Posted November 30, 2016 by Ben Lilliston
In country star Jason Aldean’s song Fly over States, he overhears first class passengers on a flight from New York to LA, looking down on the countryside and wondering, “who’d want to live down there, in the middle of nowhere.” Aldean then flips the dismissive line into a proud anthem about the middle of the country. Like the song, Donald Trump flipped the predictions of the professional political class and rode a wave of support from many people who felt over-looked in those fly over states all the way to the Presidency.
The power of the so-called fly over states in the election is impossible to ignore. The electoral maps tell the story. A swath of red, often mostly rural, states in the middle and south of the country, bookended by blue states on the coasts. Even within the few Midwest blue states like Minnesota and Illinois, you can see the stark divide between how urban and rural counties saw the candidates. A look back at the 2012 electoral map tells us this divide is not new, but perhaps wasn’t taken seriously by many Democrats because President Obama won. As the Daily Yonder reports, the long-standing urban-rural voting gap is widening. At least part of this voting gap can be attributed to the Democratic Party’s loss of credibility on a number of core issues that affect the lives of rural communities in those so-called fly over states.
The state of rural politics lies squarely within the condition of the rural economy. Rural communities have higher poverty rates, more persistent long-term poverty rates, and higher child poverty than urban communities. There’s been a steady decline in rural and small town main street businesses, accompanied by a decline in rural business lending. Nearly two out of three rural counties lost businesses, on net, from 2010 through 2014 – even as the rest of the country recovered from the recession. Rural infrastructure is seeing disinvestment and rural bridges and roads are increasingly being closed as public money shrinks. Rural grocery stores are disappearing and there is a significant digital divide that hampers rural businesses without broadband access.
These economic challenges, particularly the loss of rural-based manufacturing, provided the backdrop for Trump’s narrow (yet effective) attacks on free trade deals. In smaller towns, the loss of a manufacturing plant or anchor business hits harder than urban centers with more job opportunities. Though both parties have long supported free trade agreements that took American jobs offshore and kept wages stagnant, it was Bill Clinton who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and it was Barack Obama who, having failed to address the problems with NAFTA (as he’d promised to), actually expanded the NAFTA model to create the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
There is another storm returning to the rural horizon; an emerging farm crisis. Prices for many commodities are below the cost of production, farm debt to income is the highest in three decades, farmland values are decreasing, and dairy farmers are dropping by the hundreds. These neon warning signs of trouble in the farm economy were virtually absent from the Presidential campaign. The Democratic party platform afforded 80 words to agriculture, which, as John Nichols of the Nation pointed out, fell well short of the attention given by previous Democratic platforms.
Many Midwest farmers still bear the scars of the farm crisis of the 1980s, when farm foreclosures and suicides were part of the countryside. In his seminal 1987 piece, Crisis by Design, IATP’s founder Mark Ritchie documented how government policy steadily eroded programs that focused on keeping farmers on the land through fair prices in the marketplace. Over a series of Farm Bills, agribusiness lobbying drove an intentional push toward fewer, big farms, characterized by the blunt call for farmers to “get big, or get out.” The final dismantling of the older farm programs culminated in the Freedom to Farm Bill of 1995 during President Clinton’s administration. Journalist Sienna Chrisman picked up where Crisis by Design left off, in a recent article explaining how a broken farm policy has set the stage for the emergence of Trump.
Addressing an anti-competitive marketplace for farmers and ranchers, fueled by increasing corporate concentration in the agriculture sector, was a priority for Presidential candidate Obama in 2008. Within his first year, a series of field hearings held around the country were organized by the Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture focusing on the anti-competitive elements of the meat, poultry and seeds markets. But the issue quickly faded and no action was taken.
Trump’s rhetoric on agriculture mirrored the directness of his talk on trade. He charged that there is a “war on farmers” preventing them from being profitable, and laid the blame for that war not on a mix of factors including volatile, anti-competitive markets, but solely on regulators. Regardless of this dubious claim, Trump’s strong words filled the largely silent void left by Clinton and many Democrats when it comes to agriculture.
Health care is another major issue for many farm families and rural citizens cobbling together part-time jobs, unable to rely on the health insurance of larger employers. Rural communities have fewer public resources for emergency medical services, less elder care, and less child care available than urban communities. More than 60 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, and more than 650 are vulnerable to closing. Rural adolescents commit suicide at roughly twice the rate as their urban peers. A recent study from the Center for Disease Control found that of all professions, the risk for suicide was highest among the rural-based jobs of farmers, foresters and fishermen. Rural drug and alcohol treatment centers have less access to highly-trained counselors.
When premium rates from so-called Obamacare jumped recently—it was particularly felt in rural communities. Again, candidate Trump’s strong message, though simplistic, resonated: you can blame the disastrous Obamacare for all your health care problems.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the inability to hold Wall Street accountable for the financial crisis is yet another issue where Democrats have lost credibility with working people. The Obama Administration’s failure to jail a single Wall Street executive in the wake of the financial crisis that caused massive foreclosures and job losses—combined with Hillary Clinton’s secret, lucrative speeches to Wall Street—allowed Trump to paint the Democrats as part of a rigged system that is unable to stand up to Wall Street.
Much of the post-election analysis has emphasized the inability of Clinton to galvanize the so-called Obama coalition – as if simply mobilizing those non-rural voters in the future will solve all problems. According to Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich, the Clinton campaign intentionally decided not to spend resources on rural voters, apparently only assigning a single staff person to rural outreach in their Brooklyn office late in the campaign. A similar disinvestment in rural policy and outreach took place at the Democratic National Committee and the House and Senate rural policy outreach committees, writes rural strategist Matt Barron.
The Democratic and Republican party infrastructures are not alone in overlooking many key rural issues. The private philanthropic community was recently called out by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for not funding in rural America. A recent USDA report found that rural communities, which account for 19 percent of the population, received only six to seven percent of foundation grants from 2005 to 2010.
There is an urgent need for new ideas and real solutions to the challenges facing rural America. Last year, Farm Aid held its 30th anniversary concert and brought together leading family farm activists of the 1980s. They talked about the dark economic times of that period and the personal trauma that many families went through, but also the very real danger of violence in the countryside at that time. Mark Ritchie talked about how essential it was “to build a movement based on peace…. If we’re not there to address peoples’ real hurt, if we’re not there to provide a real analysis of where this is coming from and if we’re not there to take real action, the right wing and the extremists will go in and scoop up people who are angry and frustrated—people who’ve done all the right things and served their country in all kinds of ways.”
Climate policy and politics provides some cautionary lessons on what can happen when rural communities are considered an after-thought. Rural economies are particularly natural resource based, whether forestry, agriculture or mining. They are already experiencing climate change—and will have to be part of the solution. Yet, the rural-urban political divide widens when most climate-related proposals start with raising fuel and energy costs for rural families (who already have higher transportation and energy costs), and in some cases, putting rural people out of work as in the case of coal. Rural resistance to climate action has often been viewed as a “messaging” problem by environmentalists—rather than a need to better understand these challenges, and actually involve rural citizens in designing a new approach to climate policy.
In his mea culpa column, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi writes that he and the media misread the election by following polls and experts instead of “hearing things first hand.” Taibbi writes, “Just like the politicians, our job was to listen, but we talked instead.” The New York Times public editor Liz Spayd chastised the paper for being too focused on brief interviews that often created caricatures, rather than taking “readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.”
Many of the core issues facing rural America are shared by people in all parts of the country: economic uncertainty, wage stagnation, overwhelming personal and college debt, poor health care, and yes, a changing climate. Both political parties have done a good job dividing the country or worse, spreading a wave of apathy, without effectively addressing these issues. It will take a lot of work by people, organizations and institutions to pull it back together.
In his 2015 song Something More Than Free, country singer Jason Isbell sings about another value deeply rooted in so-called fly over states – the honor, dignity and pain of hard work. Isbell sings, “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church. But I thank God for the work.” Finding a more just, peaceful and inclusive path forward along with those who feel ignored and that the system is rigged – is the work for all of us.
(Coming soon from IATP—Ideas on what’s next)
Posted November 17, 2016 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn
Some dates get burned in our memories. One date that pops up for me each year is November 17, the day the U.S. Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) back in 1993. Now, 23 years later, NAFTA is as controversial as ever. After a long battle in which civil society groups from all three countries worked together to draw public attention to the potential negative impacts and, even then, to propose alternative approaches to trade, the pact was narrowly approved in a late night vote.
Just days before the vote, all signs pointed to NAFTA’s defeat. But then, the power of back room deals to build a bridge in one district, to fund a study center in another (as well as assurances of side deals on things like tomato imports or cross-border trucking) overtook the opposition to the trade pact. Public Citizen later published an accounting of those deals, and the fact that many of the promises were never kept. Even before we knew the true cost of NAFTA—both in the questionable use of public funds and in the well-documented economic and environmental devastation that was to come in all three countries—it was a bitter defeat.
NAFTA was groundbreaking in many ways. It was the first major trade agreement involving countries at disparate levels of development. It extended far beyond the lowering of tariffs to address rules on energy, investment, intellectual property rights and other issues that empowered transnational corporations to shift production among the countries at will, drastically weakening the bargaining power of unions, farmers and small businesses. It introduced the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision that has allowed companies to sue governments over public interest laws, including the Keystone Pipeline challenge by TransCanada. It became the template for future trade deals with Central America, Peru, Colombia and others, and for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
While civil society groups in the three countries had been working together to confront structural adjustment programs (neoliberal programs of deregulation, devaluation and privatization pushed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), this collaboration on the specific terms of a trade agreement, and the fact that it spanned both sectors and borders, was new and important.
Earlier this week, many of the members of Congress who led the opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership held a press conference to celebrate its defeat (at least for now). This resulted from years of efforts by Congressional leaders like Rep. Rosa DeLauro and massive campaigns led by unions, environmental groups, family farmers and others. Many of them returned to NAFTA. Rep. Marcy Kaptur spoke of the decades of work that led to this point. She should know. She participated in one of the first congressional delegations to Mexico on NAFTA, organized by the National Family Farm Coalition, and has continued to press the case in Congress and with colleagues in the three countries. She noted that, “The recent election results call on us all to recraft NAFTA and other agreements that are in place and to develop new models for fair trade.”
Of course, she’s not the first one to make that argument, but that’s kind of the point. NAFTA hurt manufacturing workers in the U.S. and family farmers in Mexico and there is nothing inevitable about it. We don’t need to be stuck with these rules forever.
There are other approaches to trade policy, starting with an open negotiation process that includes workers, farmers, and environmentalists, among others. Detailed negotiating objectives and draft negotiating texts should be published online before and after negotiating sessions so that civil society groups and legislators know exactly what is on the table. Without opening the process to the light of day, it is really inconceivable that we’d get results that are any different from the existing bad deals.
That press conference on November 15 was a much more hopeful moment than the dreadful NAFTA vote on November 17 so many years ago. It’s important to celebrate some wins, and to dig in to consider the hard and invigorating work moving forward to hold on to those gains and to insist on trade rules that rebalance not just trade deficits, but the deficits of fairness, sustainability and bargaining power that NAFTA left in its wake.
Posted November 4, 2016 by Josh Wise
Today is a Latin America wide day of action against the disastrous effects so-called Free Trade Agreements have had in undermining governments and the will of the people. Below is a public statement from the organizing groups, translated into English by IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn:
November 4: Latin America unites for democracy and against neoliberalism
The signing of Free Trade Agreements (FTA) has been the main vehicle for the globalization of the neoliberal-transnational model. Their drivers -the corporations and big media- promised wellbeing progress and development. But a quarter century later, we can say that FTAs have not met any of those promises.
To the contrary: in Latin America they have allowed the installation of extractive projects that threaten communities and the environment, have limited the action of States and have reduced the public budget, by putting corporate interests above the will of the people and life itself.
FTAs are about much more than trade among nations. Their pages include chapters on the liberalization of the services sector, protection of intellectual property and privileged conditions for foreign investors. The consequences in everyday life are categorical: rising prices of medicines, the privatization of public services such as drinking water and education, limits on access to the Internet, among others. The final effect is the deregulation of the private sector and reduction of the fiscal responsibility of businesses.
In short, free trade agreements seek to consolidate the power of transnational capital and in turn have captured the political authorities. They have even led to pressure on the environment that threatens the survival of the human species.
For all these reasons, on November 4 Latin America arises. We demand that no more FTAs are signed and we reject progress in the negotiations for the signing and ratification of Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA).
Our countries face the threats of these new FTAs. Against this, in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Colombia we say enough! We demand that our governments have the ability to regulate capital and to develop policies that allow us to live well and in harmony with nature. For democracy and against neoliberalism, peoples first, not profit. Latin America unites.