Randy Stapilus, veteran political reporter, has an interesting post at Ridenbaugh Press
, comparing the current state of rural America to the populist revolt at the turn of the last century.
A century and more ago, farmers and the other people of rural communities were in an almost riotous protest. They were being abused by powerful interests and social forces, these things could be addressed by politics, and they knew it, and they acted accordingly. They formed political parties, they did battle within political parties, they got leaders of major political parties (William Jennings Bryan, for one) to pay attention and take up their cause. They got radical and they got uppity. And partly as a result, their lot gradually improved in the early 20th century.
Much of rural America in a condition no less dire today, and a good many of the reasons are external and attributable to decisions made by politicians and leaders of various powerful interests. And where is the protest today in rural America?
Rural populations are shrinking dramatically, and have been for decades. So a political revolt in rural America today certainly wouldn't have the reverberations that it did a century ago. But, as Stapilus points out, in a handful of select areas, particularly in the West, it could have an impact. His case study is Washington's 5th Congressional District, Tom Foley's old seat.
Nationally, this looks like a year of revolt, but most of that activism seems centered in cities and suburbs rather than rural places. But rural places have been hit hard by a sequence of events, not of especially recent making but certainly of recent exacerbation. In the Inlander [Spokane's alternative weekly]:
Scarily real, agrees Read Smith, a Whitman County wheat farmer near St. John.
"We're in a desperate cost/price squeeze right now. The fertilizers we use are petroleum-based, and the fuel we need to run everything is up and we're being squeezed bad. The price we get for almost everything we produce is flat and has been for 30 years," Smith says.
"So we're living off equity, and Main Street is suffering. In Endicott there's no café, no tavern, no drug store. There's a food center and a bank and a post office and that's it," Smith says. "Go to many small communities in the 5th District and Main Street is empty. People are gone, the shops are closed, the schools are shrinking and the churches are suffering -- and there doesn't seem to be a real grasp that this is happening."
So far, they've mostly been sitting there and taking it. But not entirely. The Inlander noted that last fall, "Democratic Sen. Patty Murray swung by the Harvester Restaurant in Spangle and found a standing-room-only crowd packing the place to discuss troubles in farm country. A couple of weeks later, Murray flew a half dozen ag leaders to her office for a face-to-face sit-down meeting with a couple of senior officials from the Department of Agriculture." Only after that did McMorris, who (as is noted) not on the House agriculture committee, hold a rural assist event of her own. (McMorris actually comes from one of the small towns in the district, Colville, which should give her some useful insight into the problem.)
Cathy McMorris is the one term incumbent Democrat Peter Goldmark is attempting to unseat. Like Tester in Montana, he's the real deal--a rancher and farmer (and Haverford, Berkeley and Harvard-trained neurobiolist, remarkably enough) who has also held state-wide (appointed) office. The DCCC has recognized the strength of his challenge, and made this race one of their targeted races.
I'd argue that this potential rural revolt Stapilus is talking about has started in some places. I think it might have been in effect in Montana in 2004, bringing in not only Schweitzer, but also a Democratic legislature. It could also be behind Tester's surge. Two more Congressional districts to watch for this dynamic are Idaho's first where Larry Grant has forced the GOP to consider this one of their most endangered seats, and Wyoming's at large seat where Gary Trauner has the GOP equally worried.
If the national political revolt that has started rumbling in the cities and burbs rolls into rural areas, expect to see it play out in eastern Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming.