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Is there a path for the Biden administration and rural Kansas to mend fences?

Rural Kansans joined the rest of red America in overwhelmingly rejecting Joe Biden at the polls last November. Should the new president try to address their challenges, even if it’s unlikely to win him and his party many fans?

 

More than a month after the 2020 presidential election ended, Bill Spiegel didn’t need to look at any vote totals to know that enthusiasm for the new president, Joe Biden, was sparse among his neighbors in rural Kansas. All he had to do was look around.

“I don’t think people I run into in this part of the country are very high on Joe Biden and probably even less so with Democrats,” says Spiegel, an agriculture journalist who lives in Manhattan and grows corn, soybeans, sorghum and wheat on his 1,200-acre farm in Jewell County. “The Trump train was rolling pretty strong in rural Kansas. And I think it still is. When I drive around, I still see Trump flags flying.”

Now, Spiegel says, “I think that there is a sense of anxiety about a new president coming in.”

In President Donald Trump, countless Americans – and plenty of Kansans – discovered not just an attractive candidate but an identity. Political scientists will study this phenomenon into the foreseeable future. But in the short term, Joe Biden and Democrats face enormous challenges to try to sway those adherents.

 

A change in presidential administrations can often be a time of trepidation as Americans weigh the policies and leadership styles of a new executive. That is especially true in the era of COVID-19 and the health and economic distress it has inflicted on the country and in rural Kansas, which was already facing a number of challenges before the pandemic hit.

“Rural communities continue to see decline,”  says Mary Fund, former director of the Kansas Rural Center. “Declining population, aging population, a youth exodus. Main streets look pretty empty, but you go to the Walmart at the edge of town and there are cars there.”

Those problems are longstanding, reflecting trends that go back decades. Now, however, it will be Biden who is responsible – at the federal level, at least – for addressing some of those issues. He will do it, however, without much political support from rural Kansas.

As it has in every election since 1968, the state threw its support solidly behind the Republican candidate, and as in 2016, Donald Trump received 56% of the state’s popular vote in 2020. His support came mostly from the state’s rural areas: The suburban corridor of Kansas City, Lawrence and Topeka voted for Biden, along with Riley County. Otherwise, the county-by-county map of Kansas election results was solid red.

“We’re not a purple state,” says Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “We’re probably not going to be anytime soon.”

There is a school of thought, however, that Biden and rural America – including the tens of thousands of Kansans who live outside urban areas – need one another to succeed, providing at least some reason for both sides to work across factions.

(It should be noted that Democrats’ struggles are concentrated in predominantly white parts of rural America; the party does well in the rural areas of places such as Georgia, which have large Black populations.)

“It’s important to keep in mind how important rural areas are to prosperity everywhere, even in urban areas,” says Anthony Pipa, a senior fellow in the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution. “They sort of, you know, help feed us. They provide the backbone for energy. And they’re going to be, I think, extremely important in the transition that we’re going to try to make over the next couple of decades to sort of make a climate-friendly economy.”

The next couple of years, then, might offer an answer to several questions: Can rural parts of the country make themselves heard in a Democratic administration? And what obligations do leaders have to serve constituencies that won’t pay them back with electoral support? Shouldn’t a leader try to speak to everyone, including those who aren’t supporters, at least some of the time?

 

Bill Spiegel, who’s both a farm writer and a farmer, got plenty of reminders during the 2020 presidential campaign of the depth of President Donald Trump’s popularity in Kansas farm country. The election of Joe Biden has left Trump’s followers feeling, at the least, apprehensive. Photo by Luke Townsend

 

A long list of plans

The biggest challenge facing rural Kansas – the one that connects to nearly every other issue – is that people are still leaving. Only 17 of the state’s 105 counties have grown in population during the last decade.

“My county continues to bleed population and economic activity,” says Ted Bannister, a trained economist and fourth-generation farmer who raises various crops and has a cow herd on 5,000 acres near Alexander, in Rush County. “Rural areas have actually hurt more than common economic measures like unemployment or income indicate. Unemployment has always been low, less than 5%, because when someone cannot find a job here, they leave … including our kids.”

Indeed, most counties in western Kansas are now designated as “frontier,” with fewer than six persons per square mile. That trend hasn’t been helped by the financial challenges faced by the agricultural industry that anchors the region’s economy. Buffeted by falling commodity prices and the Trump administration’s trade wars, the state recorded 36 farm bankruptcies in 2019, one up from the previous year, and a high for the decade. Even before that, America’s rural areas were slower to bounce back from the 2008 recession than cities and suburbs: In a recent briefing paper co-written with Natalie Geismar, Pipa noted that 85% of U.S. counties with high levels of economic distress and low levels of economic mobility are rural.

What can Biden do about all that? Plenty, say observers.

“If you look on his campaign website, it’s a long, long, long list of plans,” says Nathaniel Birkhead, an assistant professor of political science at Kansas State University.

Among Biden’s top proposals to aid rural America: a revamp of trade policy, an effort to expand broadband access to every American and a promise to strengthen the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – to improve access to health care in rural areas, where the remaining hospitals and their staffs are under immense strains, financial and otherwise. Though they might disagree on details, many observers say help on broadband and health would be welcome.

Ask them what else they want Biden to do to help rural areas, though, and talk quickly turns to agriculture – how the industry is structured, how the food that farmers and ranchers raise will be sold and what kind of compensation they will receive. Address the challenges facing agriculture, they suggest, and other issues could largely take care of themselves.

“Living in a frontier county, I think that the majority of people here have a connection to someone who farms or they own land or they work in an ag-related business – so they do appreciate all the rhetoric and dollars thrown toward farmers,” Bannister says. 

 

According to the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas, 37 of the state’s 105 counties are classified as “frontier,” defined as having a population density of fewer than six people per square mile.

 

At the Kansas Farm Bureau, policy director Ryan Flickner is keeping a close eye on the Biden administration’s trade and estate tax policies. It has been a “rocky” few years for trade, he says, which is important to farmers. Kansas is the country’s seventh-largest agricultural exporting state, according to federal statistics – farmers here shipped $4.8 billion in wheat, soybeans, beef and other goods to other countries in 2017. He will be watching to see if Biden rejoins trade treaties such as the abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership and backs off the trade wars that disrupted some of those foreign markets in recent years.

“Every other row of every crop grown in Kansas is exported,” Spiegel says. “And so we’ve got to find a market for those products.

Birkhead agreed. “You know, by adopting kind of a more traditional trade policy … we restore the markets for soy, we restore the markets for wheat,” he said. “That would help to kind of push things back to the traditional markets that we’ve had before, which makes it easier for farmers and so on, without having to rely on Congress to give aid packages to farmers. And just that does help rural America.”

Fund, meanwhile, thinks the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted existing problems with the industrial- scale agriculture that dominates the food industry. Meatpacking plants in Kansas and nationwide endured outbreaks, supermarkets sometimes ran low on meat and other staples, and farmers across the country reportedly plowed their crops under, dumped milk and smashed eggs when the restaurant industry went dark in the spring of 2020.

The federal government under Biden would do well to consider actions to reverse the enduring trend toward fewer and bigger farms and food processors, she says.

“A lot of people in Kansas turned to local meat processors, and to the farmers and ranchers who could provide a secure supply of meat,” she says,  and added: “A new administration should spend a little bit of time thinking about what those lessons are and proceed to take steps.”

Bannister agrees, saying the food produced by Kansas farmers “is a matter of national and community security.

“I’d like to see that definition of security expanded to include the nutrition of food produced, the accessibility of food, and the distance and supply chains involved in getting it into people’s homes,” he says, adding: “Why shouldn’t we have a butcher plant in every county?”

In fact, Biden promised during the campaign to foster small farms and regional food systems, and many observers expect him to back away from the trade conflicts that were part of his predecessor’s defining policies. Other opportunities may also be available. Fund, for example, thinks the pandemic’s work-from-home trend might create the possibility of luring professionals to live, work and spend their money outside cities and suburbs. Bannister thinks Kansas’ frontier counties have a great potential to be bigger players in renewable energy. And in their recent paper for Brookings, Pipa and Geismar advocated, among other things, that the federal government invest in block grants for rural America to give local leaders the opportunity to develop the approaches that work best for their areas.

“You have to have the flexibility,” Pipa says. “Your policies have to reflect the different kinds of communities in rural America today.”

 

Mary Fund, former director of the Kansas Rural Center, doesn’t think either political party has done much at the national level to address rural decline. Addressing that issue might let Democrats make inroads in places like Kansas, where they’ve been consigned to seemingly perpetual minority party status.

 

A deep cultural divide

Much of the discussion about what Biden can do focuses on policies that will enhance the economic well-being of rural areas. But few observers believe that those policies will make those areas friendlier to Biden and the Democratic Party. The culture split, they say, is just too wide.

That’s true not just in Kansas, but across the country. “The way the white working class is getting more Republican, upscale educated whites are more Democratic,” KU’s Miller says. “At both ends of the economic spectrum, cultural issues are increasingly important.”

“I don’t want to say there’s nothing he can do,” Birkhead added, “but he’s definitely swimming upstream here. The partisanship in the contemporary era is so strong (that) this is not really about policy. It’s really about social identity.”

When asked about what Biden could do to actually bridge the divide between urban and rural American identities, rural advocates didn’t have many answers. They preferred to talk about why his administration should focus on rural America regardless of the payoff.

A July 2020 poll of rural Kansas voters by Rural Organizing, a progressive advocacy group, shows some of the fault lines. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they strongly agreed with the statement that they are proud to be an American — but just 9 percent believed Biden was the presidential candidate most likely to say the same. Seventy-two percent strongly or somewhat agreed that faith is very important to them; 21 percent believed Biden was more likely than Donald Trump to say that. There were also wide divides on questions about race and abortion. And just 20 percent believed Biden was more likely to say the rural way of life “is worth fighting for.”

Some of the split is based on the conservative Christian affinity for Republicans, Spiegel suggested, but it is more than that. “I don’t believe that there  is any sense from rural Americans that a politician like Joe Biden identifies with them,” he says.

“He doesn’t see the suffering. He’s not out here, you know, driving up and down rural roads that are poorly maintained or, if he wants internet access, it’s instant. If he wants to go to a hospital, he’s got access to the best medical care in the world, whereas we don’t have those opportunities out here in rural Kansas.”

That criticism might be made of almost any national politician, of course. But it might raise the question of why Biden should even try to work for the betterment of rural areas. What do he and his party have to gain, after all? And can he persuade other parts of his constituency that investing in rural America is worth the effort?

Democrats should aim to benefit areas beyond their urban constituencies, Birkhead says, because to ignore rural areas “just widens the gap further.

“At some point, the direction that we’re on is unsustainable,” he says. “And one way to kind of prevent that is to continue to pass universal policies, policies that benefit the other group as well.”

It’s a mistake, Pipa added, to think that rural and urban areas of America can succeed independently of each other. “I don’t think you can have a healthy, prosperous country with having sections of the country being left behind in the way our economy, both our national and global economy, work right now,” he says.

He added: “From a political perspective, I guess I would even say that Democrats are probably underestimating what they might be able to benefit from just being much more present and much more focused on what’s happening in rural America.”

That makes sense to state Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat. Urban and suburban Democrats “have to acknowledge that the lens they look at the world with is not universally shared,” he says. “They would have to try to understand people who live a different life from them. Often we end up with Democratic candidates at the national level that’s more like Lawrence or Kansas City – and their message isn’t resonating very well with people who live outside those cities.”

He added: “I think we need to start with a genuine desire to understand people.”

Flickner, for one, is hopeful that might be the case. He worries that he doesn’t see anybody in Biden’s inner circle who knows what it’s like to drive 30 minutes to get groceries – but he also hopes that the new president’s long history of deal-making in the Senate means he will be able to listen to a range of views, including those of rural constituents.

“I certainly hope so,” he says. “I don’t think we should label urban America as blue and flyover America as red – we’re all Americans at the end of the day.”

Fund, meanwhile, doesn’t think either party has done much at the national level to address rural decline. Democrats would do well to seriously address those issues, she said, or continue to be alienated from voters outside the nation’s cities and suburbs.

“After the 2016 elections, there was a realization that the rural areas of the country voted the way they did because they felt left out, ignored and abandoned,” she says. “The joke’s on them if they think that’s not still the case.”

Discussion Guide
  1. How would you diagnose the situation facing the Biden administration and rural Kansas? What are the challenges and opportunities at play for both?
  2. What would the potential risks and rewards be for the Biden administration in trying to address the concerns of rural America? What mistakes would you advise them to avoid making?
  3. Does a leader have the responsibility to address the concerns of those who don’t support him or her? Please explain why.

 

winter 2021 journal cover

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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