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Democrats Can Win Back Rural America, But First They Need To Understand What Bled It Dry

At the root of rural America’s angst are small towns whose economies have been taken over by a handful of predatory multinationals.

Posted on November 28, 2018, at 4:22 p.m. ET

David Goldman / AP

Rural and small-town voters turned out in huge numbers in support of the Trump agenda this month. That turnout didn’t prevent sweeping wins for Democrats in the House, but it did cost them some crucial, competitive Senate seats — in Florida, only 33% of rural residents voted for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, and in Missouri, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill did even worse, getting just 27% of rural votes.

This poor performance in rural areas will prevent Democrats from retaking the Senate for years to come. According to the latest Cook ratings, even if Democrats win all the currently rated “lean Republican” seats in 2020, they still won’t win a Senate majority — and that’s assuming they don’t lose any vulnerable seats, like that of Alabama Sen. Doug Jones.

Rather than writing off rural America, Democrats have an opportunity to present a vision and policy agenda that have a real shot at reversing rural and small-town America’s declining living conditions. But this requires appreciating how and why those conditions plummeted in the first place, with few signs of improvement. Rural communities have not recovered the jobs they lost in the recession. Suicide rates are higher in rural America than in urban America, and the gap is growing. Medicaid now pays for more than half of all births at rural hospitals, and the opioid epidemic continues to thrive off desperation and hopelessness. The troubling statistics go on and on.

At the root of rural America’s angst is a fairly simple story that many rural voters recognize. Over the course of a generation, major sectors of the rural economy have been rolled up and are now controlled by a handful of predatory, extractive multinational corporations. As a result, manufacturing and farming jobs have left the area, and opportunities — to change jobs, start your own business, fund good schools, and build communities where your kids can thrive and start their own families — are the exception, not the rule. It is no surprise that many of those who remain in these communities have lost any sense of respect, dignity, and self-determination.

Instead of fighting this concentrated corporate power, many leading Democrats embraced and continue to embrace an economic ideology centered on efficiency that paved the way for the merger mania and manufacturing exodus that have been at the root of rural America’s economic undoing. Former secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack, for example, recently called out Democrats for lacking a vision for rural America, and although Vilsack put forward a laundry list of ideas, none of them address the root of the problem — perhaps because Vilsack now lobbies for a dairy export organization whose members admitted to driving down milk prices for thousands of farmers.

To regain trust, Democrats will have to do far more than boost ethanol production, job training, and broadband. They need to show they are willing to take on the faraway monopoly bosses who are carving up rural communities, shutting down competition, and gaming international trade to get even farther ahead, while corrupting the political process with lobbyists and dark money all along the way.

The House could start by investigating America’s chicken industry, which has turned family farmers into something akin to impoverished sharecroppers through powerful, exploitative monopolies. Big poultry slaughterers like Tyson and Brazilian-owned JBS require farmers to use their chicks and feed, dictate the price once the birds are ready to be processed, and engage in anti-competitive and punitive behavior if farmers speak out or step out of line. More than 7 out of 10 poultry farmers live below the poverty line, while the CEO of Tyson brought in nearly $9 million last year.

That’s far from the only example of corporate power directly harming rural communities. Airline consolidation and deregulation have cut off the heartland from affordable air travel; not only do children from rural America move to big cities to pursue better opportunities, but they can’t even afford to fly home anymore for the holidays (we speak from experience). Drug store monopolies like CVS and Walgreens have put community pharmacies out of business and hiked the prices of commonly prescribed drugs to more than nine times higher than their independent counterparts. The pharmaceutical monopolies at the heart of the opioid crisis have quite literally gotten away with mass murder in pursuit of profits.

And overall, big-box stores — and now Amazon — have laid waste to Main Street commerce, littering communities with empty storefronts, broken up by the occasional dollar store. A new Open Markets Institute report sheds light on the extent of this problem for the first time in decades. Two companies now account for 47% of all pet-store sales, and three companies account for 75% of all craft-store sales. And Amazon’s e-commerce market share is 42 points higher than its closest competitor, with the gap growing every year.

With the prevalence of diabetes almost 20% higher in rural America than in urban areas, insulin cartels also warrant investigation, and taking them on would be meaningful to many people who suffer from this disease. The three largest firms — Novo Nordisk, Eli Lilly, and Sanofi — have raised insulin prices in near lockstep for years by shadowing each other’s prices. Eli Lilly, for one, launched its insulin two decades ago with a sticker price of $21 a vial and now sells it for $255.

Democracy is built on checks and balances of power, as Nancy Pelosi recently reminded us in her victory speech. We used to apply this same line of thinking to corporate power, but that thinking largely went out the window. Democrats need to bring it back. If they want a shot to compete against Republicans in rural America, they can start by standing up for the right of rural Americans to compete against the corporate monopolies that have been left free to loot and plunder our communities.


Sarah Miller is the deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, and Austin Frerick is a fellow at the Open Markets Institute and a former House congressional candidate. They are alums of the US Treasury Department under President Obama and hail from Oklahoma and Iowa, respectively.

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