“By September 2021, the scientists and staffers at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission had gathered enough data to know that the trees in its green-tree reservoirs — a type of hardwood wetland ecosystem — were dying. At Hurricane Lake, a wildlife management area of 17,000 acres, the level of severe illness and death in the timber population was up to 42 percent, especially for certain species of oak, according to a 2014 forest-health assessment. The future of another green-tree reservoir, Bayou Meto, more than 33,000 acres, would look the same if they didn’t act quickly.
There were a lot of reasons the trees were dying, but it was also partly the commission’s fault. Long ago, the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers and their tributaries would have flooded the bayous naturally, filling bottomland forests during the winter months when the trees were dormant and allowing new saplings to grow after the waters receded in the spring. Widespread European settlement and agriculture largely halted the natural flooding, but in the 1950s, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began buying bottomland forests for preservation, which it then flooded with a system of levees and other tools.
This made the forests an ideal winter stop for ducks to eat and rest on their annual migration south. Arkansas is a magnet for duck hunters, and the state has issued more than 100,000 permits for duck hunters from Arkansas and out of state for every year since 2014. But it turned out the commission was flooding the reservoirs too early and at levels too high, which was damaging the trees. The ducks that arrive in Arkansas especially love eating the acorns from a certain species of oak — and those oaks are now dying.
Austin Booth, director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, knew that convincing the state’s duck hunters and businesses that there was a serious problem would be tricky. Part of the solution the commission planned to propose to save the trees involved delaying the annual fall flooding, which could mean less habitat for the ducks, fewer ducks stopping in the area and more duck hunters crowded into smaller spaces fighting over targets.
And all the duck hunters would have their own ideas about who to blame for the problem and what the solution should be.
Last September, Booth gave a brief speech that was streamed live on YouTube, outlining the problem. He announced a series of public meetings to begin in the following months. Booth told me that when he began to plan those meetings, he thought of all the government meetings and town halls he’d attended after years working in politics. “I wanted to ratchet down some of the intensity that happens when a government official stands up on a stage and talks down to people,” he said.
Instead, he decided the meetings would be dinners where the Game and Fish staff would eat alongside the people they sought to convince. “I just believe there’s a human component to sitting down and having a meal with someone,” he said. At those dinners, he’d give a brief introduction, then invite people to ask questions of the staff as they ate and mingled.
At the end of the dinners, Booth said he’d stand up again and ask, “Is there anyone that’s going to walk through that door tonight without their questions answered or comments taken for the record, or with their concerns ignored?” No one, he said, came forward. The four dinners were attended by between 50 and 100 people, according to Booth, but those attendees then spread the word, dampening criticism of the new management system.
What’s interesting about this dinner program is that it began during the COVID-19 pandemic, which also required effective science communication to convince the public to accept changes, major and minor, to their lives. Even before this pandemic, there’s been a long history of resistance to public health measures and new vaccines, and many researchers suspected that could likely be the case with COVID-19 as well. The social scientists who study these issues might have counseled an approach like that employed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, using local messengers who had relationships with the communities in question and who could communicate in less intimidating ways.
But the U.S. did not do that with COVID-19. Instead, rapidly changing information came from only a few sources, usually at the national level and seemingly without much strategy. And as such, many places have seen widespread resistance to public health interventions, like wearing masks and getting the vaccine.”
“not every issue manifests locally, with local experts able to gather people for friendly dinners. Regarding climate change, Fisher says in her work now she is finding that people are often spurred to action only when the environmental damage becomes an extreme personal risk to them and their family, and when it is seen as preventable. Part of the problem with mitigating COVID-19, she said, was that many people didn’t see the virus as a personal risk — they thought they themselves would be OK, even if so many other people were dying.”
“the danger of anti-intellectualism becoming more entwined with partisanship is that these attitudes then become more entrenched and harder to overcome. And that will become true on both sides, as each group believes they have the best sources of information — a phenomenon he called epistemic hubris. It’s damaging public debate.
The problems we’ve seen with COVID-19 are also spreading to new groups of people and to other issues. Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, researches the social science of climate change, and she’s found that people are more likely to seek out sources that confirm what they already believe. “We see that scientific information is very, very clearly cherry-picked,” she said. Increasingly, she sees people looking for information that already supports their worldview, and that’s happening on the right and left. For her, this includes policymakers who have a role to play in solving issues like climate change.
The challenge is how to penetrate these bubbles.”
“Roughly two-thirds of rural voters across the country cast their ballots for Trump.”
“Why did Trump do so well with rural voters? From my experience, it’s not because local Democrats failed to organize in rural areas. Instead, after conversations with dozens of voters, neighbors, friends and family members in Dunn County, I’ve come to believe it is because the national Democratic Party has not offered rural voters a clear vision that speaks to their lived experiences. The pain and struggle in my community is real, yet rural people do not feel it is taken seriously by the Democratic Party.
My fear is that Democrats will continue to blame rural voters for the red-sea electoral map and dismiss these voters as backward. But my hope is for Democrats to listen to and learn from the experiences of rural people.
The signs of desperation are everywhere in communities like mine. A landscape of collapsed barns and crumbling roads. Main Streets with empty storefronts. The distant stare of depression in your neighbor’s eyes. If you live here, it is impossible to ignore the depletion.”
“Small-business growth has slowed in rural communities since the Great Recession, and it has only worsened with Covid-19. As capital overwhelmingly flows to metro areas, the small-town economy increasingly is dominated by large corporations: low-wage retailers like Dollar General or agribusiness firms that have no connection to the community.
The source of our wealth is in the things we grow. But today, those things get shipped off into a vast global supply chain, where profits are siphoned off and little remains for us to save or invest. Farmers’ share of every retail food dollar has fallen from about 50 percent in 1952 to 15 percent today. Corporations control more and more of the agriculture business—from the seed and fertilizer farmers buy to the grain, milk and meat they sell—sucking out profits instead of giving farmers a fair price or a fair shot at the market. Every day, small farmers are squeezed: They can either expand their operations and take on more debt in an attempt to produce more, or close their business entirely because of chronically low commodity prices.
The digital divide is also real: About 28 percent of rural Wisconsinites lack high-speed internet, which stifles rural economic growth. Working from home or starting a new business is next to impossible in today’s economy without high-speed internet. Kids can’t learn from home without it either.
Rural health care is a disaster. At least 176 rural hospitals have closed since 2005, the majority of them in the past 10 years; it’s generally not profitable for hospitals to operate in low-population areas. Wisconsin has not been hit as badly as other states, but those hospitals that remain open in rural parts of the state are scaling back services and struggling to retain doctors. In my own county, there are zero ICU beds, even as Covid infection rates surge. Our profit-based health care system is failing rural people.
Rural people in Wisconsin are dying by suicide at rates higher than folks in suburban and urban parts of the state. This is not just a matter of poor mental health services—many rural counties lack a single practicing psychiatrist. It is also about an inescapable feeling of failure and an overwhelming sense that there is no future here.”
“Rural voters appreciated Obama’s repeated campaign promises to challenge the rise of agribusiness monopolies. But as president, he allowed for the continued consolidation of corporate power in the food system. His Department of Agriculture balked when it came time to enforce anti-monopoly rules such as those in the Packers and Stockyard Act, and failed to enforce Country of Origin Labeling, which would have allowed independent farmers and ranchers to better compete within the consolidated meat industry. The Obama Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission presided over a series of corporate mergers in the food and agriculture sectors, including the Kraft-Heinz and JBS-Cargill mergers. Taken together, these moves signaled that his administration did not have the backs of family farmers.”
“When people feel left behind, they look for a way to make sense of what is happening to them. There is a story to be told about rural America, yet Democrats are not telling it. That leaves an opening for other stories to be told to fill the vacuum—stories that villainize and divide us along racial, geographic and partisan lines. That is the story Trump told, but it’s the wrong one. The real story is that rural people feel our way of life is being sold off. We see the wealth of our sweat and soil being sent away to enrich executives, investors and shareholders.
For Democrats to start telling a story that resonates, they need to show a willingness to fight for rural people, and not just by proposing a “rural plan” or showing up on a farm for a photo op. Rural people understand economic power and the grip it has on lawmakers. We know reform won’t be easy. A big step forward for Democrats would be to champion antitrust enforcement and challenge the anticompetitive practices of the gigantic agribusiness firms that squeeze our communities. In his rural plan, Biden pledged to “strengthen antitrust enforcement,” but the term doesn’t appear until the 35th bullet point. For rural voters, antitrust enforcement is a top priority, and it should be coupled with policies to manage oversupply in commodity markets, so farmers can get a fair price. Another step forward would be an ambitious federal plan, in the spirit of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Act, to bring high-speed internet to every corner of America.
What rural voters want is a glimmer of hope that things will change. They want politicians who see a future for rural communities in which food production is localized, energy is cheap and clean, people have good jobs, soil is healthy, Main Street is bustling with small businesses, schools are vibrant and everyone can see a doctor if they need to. Here in Wisconsin, we can look back in our state’s rich history of progressive populism to a time when politicians like Bob LaFollette, our former governor and U.S. senator, understood that concentrated wealth and corporate power are a threat to people’s livelihoods. As president, Biden will have the chance to prove he understands this, too. Democrats can win rural Wisconsin again, but they’ll need to try.”
“In the lead-up to the election, there were plenty of signs that Biden’s support among Latino voters in key swing states might be weaker than Clinton’s in 2016, but some of the shifts wound up being very large. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, for instance, which is 68 percent Hispanic, Trump narrowed his deficit by 22 percentage points between 2016 and 2020; in Texas’s Starr County, which is 99 percent Hispanic, Trump improved by a stunning 55 percentage points.
However, as the chart below shows, Trump’s gains among Latino voters were hardly universal. In fact, the places where Trump appears to have gained the most support were largely in rural areas or among more conservative Latino voters like Cuban Americans. In suburban and urban areas, the story was much more mixed. (And, to be clear, Biden still won the overwhelming majority of Latino votes.)
One important factor to keep in mind here — which is partially why some of these shifts toward Trump seem so pronounced — is that Trump did really poorly with Latino voters in 2016. According to pre-election surveys, he won just 18 percent of Latino voters in 2016 but 27 percent this year, putting him back in the territory of other recent Republican presidential nominees.
Additionally, part of what we’re seeing here isn’t necessarily something unique to Latino voters at all, but an extension of America’s growing urban-rural divide.”
“The education split has been especially significant among white voters, and this rift appears to have widened as Trump lost ground in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, especially in areas where many white voters have four-year college degrees.”
“Part of what is happening, according to Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California who has written extensively about conservative voters, is that many less educated white voters have come to see Trump as their champion. “They feel that Trump is making them great again — their social class and their identity as whites,” she said. “Many of them feel that as white [people], they’re discriminated against.” She added that even if Biden might have personally appealed to those voters, it might not have been enough to overcome their suspicion that the Democratic Party as a whole was hostile to their worldview.
Importantly, Trump’s gains among white voters without a college degree were less substantial than his losses among educated white voters, and that appears to have cost him in these three states. This was most stark in Wisconsin, where Trump’s margin improved in 39 of the state’s 72 counties, but fell in 31 and didn’t change in two. The counties where he lost ground tended to be bigger and more well-educated, while the ones where he gained were generally smaller and less well-educated. In aggregate, these shifts added up to a narrow loss in Wisconsin for Trump in 2020 instead of the close win he achieved in 2016.”
“The USPS is legally required to deliver all mail, to all postal addresses in all regions, at a flat rate, no matter how far it may have to travel. The service’s accessibility and affordability are especially important to rural communities that live in poverty and to people with disabilities, who can’t afford the cost of a private business to deliver their daily necessities. (In 2017, the rural poverty rate was 16.4 percent, compared with 12.9 percent for urban areas.)
And while some may argue that the USPS is becoming more obsolete as an increasing number of services are becoming digitalized, there’s still a large chunk of people who rely on mail because they have poor (or no) internet service. (The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 14.5 million people in rural areas lack access to broadband.) In fact, 18 percent of Americans still pay their bills by mail, according to an ACI Worldwide report; meanwhile, 20 percent of adults over 40 who take medication for a chronic condition get those pills by mail order, according to a survey by the National Community Pharmacists Association.
Then there are the several small towns around the country that vote only by mail because they’re not populated enough to open up polls. In Minnesota, for example, 130,000 receive a mailed ballot every election because they live in a town with fewer than 400 people.
“USPS isn’t just a public service,” Baker said. “It’s a lifeline.””
“The USPS was never really meant to operate as a business but as a public service, which is why it’s been able to keep its prices lower than private companies. Businesses like FedEx and UPS don’t build offices in remote rural areas, like deep in Wyoming or in the mountains of Colorado, because it’s simply not profitable. They often rely on the Post Office for last-mile delivery; the agency delivers mail for them from major transportation hubs to the final delivery destination, often in secluded areas.
This ultimately means that without the USPS, FedEx and UPS won’t have the resources to deliver to remote rural areas, nor will they likely make investments to do so since they’ll lose money in the process. Instead, people will have to bear the burden of traveling to the companies’ offices in larger towns to meet their mailing needs.”
“The USPS also serves a crucial role in ensuring that everyone has a right to vote by delivering mail-in ballots to the most remote areas of America. Several states allow those in small towns to vote by mail so that they don’t have to travel miles to their polling area in larger cities. It’s played a particularly important role in rural areas where the population is growing older — rural communities have the largest share of people above the age of 65 — and is less mobile than younger generations.”