With the Iowa Caucus quickly receding into the past, and the field of candidates narrowing rapidly, the question of whether or not rural America can give the Democratic Party a political boost remains up for debate.
For Jane Kleeb, the founder and president of Bold Alliance and chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, winning in rural areas is a simple matter of showing up and making an investment in rural areas—two things that have yet to happen on a serious scale.
After working as an organizer and directing Young Democrats for America, Kleeb in 2006 moved from Washington, D.C., to Hastings, Nebraska, when she fell in love with a rancher. In her new book, Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America, Kleeb shares the story of her rural conversion in hopes of bridging two populations that often have more in common than they realize.
She talked to Civil Eats about populism’s farm roots, what the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline can teach us about the way Indigenous communities and farmers and ranchers can work together, and what the political establishment need to consider if it wants to reach rural voters.
Why did you want to write Harvest the Vote?
I was picking up books about rural America, like Hillbilly Elegy is the most prominent one, about hardship and drug addiction. Obviously those things are happening in rural communities, but what I didn’t see reflected in books was the hope, the solutions, and the reality of the bridges that can be built to start winning back voters in our rural communities and in our red states.
My primary purpose was to share a more hopeful message and to show that rural people are already leading on a lot of the issues that the Democratic Party at large cares about, but really aren’t getting credit for and aren’t at the table when it comes to national solutions.
And why did you want to release the book this winter?
We timed it to come right before the Iowa caucuses, because that is the one time every four years that the Democratic Party and national press are really focused on digging into rural issues. And it’s clear that because Iowa is first, all of our presidential candidates have a rural platform. If Iowa wasn’t first I don’t think that would be necessarily the case.
I also did it because that’s when voters and what I call super-volunteers and donors are all getting refocused on, “OK, we have a year of the presidential cycle left. What should we be doing?” And in my 20 years of issue and partisan politics I’ve been in enough rooms where rural does not come up at the table. And when you talk about states like Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, eyes roll and you get comments like, “Well, everybody’s racist there,” “They’re never going to vote with us,” or “They’re voting against their best interests.” And I really wanted to write a book that state party leaders, volunteers, and donors could pick up and get a different view about rural issues, so hopefully we can start changing the way that we invest in our elections.
You write about what you call the “unlikely alliance” that made it possible for people in Nebraska and elsewhere to fight the Keystone pipeline. How does that win translate to electoral politics, in your experience?
Well, [Keystone] is still an active fight and still very much an unlikely alliance being held together by this common belief that people matter and that protecting our land and water is something that unites us, despite the other kind of ideological or partisan differences. And I do think that is a roadmap for Democrats—that, instead of focusing only on candidates, in our rural communities, we can attract people with issues and stand with them when they’re hurting in order to earn their trust. So when Democratic candidates are running and are coming to their communities, it is not as if [rural people] are looking at aliens who haven’t visited them in 30 years.
Nobody would have expected Nebraska to be a hero in the story about Keystone XL. In the beginning, we had Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a Democratic president with Barack Obama. And it was the assumption that President Obama would reject a permit. And when the environmental groups lost cap and trade and when they were staring down the fact that their base was deflated, some of the rebels in the climate movement decided, well, maybe we should focus on infrastructure projects. And Keystone happened to be one of the big ones that was coming down the pike on the permitting process.
“Nobody would have expected Nebraska to be a hero in the story about Keystone XL.”
The traditional model of that fight would have been those environmental groups creating a communications and a lobbying strategy in the halls of Congress, and aimed directly at President Obama, and I think because of the loss of cap and trade, they tried something different. They started to listen to people on the ground for messaging, for ideas of actions, for how to invest resources on the ground. So, I think that is exactly what the Democratic Party needs to be doing. We need to stop running elections focused from offices in Washington, D.C., and instead trust the voices and the people on the ground, especially in those red states where we know how to win elections if we have resources.
In the book, you highlighted the way that the Indigenous community played a role alongside farmers and ranchers in the opposition to Keystone.
The healing that went on between farmers, ranchers, and Indigenous leaders was beautiful to witness. And it continues to this day. For the first two years of the fight, we were just organizing the farmers and ranchers in creating legal landowner groups, so they had some protections against eminent domain. Then we got invited to an event by Faith Spotted Eagle, one of the leaders of the Yankton Sioux tribe, and that meeting solidified and created the space for us to organize together, shoulder to shoulder and to really build trust.
I deeply believe that the Cowboy and Indian Alliance—a name we took from an earlier time, when ranchers and tribes came together to stop uranium mining in the Black Hills—the way that those folks are all so deeply connected to the land and how they were able to authentically deliver that message to President Obama and his team and the public to get them engaged, I think that is the reason we won Keystone.
You mentioned that the fight is still going on 10 years later. What does that look like?
On the one hand, the tar sands industry and banks are recognizing that [the pipeline] is, and should be, a stranded asset. So, you have the Teck mine that’s not going to move forward and some other smaller pipelines that have been stalled. And Keystone obviously has now been trying to get built for the past decade. We have three federal lawsuits about the permitting process that President Trump essentially leapfrogged. And we have 70 families right now in court in different counties in the state of Nebraska [suing] over eminent domain, challenging Trans-Canada, a foreign-owned corporation, to use eminent domain on American farmers and ranchers.
And some folks out there think Keystone is already built—because that’s what President Trump says on stage—while other folks think that it’s been stopped and isn’t a problem anymore. And whether it’s Keystone XL, the NEPA laws that the Trump administration is trying to do, or the water rule that the administration just completely handed over to big corporations, major changes are happening in forcing fossil fuel projects, which is just going to accelerate climate change. So, all eyes have to be on not only the White House, but on Senate races as well, so we can actually start to create policies that will say no more fossil fuel infrastructure and build out massive clean energy with everybody at the table.
You write: “You might be surprised to know that most rural people are opposed to industrial agriculture.” And you mention Costco’s poultry operation, which has moved forward despite a great deal of local opposition. Why is that opposition so complicated in places like Nebraska?
On the ground, I think there are a couple of things. One, we have a lot of immigrant families moving to our small towns and breathing life into those communities and keeping schools and hospitals open, and they’re coming for the low cost of living, for safety, but also for agricultural jobs—and some of that is in industrial agriculture and some of it is working alongside family farmers and ranchers.
I think the stereotype is that all farmers and ranchers essentially pollute the land and water and that they’re the reason we have climate change. That is a major stereotype that I battle on a daily basis [on social media]. And it’s true that big industrial agriculture is bad for the land and water. But small family farmers and ranchers are actually great for the soil, and provide food for not only America but for the entire world.
So from where I stand, we have to stand up for small family farmers and ranchers over big industrial corporations. And we can do that with policies, right? We can say, “Costco, you don’t get to go into a small town, take land using eminent domain for your major waste lagoon, and not pay taxes.” So when all these workers that are moving into town, bringing their kids, and going to the schools, the schools have no more tax base to pull from. And we can require things like water testing every month, and other policies like ones to make sure that workers are unionized.
None of that is happening right now with industrial agriculture. And we should not only be trying to level the playing field against industrial agriculture, with things like country of origin labeling (COOL), but we should also be putting much stricter requirements on big industrial ag.
But it is complicated. There’s no question that some people in the coalition to stop Costco were there because of climate reasons, water concerns, or labor concerns. But there were also people at that table who didn’t want more Black and brown families moving into their community. And we can’t ignore that. But as organizers we try to say, “Your anger and fear should not be on the immigrants. It should be at the big corporations!”
This came up a lot with the tribes and the farmers. They were able to learn from each other, trust each other, and tell each other stories. And I think that is also how we can heal the racism about immigrants in our small towns. We need stand up for the small family farmers and make sure that [big companies] can’t come in and take land and pollute water while we also we start to tell a different story about our immigrant families.
You have some very specific guidelines for “smashing rural stereotypes.” You talk about how many people who consider themselves conservative or moderate also feel that the system is rigged for the powerful and wealthy, for instance, and it seems like that’s where a lot of the potential work is to be done across the aisle.
That’s right. It’s much more comfortable for [progressives] to keep some of these stereotypes about rural folks so we don’t have to spend resources to organize in rural communities. And so we can just write them off theoretically in our minds. And some of those issues that make us uncomfortable as progressives and as Democrats are real. Like [although we may] have very different opinions on abortion rights, on guns, and on immigration, there’s actually a lot of common ground.
“The string of the economic barriers that are facing working-class families and middle-class families … is the common string that can pull us together.”
I grew up in Florida, working in D.C., in Philly. I was an urban Democrat who happened to fall in love with a rancher. So I was immersed in rural culture and identity. And now I know these people, and they have such huge hearts. And oftentimes—this is not an excuse for racist behavior—but they just they literally have never met African American or Latino families and have never been able to have conversations with them and realize that they have shared struggles.
And so when that happens—and it is happening now because so many immigrant folks are moving into small towns—you start seeing everybody having birthday parties together and going to soccer games. So, not with rose-colored glasses, but I do think that the string of the economic barriers that are facing working-class families and middle-class families, which is that big corporations have way too much power in our politics and in our businesses—that is the common string that can pull us together.
And the quote I used from Jesse Jackson really sums it up: “The eaters and the feeders have to unite for economic and land justice.”
You talk about the Green New Deal and how it has to include farmers and ranchers and rural communities in a meaningful way.
I deeply respect Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey and everybody else who’s working on the Green New Deal. But the one obviously glaring omission is they should have engaged Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) or Representative Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) or Representative Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) in the writing of that bill. Jon Tester is the only working farmer that we have in the U.S. Senate and in the Democratic Party. It would have made the Green New Deal stronger.
And it will make the Green New Deal stronger by having his voice there, because he can explain what he himself is doing to improve soil and combat climate change. He can also be a bridge for people who aren’t fully there yet on climate change, through talking about property rights and water first, and then climate change third or fourth.
When you have a [diversity of] voices at the table, it always makes the policy stronger. So on the Green New Deal, I think we need more farmers’ and ranchers’ voices at the table. That’s number one. But secondly, there’s still this barrier when it comes to clean energy. There needs to be a massive transition, which is going to take massive amounts of land. And the majority of that land is in rural communities, where we aren’t yet talking about what a disruption that’s going to be for some of these small towns, which will be putting 200, 300, or a thousand wind turbines in. And while I want to see that, I also know the disruption that it causes. And that the leaders of those rural communities aren’t at the table.
Environmentalists push for wind at the national level, but then don’t think about all the activity and relationships that should be happening at the local level, which is why you’re seeing bans in a lot of small towns on wind and solar, because they don’t feel like they’re involved. So, they’re just going to shut it out. And we’ve got to turn that around really quick.
Is there anything else you want to say about this current moment in politics?
We still have a glaring absence of our candidates going in to rural communities in the states that they’re visiting. And, you know, on some levels, that’s only going to get worse, with the presidential trail so focused on the swing states.
Democrats need to place bets on some underdog states, states that in the past decade have elected Democrats statewide. Nebraska is one of those. South Dakota is another one where they came so close to winning the gubernatorial race in 2018.
When Nebraska candidates have $10 million [to spend on an election], they can win statewide. But you can’t raise more than a million dollars from our in-state donors. That’s the ceiling. And so if we’re serious about not only winning the White House, but taking back some Senate seats, we have to stop dumping millions and millions of dollars into blue states and swing states only and start really doubling down in betting on an underdog strategy. And there’s enough money in the Democratic Party and in individual progressive donors to make this happen. I’m just one of the few voices saying this to national donors.
You mentioned Jesse Jackson. What can you say about the language of populism and how it’s been co-opted recently, despite its strong progressive foundation in these agricultural regions?
Populism has gotten a bad reputation because Trump [calls himself a populist] and then goes on stage and says he loves farmers and then turns around and screws them with awful trade deals or allowing eminent domain to take their land away from them for things like the border wall.
But we should get back to some of our populist roots. And I think Sanders and Warren both do that. Jesse Jackson had a road map for us when he ran for president. He stood with rural communities when they were hurting and didn’t just send a staff member or do a white paper on rural policy. He got on a tractor and went and stood with them in their communities, didn’t ask them to come to D.C.
And that’s what our presidential candidates, our Senate candidates, and our gubernatorial candidates all need to do. They need to go to their rural communities. All rural communities, just like urban communities, have issues they’re fighting, whether it’s contaminated water or their hospital closing. And when we talk about policies for the many, not the few, or what Senator Paul Wellstone said about how “we all do better when we all do better,” that resonates with rural communities.
And [rural folks] believe in the fundamental value of fairness, which is the value that Democrats base everything in our platform on. So, we don’t have to change our message. We don’t have to change the issues that we’re advocating for. We actually just have to go into rural communities and stand with them, too.