win by being the party of Dane County liberalism. Whether the party is willing to do what it needs to do to win is an open question. I’m not optimistic but I can’t vote Republican. It’s not THAT bad.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Guess what Dave. I was a a rural Democrat who checked all the boxes Mr. Bullock mentioned. 36,000 miles on my car ANNUALLY. Tens of thousands of doors knocked in small towns and along country roads. Parades in small towns virtually every weekend all summer long. Regularly scheduled town halls. Along with a large gun collection and plenty of dead animals on my walls, fish in my freezer and kids who were born and raised rural, like me. It Didn’t matter much when Trump gave permission for people to indulge their grievances, bigotry and worst instincts. You see, rural Democrats like me thought that what mattered would be good schools, good roads and improving people’s quality of life. The sad reality is that isn’t what the majority of rural voters really want anymore. They want to hear their bigotry excused, their grievances justified and their worst instincts indulged even at the expense of their very lives. I got the message. My kids aren’t going back to rural Wisconsin, that’s for sure. As for me, well I voted with my feet too. I got on a plane to Maui, and hope to never set foot in rural Wisconsin again.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No, we have to keep fighting. Perhaps even the best candidates can’t win rural legislative races like former Rep. Danou’s District for a while, but even making dents in the rural margins would make a difference in Statewide and possibly Congressional elections. Bullock’s points are as good a place to start as most.

        And everything is cyclical, you have to hope and imagine eventually this collective fever of millions of people on the right indulging conspiracies and cultural nonsense battles will eventually break and swing back towards reality, making much more of those voters winnable again. (If social media hasn’t ended society in the interim). But as you continually point out, the loudest voices on the left aren’t doing themselves or us any favors with much of their current rhetoric and stances.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well, as far as i know, it’s never hit 100 degrees in Hawaii, and the trade winds are wonderful. I don’t have a solution, if I did, I guess I would still be in the legislature. Buy I regret wasting 10 years of my life and sacrificing time with my kids, for people who really weren’t interested in actually voting to improve their own lives. If Wisconsin wants to burn itself down, I intend to be surfing at Ho’okipa beach while it happens and watching an endless parade of Maui sunsets.
        I am done representing the ignorant, foolish, and bigoted. I will make my life in a state where republicans are virtually extinct.


    1. “[Rural voters] want to hear their bigotry excused”
      I don’t think they were seeking that, but Republicans could not sell tax cuts to them. Most of them don’t pay income tax. Trump’s formula worked, but just barely. It partly depends on him coming into with name recognition from being an actor, and some of it is that he won a surprise victory in 2016 not predicted by the polls. It seems like this puts Republicans in a weak position because they’re beholden to someone who loses the popular vote by millions of votes. The electoral college only applies to presidential elections, and they can’t count on it always breaking in their favor as it has for the past few elections.

      It seems like Republicans used to try to appeal to normal people and sometimes blow a dog whistle for extremists. Now they appeal to people who believe in bizarre conspiracy theories and blow a dog whistle for normal people saying, “we’re still for low taxes and responsible government; we just have to act insane for the rubes.”

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: