ABOUT THIS GUIDE
This guide was written with the help of dozens of leaders from across the country. Our goal was to create a resource to further civic dialogue among elected officials and their constituents in small towns and rural communities. Inside our guide, you’ll find a set of key messages aimed at rural voters based on our internal polling and external, publicly available resources. We know rural voters are looking to elect leaders who will fight for the “small town and rural way of life” and our hope is that this guide will help keep the civic debate focused on improving the lives of rural people. However, we also provide advice for authentic conversations about two issues often used by politicians to divide rural voters for political purposes. If you have questions about this document, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RURAL PEOPLE LOOK OUT FOR EACH OTHER
At RuralOrganizing.org, we’ve asked hundreds of rural people over the years what they love most about living in small towns and rural communities. Most often, one answer rises to the top. “We look out for each other.”
Our polling in 2018 showed that 89% of rural Americans agree with the statement that “In small towns and rural communities we believe in looking out for each other, whether we're white, black or brown, tenth generation or newcomer.” And while small town life doesn’t always live up to this value, we believe this is an aspiration we should all strive for.
Community-based values like this are especially important in today’s political climate where politicians have taken appeals to fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and islamophobia to a new low. This document examines strategies for leveraging our values as small town and rural Americans in order to create communities that are even more empowered, thriving and equitable.
COMMON GROUND IS BUILT ON VALUES
Social psychology shows that before people will listen to our ideas, they want to know our motivations. That’s why community conversations must always start by first establishing our values before addressing our agenda.
WHY ARE WE FIGHTING FOR OUR COMMUNITIES?
Before we can say what we’re going to do, we have to say why we’re going to do it. Polling from RuralOrganizing.org shows that well over 90 percent of rural residents think that the small town and rural way of life is worth fighting for. That’s nearly everyone living outside the city limits sign; white, brown, and black—tenth generation or new comer.
What is it about small town living that makes it worth fighting for? You have to answer that question first before you can move on to your policy agenda.
HOW ARE WE FIGHTING FOR OUR COMMUNITIES?
Once you’ve established why you are fighting for your community, you’ll need to clearly articulate how you plan on waging your fight. This not only includes your plan of action and your theory of change, but also answers important questions like, “Who gets to be included at the decision-making table?”
WHAT WILL BE THE RESULT OF OUR FIGHT?
We can’t just stop with our policy objectives. We have to follow through and articulate clearly what will be the result of our efforts. We have to say why our work matters. For example, we’re not just fighting to bring funding to rural schools, we’re working to ensure rural children have equal access to education.
PROMOTING A RURAL AGENDA
Rural people want rural-specific solutions to rural-specific challenges. Nearly every participant in our polling (94 percent) said that the rural and small-town way of life is worth fighting for, and 93 percent agreed that while most politicians favor larger metropolitan areas, we need policies that address problems in rural America too.
Our polling shows that rural people like Democratic policies more than they like Democrats. While 55 percent of rural people don’t think Democrats are fighting for their community and 68 percent of rural people consider themselves to be conservative or moderate, over two-thirds of rural people support key progressive priorities.
77 percent of rural residents think Congress is giving tax breaks to the wealthy instead of investing in rural areas
67 percent support offering free tuition to local community colleges and trade schools
64 percent say expanding Medicare to cover all Americans will benefit their communities
62 percent oppose outlawing abortions
Nine-out-of-ten rural Americans think we should invest in small, local businesses and protect rural schools from closing, and 85 percent think we should protect hunting and fishing habitats through smart land management policies. Similarly, 80 percent of rural Americans want to pass policies that support rural grocery stores, pharmacies, and clinics, and three-out-of-four rural residents want individuals with drug addictions sent to rehabilitation centers instead of prisons.
BUILD ON OUR UNITY
We’ve asked hundreds of rural folks what elected leaders need to do to rebuild rural America, and they consistently outline three basic priorities:
Increase rural wages
Decrease daily expenses
Invest in the rural way of life
We can raise rural wages by making it easier to start or run small farms and businesses and breaking up rural agricultural monopolies that suppress wages and take rural agricultural revenues out of the community. We can lower daily expenses by reducing the cost of health, child and elderly care, while expanding access to affordable housing and increasing investments in transportation and digital connectivity. And we can invest in the rural way of life by protecting and growing vital services like grocery stores, post offices, pharmacies and clinics if we prioritize rural development over corporate extractive agriculture subsidies.
RESPONDING TO DIVISION
TALKING ABOUT IMMIGRATION
In recent years, no issue has been more politicized than immigration. Some days, it seems that demonizing immigrants is the only thing holding the Republican coalition together. When responding to anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s critical that we root our response in our community values of looking out for each other.
The vast majority of rural people despise “divide and distract” political strategies. In fact, according to our polling, three out of four rural Americans say that instead of delivering for working people, politicians blame new immigrants or people of color in order to divide and distract us from the real sources of our problems.
THE CHOICE IS BETWEEN LEGALIZATION AND EXPLOITATION
Have you ever noticed that many—if not most—of the politicians who rant against citizenship for undocumented immigrants benefit, not only politically but also financially, from their exploitation of immigrant labor? President Donald Trump is the perfect example of this. President Trump often calls immigrants ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals,’ but his entire business is built on the backs of undocumented labor.
Thirty-five years ago, 200 undocumented Polish demolition workers worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week with no overtime to make room for Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. And still today, the Trump golf courses and hotels have been hiring and exploiting workers without legal status.
When it comes to immigration, the United States has a choice. We can choose to legalize our current workforce or we can choose to exploit it. When employers, like Donald Trump, are allowed cheat immigrant workers out of fair wages and benefits, it only benefits the bad actor business owners. But legalizing America’s current workforce creates a level playing field that benefits all workers and ethical employers who pay workers fairly.
The truth is mass deportation isn’t physically possible. The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff did the math: At its current rate of 7,000 monthly deportations, it would take two and a half decades for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to reach Trump’s punitive threshold.
But politicians, like Donald Trump and Steve King, don’t promote a “mass deportation” agenda because they think it will actually work. They promote a mass deportation agenda to keep undocumented workers in the shadow in order so they and their donors can suppress wages so they can pocket the profits.
RESPONDING TO QUESTIONS ABOUT IMMIGRATION
Question: Do you believe that we have a crisis on our southern border?
Yes! Absolutely! But it's not a national security crisis. It's a refugee crisis that's been mismanaged by Trump into a humanitarian crisis at our border. President Trump’s immigration strategy has created the perfect storm on our southern border. It’s so bad these days that it’s almost as if he created the crisis so that he alone gets the credit, attention, and praise for solving it. He thinks that the chaos at the border and his cruel response to it will arouse his core supporters and help him get reelected. He's trying to score political points rather than solve the problem.
But political stunts, like Trump’s border crisis, don’t make anyone safer. The United States should be leading an international coalition to address the root causes that drive people to leave their homes, and resettle refugees in an orderly process from the region so families don't have to make the dangerous jourey to the border.
For those arriving at our border we need immigration judges, nurses and the Red Cross, not walls, troops and cages. Not every person arriving is a refugee who qualifies for asylum, but we should have a fair process for deciding who gets to stay and who gets sent home. President Trump has abdicated the United States’ leadership role in the world—especially when it comes to responding to refugees fleeing failed states.
If we want to address the Central American refugees at our border, the United States must lead a strong international coalition to resettle those fleeing violence in the short term and address the root causes of that violence over the longer term.
Question: Do you support Donald Trump’s effort to build a wall on our southern border?
No. When it comes to border security, all the money in the world won’t fix a bad idea. And that’s what the border wall is—a bad idea. We need smart border security not a 14th century wall. The Department of Homeland Security says that the southern border is more secure than it has been in 40 years, and that’s largely because the federal government has spent an estimated $263 billion on border enforcement since the last major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in 1986 and because the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents has nearly doubled over the last 15 years.
So, if the border isn’t secure already, after the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve thrown at the problem, we need to know why. That’s why I think the conversation should be focused on actual outcomes—like whether or not we’re actually safer—rather than inputs, like how many blank checks we are writing to private contractors. That’s why I support border security investments based on measures that hold government officials and private contractors accountable for taxpayer-funded initiatives and ensure they actually make us all more safe.
President Trump's border wall isn't just a bad idea. It's an unreasonable federal government seizure of private property that will hurt rural property owners along the US/Mexico border for years to come. Less than one-third of the needed land for Trump's border wall is currently owned by the federal government. The rest — as much as 1,300 miles — is held by private owners, Native American tribes and state governments. Texas families in the Rio Grande Valley, who have owned their land for generations, are already dealing with a legal fight over the 33 miles of border wall and fencing authorized by Congress in March that required seizures of land. But if Trump is allowed to proceed, more families will find themselves losing their property to the federal government.
Question: What is your plan to actually secure the border?
Smart border security involves strengthened inspections and updated technology at ports of entry, where most drugs are trafficked. We need accountable, professional agents. And most of all, we need to recognize that the Keep Out sign at our border is followed by a Help Wanted sign a few hundred yards in. The best way to get control of immigration is to combine legalization with a crackdown on employers who hire and exploit undocumented workers.
That will create a level playing field and isolate the bad actor employers who end run the system to undercut all workers and their honest competitors.We have to end blank checks to private industry groups who are making billions of dollars off of taxpayers and not making us any safer. We’ve put hundreds of billions of dollars into our southern border over the last three decades and if that hasn’t secured the border no amount of money will.
We need a better strategy and an updated immigration system, not more blank checks.
TALKING ABOUT REPRODUCTIVE HEALTHCARE
For many women, the decision when and if to become a parent is one of the biggest choices they make. For decades, some politicians have demonized women who seek abortions.
But despite these divisive political strategies, there is more common ground on abortion rights than many people realize.
AMERICANS HAVE REACHED A CONSENSUS ON REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH CARE
Research has shown that at least 7 in 10 Americans support legal access to abortion and has highlighted the overwhelming unpopularity of the Right’s efforts to ban abortion. Only 9 percent of voters believe abortion should be made illegal in every case. Even among Republicans, support for a full abortion ban is as low as 20 percent. The polling also shows that Independents chose Democrats on the question of which party would do a better job by an 11-point margin (43 percent to 32 percent).
The truth is, Americans’ personal identity as “pro-choice” or “pro-life” has little to do with whether or not they support abortion rights. In fact, Americans’ views on specific abortion policies tend to remain stable over time, but whether Americans identify as pro-choice or pro-life routinely shifts based on the national discourse at the time.
It’s true that in rural communities, support for restrictionist abortion police is higher than in non-rural areas, but our polling shows that only 38% of rural residents support outlawing abortion.
RESPONDING TO QUESTIONS ABOUT ABORTION
Question: Do you support abortions?
Yes. The issue of when life begins is personal. For some, it is based on faith, and for others, it is based on science. What I do know is that politicians aren’t the experts—and it’s not an issue the American people want to be legislated.
I have deep respect for religious people who might disagree with me on this issue and I’m not asking them to change their personal beliefs. For me, abortion is not about a person’s beliefs. It’s about creating a legal access to a medical procedure that allows families to determine their own futures.
Our country was founded on the idea that no individual will be persecuted for practicing their own religion and no individual should be allowed to impose their religion on others. That’s why I believe we shouldn’t be legislating personal beliefs onto others.
That’s why I think women should have complete control over their reproductive health care and that the decision of if, when, and how to have a child is deeply personal. So a woman and her family must make the decision that is right for them. Politicians should not interfere.
Question: Do you support abortions after 20 weeks?
Yes. The most important question for me is, “How can health care providers give their patients the best health care possible in what can often be a very difficult situation?
Doctors agree that viability is not a number. They must evaluate each individual pregnancy to determine the right care for each woman. Some pregnancies will never be viable. It is important that pregnancy decisions remain left to women in consultation with their health care providers, not politicians.
Instead of making access to abortion more restrictive and using laws to virtually shut down health care facilities, we need to support women and families as they make very personal decisions.
We’ve seen what happens when politicians interfere in these deeply personal medical decisions and tie doctors’ hands. In states that have passed laws like this, some women and their families have been put into unimaginable situations—such as needing to end a pregnancy for serious medical reasons but being unable to do so.
Question: Do you support Planned Parenthood?
Yes. We can have an honest conversation about whether abortion should be safe and legal in this country, but there’s a lot of fear and misinformation out there. Americans have largely reached a consensus on reproductive health care and most of the political rhetoric we hear today about abortion is meant to divide and distract voters so that a handful of politicians can further their own political career.
Federal tax dollars are currently prohibited by law from being used for abortion in almost all circumstances. So “defunding” Planned Parenthood really means legislators are preventing people from getting birth control, STD screenings and prevention, cancer screenings, and other lifesaving care at Planned Parenthood health centers.
So attacking abortion providers harms our communities by cutting off health care from those who need it the most.