Building Rural and Rust Belt Progressivism Through Social Justice

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(Note: Like many of my social justice activist essays, this one is primarily addressed to white people who are exploring activism. The needs and goals and methods of white activists are often very different than their fellow activists who are people of color due to the effects of privilege)

My Personal Journey from Libertarian to Progressive:

I wasn’t always the left of Lennon lefty lefterson I am now. From my late teens through my early thirties, I was a die hard, but ignorant and OMG hypocritical, Ayn Rand fangirl who considered herself to be the most libertarian of libertarians. I wrote articles about how food stamps coddle poor children and if they were taken away, their parents would “get their lives straight”. I talked about how “taxation is theft” and how the world is a “meritocracy”. I voted for Ross Perot and Harry Browne for President. I never cast a single vote for Bill Clinton. I scoffed at the idea of social justice.

All this while I worked with disabled people (paid for by the state I lived in through a private agency), collected food stamps, got reduced price cancer treatment at Planned Parenthood, had a child that (due to domestic violence and then subsequent refusal to pay child support) was on Medicaid and state-paid daycare while I worked full time and went to school (using Pell grants and student loans). Big hypocrite.

And then I found the BBS system. I had my first computer, with 8 whole gigs of memory, and a dial up connection. I was remarried to a Democrat (who points out I didn’t listen to him nearly enough, back then or now), still worked with the disabled (in a different state, but still paid for with taxes) and had a new baby. I found a group based around the works of Spider Robinson, and particularly a quote of his “shared pain is lessened, shared joy, increased; thus do we refute entropy”. I started having conversations with other geeks and science fiction fans. Quite a few were libertarians like me. A lot were liberals. Really smart, really knowledgeable liberals. And they listened to me and read what I wrote, asked a lot of questions and slowly but surely broke down my assumptions and gave me the new knowledge that suddenly one day, after a lot of thinking, made me wake up and realize I was a progressive. Soon after that, I quit a job in customer service I hated, went back to school, and became a social worker, and from there a therapist. Now I spend day and night thinking about social justice and mental health and how to make the world better.

And how did I get from there to here?

One social justice conversation at a time.

On the Difficulty of Recruiting Democrats:

The right (including the libertarian right) has recruitment easier than us progressives. It’s much easier to stoke anger and fear than it is to stoke compassion and deep understanding of complex ideas. The ideas on the right are largely writ in broad strokes, black and white, no shades, no flourishes, often slight of hand to hide the dirty underside. You hand over authority to someone else, they tell you what to do, and if something goes wrong, it’s not your fault. It’s a beautiful philosophy if you’re afraid to take responsibility. It’s a beautiful philosophy if you want power over others. It’s not so great for democracy as a concept, or justice as a concept, but its soothing to people who don’t want to think too deeply about the bigger issues, about social justice issues that impact all but the wealthiest among us.


Rural infrastructure decline shown in an abandoned building as a social justice concern

Photo by Lotzman Katzman Loss of Infrastructure is a Social Justice Issue

Nazis and white supremacists recruit heavily in rural and Rustbelt white America. In comparison, Democrats and other progressives do comparatively little outreach in these areas. We all too often make jokes about the white Americans in these regions, and call them names independent from their political views (cracker, rednecks, hicks). When we list the ills of unrestrained capitalism and corporatism, we often leave out the issues caused by Monsanto, by fracking, by loss of good union jobs and their replacement with poorly paying service jobs. We don’t see the opiate addiction, the lack of infrastructure including social infrastructure, and the dearth of decent education as social justice issues. And Nazi toeholds become footholds, and footholds become strongholds.

Because we’re not paying attention.

The Issues Causing Us to Lose the Argument in Rural And Rust Belt America

We’re minimizing and deflecting and displaying our disgust with white rural and Rustbelt Americans at every step. We’re not countering the Nazi narrative. When Nazis say that we are racist against whites, we pedantically explain the sociological definition of racism (which is accurate) without validating that yes, they are experiencing prejudice. Yes, they are right in seeing that many progressives are disgusted by their views. Yes, many progressives are dismissive of their concerns. We talk down to them, tell them that the language they grew up with is not our language and that its wrong in a way we would never critique AAVE or other dialects and patterns of speech.

We don’t mold and shape behavior, we reject it and the person who displays it instead. We forget that there are pockets of progressivism and good progressive people of all colors, including white, in the rural and Rustbelt areas of America. We minimize or ignore their calls to help their regions, to reach out to their neighbors. We forget that these too are social justice issues.

Like all critiques of this type, of course “not all” urban and suburban progressives are deeply prejudiced against rural and Rustbelt white people and indifferent to their social justice concerns, but enough are that the perception that “Democrats don’t care about our problems” gets a lot of traction. And then the “nice young man” with the white polo shirt, tan pants and MAGA hat steps in and whispers in their ears about immigrants and people of color and sharia law and gives them someone to blame for all their ills, and the Nazis have another recruit and we have ceded yet another rural or Rustbelt district to the GOP and their noxious white supremacist base.

The Problem of Racial Resentment and White Supremacy in Rural and Rust Belt Recruitment

We need to take the time to discern and differentiate between people who are lost to us, the white supremacists and Nazis who actively seek to harm people of color and others different from them (those who attempt to reach that group are a very specialized kind of outreach, and not in the purview of this essay), and those with racial resentment and fear who are impacted by those who are lost to us, but are still reachable and who share social justice concerns with us that we can help them with which will in turn increase our influence in rural and Rustbelt communities.

I know lots of racist people. Almost all of them would be deeply wounded and offended if I were to name names and point out the racist things they have said, in my hearing (virtually or in the same room) in the last year, and would insist, loudly, that they aren’t racist. They have absorbed, all too often without much thought, the baseless assertions about other populations that are the constant background noise of white America, the stuff “everyone knows” that isn’t even remotely true.

They nod along to the assertions of the pundits on Fox News in the waiting rooms and sports bars in their communities and are susceptible to the authoritarians in their community molding them for their own purposes. Robert Altemeyer’s work on authoritarianism is an evergreen resource for understanding this dynamic.

When folk say those racist things we need to “call them out”, yes. And we need to do it in such a way that it opens a conversation rather than ends it. Our goal, if we want to build a movement, is to open questions, not silence dissent. When I call folk out, they often listen to why I find what they said harmful and offensive, and ask questions, and move, just a bit, closer to my position. Why? Because I show them respect. Did they suddenly “see the light” and stop having harmful beliefs, beliefs that not only harm me and mine, but them as well? Nope. But they changed.

We critique the right for living in a bubble, but many of us live in similar bubbles, refusing to engage with people who have harmful beliefs. We scoff at them when they tell us about the difficulties of rural or Rustbelt lives, and share one or more of the very fine essays about white privilege written by many different activists, without first acknowledging that their concerns are valid.

map of overlapping fracking and aquifer areas

Fracking in our aquifers is a social justice issue

How We Can Change the Conversation Using Rural and Rust Belt Social Justice Concerns (A Script)

I’ve been a therapist for over ten years now. One of the core purposes of therapy is to initiate change in a person. And the first step of change, in dozens of different therapy modalities, is to validate where the person is. And this isn’t a one time thing. Sometimes we need to validate, encourage change, validate, validate, validate, encourage change, wash, rinse, and repeat until we are nearly exhausted.

Over and over, far too often, we have conversations like this one in our formal or informal outreach, in person or on social media:

RWP (Rural White Person): I’m sick and tired of immigrants taking our jobs. Betty and I both work at Walmart now and can barely make ends meet.
WPA (White Progressive Activist): (rolls eyes) Why are you such a bigot? Immigrants aren’t stealing your jobs. You’re just whining. You’ve got things a lot better than they do. GOP Representative X isn’t your friend, in fact he got a lot of money from Walmart.
RWP: Our car is breaking down and we have no other way to get to work, we have to choose between our prescriptions and food every month, and our water is full of natural gas, and all you can do is tell us we’re wrong to complain. At least GOP Representative X is listening to me.
WPA: At least your kids aren’t being gunned down by the police every day.
RWP: Nope. Ours are being killed in opiate overdoses. And GOP Representative X says he’ll help with that.
WPA: You’ll be sorry if you vote for him.
(Both walk away, disgusted).

Neither one of the people in the above conversation moved an inch. Though the activist wasn’t wrong in what they said, they also weren’t helpful. Part of the reason why is that the activist didn’t assess for the ability to change, and didn’t work to build discrepancy between what the RWP wanted, and what he was getting from the GOP. And they completely missed an opportunity to help someone. Let’s try it again and work on building on the seeds of change, using validation. I’m deliberately making the conversation relatively generic, so that you can use this script in different situations:

RWP: I’m sick and tired of immigrants taking our jobs. Betty and I both work at Walmart now and can barely make ends meet.
WPA: I’m not sure I’d blame immigrants, but it does sound like things are tough for you. What other things would you like me to take back to Dem Representative/Candidate Y
RWP: Well, there’s no other way to get around out here but cars, and the roads are killing my car. Prescription costs are too high even with our Social Security Retirement, and we can’t really retire. Our water smells like natural gas and looks awful, and no one will even come look at it. I keep reading on the news about how much help those people in the nearby inner city get, and it just isn’t fair. No one is helping us.
WPA: I’m sure it feels that way. Do you have any ideas about how to fix any of those things? Representative/Candidate Y (wants to serve) serves your district and is interested in your concerns. It’s true that people in the nearby inner city have some significant attention being paid to their issues. Is that what you want for your community?
RWP: Yes, it is. The kids are going crazy. We had three young folk just last week OD on heroin. We need something to help them. What is Dem Candidate/Representative Y’s plan for that?
WPA: I’m glad you asked that. (Opens noteboook, pulls out flyer) “Here’s what the plan is. Do you have time for me to go over it with you?

Some Limitations of This Approach, Or: This is Just the Beginning.

To be clear, absolutely clear, the Rural White Person in this scenario didn’t suddenly stop having racist and anti-immigrant beliefs because of this conversation. He did, however, start looking at a progressive candidate as someone who could help him with his concerns, and might have been impressed enough to change his vote, for that one local candidate, on that one local issue. Frequent conversations of this sort might help him begin to understand that we are all in the same boat, and start viewing the right wing propaganda machine a bit more critically.

Also to be completely clear, this gentleman in the example above is not a Nazi sympathizer or a conscious white supremacist. He’s a dude who, at retirement age can’t retire, is worried about his and his wife’s health, and wants to have his concerns taken seriously, who has some significant racial resentment and fear because he thinks his concerns aren’t being listened to and he has spent his lifetime absorbing the background radiation of white supremacy in our community.

What the second conversation did (while not letting the racism slide)was validate the man’s concerns about his economic future, reframe them in a social justice context, and demonstrate that the progressive candidate the activist is supporting *gets it*. It did not excuse or engage with the racism, not because it doesn’t need to be addressed, but because at this point in the conversation the focus needs to be “what’s in it for me”. Just like it is for most people joining various social justice movements. It acknowledged the issues as real and included them in social justice concerns. 

Step one: Shift from GOP to Moderate/Centrist Democrat
Step two: Shift from Moderate/Centrist Democrat to Progressive Democrat
Step three: Shift from Progressive Democrat to social justice advocate

The race conversation happens continually at all steps, but in different forms. The gender and sexual orientation conversations happen continually at all steps, but in different forms. The request to step up and speak out happens continually at all steps, but in different forms. Those who do this work need to keep a very important refrain in their brains: “validation and change”. Validate the person’s feelings, and where possible, their beliefs and actions, and encourage change. From DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy): “You are good enough just the way you are and you need to change to be better”.

Why Reach Out to Rust Belt and Rural White Folks? Who Should Do This Work?

Once upon a time, we thought of the Democratic Party as the “Big Tent” party, but our anger and outrage in the last few years, no matter how valid it is, has led us away from this and in so doing has reduced our effectiveness. We need to recapture that feeling, to reach out to the rural and Rustbelt whites on one end, and the disenfranchised radical left on the other, and give them a voice in the party.

You and I, and even party leaders, are not going to get everything we like from the party. It’s not going to be fast enough, it’s not going to be pure enough. That’s the nature of party politics. Democrats need outside agitators who push them to be their best selves, we need people yelling at us to do better and be better, and a lot of people reading this are probably thinking “yep, that’s me”. But it also needs people willing to do outreach to people who have common concerns but are not yet aware that their goals are our goals, folks that can be recruited and shaped into allies, even if on short term or on some issues. We need people who say, and believe, “social justice is for everyone”, and reach out in living evidence of this.

If it weren’t for people who were willing to go head to head with me, challenge my ideas and provide facts, be compassionate and patient in their conversations with me, I might (I like to think not, but I might) be just as adamant that “moochers” and “looters” need to be left to die as I was when I was a truly awful, foolish libertarian. I might have moved from that position and been radicalized into a proud racist and self hating sexist. I might be one of those chanting “blood and soil” and swearing up and down I’m not a racist. I like to think not, but I know enough about the human brain to know that it’s self serving to think it’s not possible for me to have turned down that road. Their recruiting techniques are seductive and effective, and I was no less susceptible to them as a young person than anyone else.

Choosing not to do this work is a valid choice, for an individual. It is not a valid choice for a party that considers itself to be the voice of all the people. We not only need to register and get to the polls our natural allies among people of color and urban populations of progressives and sympathetic people, but open the tent to the vast areas of the country between the cities and help them find their way in.

Choosing not to value this work, as a party, as a movement, as a progressive, is self-harming self delusion. It’s hard, disheartening work, but we need to do it, we need to take it seriously, and we need to build more and more small Democratic organizations, county by county, district by district, that have real, tangible support from the national party to do the outreach in their own communities, with assistance from urban and suburban progressives and footloose progressives like me that have lived significant parts of their lives in all three environments. Let’s get this Big Tent up and start adding to it. Now.

My writing supports my goal of reaching a financial place where I can begin developing a non-profit that helps people pay co pays and deductibles and cover all mental health therapy costs for people who want the option to see a private mental health professional instead of being steered to public mental health facilities. I invite you to become a Patron and help me build this from a local idea benefiting a few people to a national solution for a significant gap in mental health provision. You’ll find more details at my Patreon page. Remember, if you are one of my therapy participants, I cannot accept any money from you for this project (but thank you for thinking of it and please pass it on).

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