Can Democrats reclaim rural America? Jane Kleeb says yes — and wants to show them how

Nebraska Democrat Jane Kleeb on the Keystone pipeline and how her party can win back the heartland: Part 1 of 2

Published February 15, 2020 12:00PM (EST)

Charming village of Topsham, Vermont / Harvest The Vote by Jane Kleeb (John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images/Ecco/Salon)
Charming village of Topsham, Vermont / Harvest The Vote by Jane Kleeb (John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images/Ecco/Salon)

One of the most dominant facets of conventional wisdom in American politics is that rural America is solidly and self-evidently conservative and Republican, so it's a waste of time, energy and resources for Democrats to try to compete away from the coasts and the big cities. The fiasco of this year's Iowa caucuses — which may never have a clear winner, or a result everyone trusts — only seems to further the argument that Democrats should focus elsewhere. 

That surely makes some sense, in terms of adjusting the presidential primary campaign for a more diverse electorate. But presidential campaigns aren't the only game in town — as the 2018 midterms forcefully reminded us, especially when it comes to state legislatures, which in turn help shape redistricting. That belief that rural America is off limits for Democrats is relatively recent, by the way — it flies directly in the face of former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, and erases the recent history of Democratic senators from what are now considered red states: Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, among many others. 

What's more, it ignores fresh evidence as well, like the 2018 wave of teachers strikes that started in West Virginia and was heavily concentrated in red states, or the fact that "Red states have passed progressive ballot campaigns from medical marijuana to marriage equality to Medicaid expansion," as noted by Jane Kleeb in her new book, "Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America." 

Kleeb is chair of the Democratic Party in Nebraska, where, she notes, "we had 850 Democrats run" in 2018, "and 73 percent of them won their elections." So she just might know a thing or two that Beltway pundits don't. 

Before that, Kleeb was founder of Bold Nebraska, the grassroots organization that played a key role in nurturing grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline, which in turn helped revitalize the climate change movement. All the elements are there for Democrats to win again in rural America, Kleeb argues persuasively. And it doesn't require sacrificing progressive values to do so — just an investment of resources that would repay itself many times over. As the Democratic primary season kicks off, I sat down to interview her about her book and her vision for a party that leaves no part of America behind. What she had to say was interesting enough that we'll run it in two parts over the weekend. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. 

The subtitle of "Harvest the Vote" is "How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America." A big part of that is just common sense: it starts with listening to people, learning from them and learning from history.  At one point, you write, "Democrats have stopped showing up in rural communities, so we've lost touch with what matters most to rural folks." What are you referring to there? 

One is just respecting that rural communities have a way of life that they are seriously trying to protect right now. All of our kids are moving away, big corporations or farming or pipelines are coming and taking our land, and the small rural towns look around and nobody's coming to stand with them. Republicans certainly take them for granted, and the Democrats have left them behind. 

Some of the issues are obvious as soon as you go to a small rural town. It is about keeping rural hospitals and schools open. It's about making sure that big corporations aren't using eminent domain to steal land for pipelines and other projects, which is happening more than I think Americans realize, all across the country in small rural towns. It's also just about how we are making sure that we don't have towns where you have to drive 30 miles to get a gallon of milk and fresh produce. I think we have a responsibility as the Democratic Party to really get back to some of our rural roots. You could argue that we're the ones who electrified rural America with the Rural Electrification Act. In a sense, we have totally forgotten our roots of small family farmers and agricultural communities.

You write, "I was told once when I spoke at a Democratic county meeting that I was the first party leader to come visit with them since the 1970s." How bad is it? And what needs to be done to change it?

When I got told that, when I was maybe a month into being [state party] chair, I was floored, I said "You mean like a big presidential candidate or a federal candidate?" And they're like, "No, it's like anybody being here, even a state chair." I was like, OK, so we have a lot more missing than I thought initially. 

If you're not from a rural community, you don't understand rural. You can easily write off rural, like people often do on Twitter or Facebook, where they essentially say rural people are voting against their interests, they're dying off, they're voting for Republicans 60 to 70 percent. So let's just forget about them. And if there's nobody like myself or like [Montana senator] Jon Tester or like [Iowa congressional candidate] J.D. Scholten in the room, making the case: "No, here's how you can win rural voters. Here's the places where we can be effective and $1 million in Nebraska can sustain a whole year-long campaign, versus maybe a three-week ad campaign in Colorado or Texas." Those are the conversations that we need to have, and should be having, if we're serious about winning back these places. 

The last time Democrats did show up in a big way was during the farm credit crisis of the 1980s. So I'd like to ask about what you learned from that. What should people know about the farm crisis, and how people organized in response?

This was a time in our nation's history when our family farmers and ranchers were losing their farms at record pace, and suicide rates were skyrocketing, and Democrats really showed up for rural communities. 

In the book I talk about Jesse Jackson going to a small town in Missouri and riding a tractor in one of the tractor brigades with small family farmers, and his line about how "the eaters and the feeders" need to unite for real economic and land justice. That resonates so much today. 

When I meet with people who were in those tractor brigades, or whose grandparents were in those tractor brigades, they're like, "Yeah, that's the kind of leaders we want. Not leaders who are going to come in and tell us our way of life is wrong or we need to 'go big or go home,' which is what the Republicans are constantly telling small family farmers. We need people to stand with us saying, 'Yes, you are the ones who are putting food on our tables, you're the ones who are making sure that we have food, fiber and fuel. How can we make sure that you continue to be able to live and protect your way of life?'" 

Jackson showed up early, but he wasn't the only one by any means. So how did Democrats at large respond, and how were they ultimately rewarded?

Democrats showed up in big ways. We had people like Tom Daschle out of South Dakota and Tom Harkin from Iowa, where the farm bill was being debated hotly during this time. They brought farmers and ranchers to Washington, and all across rural states they would go into these listening sessions with farmers and ranchers, and talk about what kind of stuff they wanted in the farm bill. 

So when everything else was falling apart around them, farmers and ranchers in these small towns, and businesses supported by farmers and ranchers, saw Democrats showing up. They were showing up in the small towns getting feedback. They saw them on national TV, standing with them when the tractor brigades went to Washington. And this was when Ronald Reagan was turning his back on family farmers and telling them that they simply needed to stop whining. 

So we know that this is in the Democratic Party DNA that we stand up for the little guy. We really do believe what Paul Wellstone told us many years ago, that we all do better when we all do better. And that type of belief is also in the DNA of small rural towns.

So how does the current situation resemble the farm crisis of the 1980s? And how should Democrats respond now?

If you go around to our small towns, there's lots of evidence we are in a very similar time. I think the problem is that the megaphones and the TV cameras are not in our small towns showing that crisis, like they were in the '80s. But that crisis is currently happening. Suicide rates have skyrocketed. Again, in our small towns, bankruptcy rates are up, but the response in the Democratic Party is not there. 

The response isn't there for the Republican Party too, so I don't want people to think, "Oh, the Democrats have got it wrong, and the Republicans have it right." No, neither party has it right, which is why it leaves this wide open space for the Democrats to show up and really live our values. You have family farms that have been in people's hands for over 100 years and they're having to sell that ground to big farms and corporations because they can't continue to operate.

You talk a lot about organizing against the Keystone XL pipeline, which was a real turning point in climate activism. You note that highlighting frontline communities "has become commonplace" in today's climate movement. But that wasn't the case a decade ago. So, how did that organizing start — both on the ground and nationally?

I open the book talking about Keystone because I think that fight, over about 10 years, really demonstrates how the climate movement regenerated. They had a playbook on how they fought campaigns: They walked the halls of Congress. They got the support of members of Congress to put pressure on the president and that's how they would win campaigns. That was how they assumed they were going to win the cap-and-trade fight. They had the House and Senate and President Obama. Everybody thought it was going to be a cakewalk, and that bill went down in flames. 

Several people — Bill McKibben, a climate leader named Kenny Bruno and several other climate heroes — all got into a room and started to do some soul-searching on how we actually win these big fights, because we were clearly not winning. At the local level, at the same time, farmers and ranchers were starting to contact me. I had just started this group called Bold Nebraska. 

After we passed Obamacare all the national groups left Nebraska. They were here for two solid years, we had resources, but then once they got Sen. [Ben] Nelson's vote, they left. So we were then left looking around, like, "Now what we do with this infrastructure that we built?" and clearly feeling that we could build a bridge between rural and urban and really advocate for progressive things in our state. 

So I was getting these phone calls, and I had no connection with environmental groups. I'd never done any environmental work. When those national groups, because of the conversations they were having at the national level, started to reach out and say, "OK, we want you guys at the table. Is there any movement on the ground of people really wanting to go up against this pipeline?" I was really skeptical. Fighting oil pipelines was certainly not something that we're used to doing in the state of Nebraska. 

But I went to that first State Department hearing and every single person went up to that microphone was a farmer or rancher and they were absolutely against the Keystone pipeline. They knew all the ins and outs about tar sands. Not many of them talked about climate change at the time, but they were certainly fiercely protective of their property rights and water, and really it showed me — and this is true about politics when you're running races for candidates as well — that in order to win a fight, you have to get the support of the people who are directly impacted. 

That's exactly what we did with the Keystone fight. And that was definitely not the original playbook. Nobody expected the farmers and ranchers and tribes to be the heroes in this fight to not only stop a pipeline but to really revive the climate movement. If you ask Bill McKibben or others, they will say that Keystone revived the climate movement.

A key aspect of the rural movement involved collaborations with Native American communities. I'd like to ask you about one facet of that collaboration, the planting of Ponca sacred corn in the path of the Keystone XL pipeline as "medicine for the land."  

We had one of the first spirit camps on the Keystone pipeline early in the fight. A spirit camp is when you have a sacred fire and you put up a teepee and you hold that sacred fire for at least 24 hours of prayer and meals together. So we did this with some members of the Ponca Nation from Oklahoma, and some farmers and ranchers, and during that spirit camp, one of the Native Americans, his name was Mekasi, had a dream that his ancestors were telling him that they needed to bring the original Ponca corn — which hadn't touched Nebraska soil for 130 years, when the Ponca were driven out of Nebraska — that they needed to bring it back and plant it as medicine for the land. That is how the Native Americans see the corn, as medicine for the land, just like they see water as medicine for our bodies. 

We did not think that we would be able to find enough Ponca corn but Mekasi not only went to elders and collected them out of seed bundles, but then realized that there was this really great gentleman in the agricultural department of the Ponca nation who was also keeping seeds. So we did bring that back to Nebraska. And the KXL pipeline crosses the Ponca Trail of Tears in Nebraska, so that's exactly where we planted eight acres of the Ponca corn. 

A couple of years had gone by, and Mekasi's mom was bringing these seeds to other pipeline fights that have also planted the Ponca corn along the pipeline route as a way to bring people together in shared resistance. That's when somebody down in South America told her, "These are seeds of resistance, and that we all can be seeds of resistance." So that's what we now call them now, jointly with the Ponca tribe. 

I think the elder in Mekasi's dream — which is something that sticks with us, and we tell the story every time we plant the Ponca corn, which we're now going into our sixth year in May — the elder told Mekasi that this is so important, not only for medicine for the land, but that the corn will stand for you when you cannot stand for the land. For us in the Midwestern states, corn is such a symbol already, of not only food, but also for fuel. It's a symbol of our way of life, so having that corn also be a symbol of our collective resistance is a story I definitely wanted to be told.

Say more about how rural perspectives differ from those of national environmental groups, and about how they learned to work together.

Rural folks have a way of communicating which is mostly in person, and environmental groups are very fast-paced, very online. Their messaging is automatically — and rightly so from their perspective — about climate and climate change. When we talk to somebody in Nebraska or South Dakota who were fighting the pipeline, their first messages were, "We are here to protect the land and water." It took honestly a good three years before farmers and ranchers started to use the words "climate change." Not because they denied that climate change was happening, because if you work the land every single day you see the changes happening in the weather and the soil, in the way the crops are growing. But "climate change" didn't mean anything, it had no roots in their daily experience.

So we had to learn that we needed the environmental groups for their political operations and for their scientific papers, because we had in our gut why we didn't want the pipeline, but they provided studies and white papers to back us up, so when we were talking to state senators and other legislators we didn't sound like complete idiots. And then on the other side, the environmental groups needed the faces of the farmers and ranchers and tribes to really change hearts about the pipelines. Which now sounds so obvious, but at the time it was not. It was sort of a risky proposition to bring in a bunch of farmers and ranchers and tribes to offices in the Senate or to the White House, but I think that human connection is what started to change minds on this particular project, and it broadened out in changing perspectives on climate change as well. 

The use of eminent domain for private profit was key to generating rural opposition to  the Keystone XL pipeline. But Democrats haven't really focused on this in any sustained way, while Republicans have pandered on the issue by pretending to defend individual property rights — but only against clean energy projects. How do Democrats need to change?

There are three policies that impact rural people's daily lives that Democrats can really grab onto that are totally in line with our values and platforms. The biggest one, from my perspective, is putting an end to eminent domain for private gain. It is unfathomable when you talk to people and you say that a corporation can actually come in to a family farm or ranch and tell them that we are going to use eminent domain to take your land and put this pipeline in, or put this hog factory in, or for urban people, it might be a big sports arena. It doesn't matter if you don't want to move or don't want to sell, because we're going to use eminent domain and take it regardless. It's fundamentally un-American to do that to a family, whether they're a black or brown family in an urban area where a big arena is going to go up or whether there is a small family farm or ranch where a pipeline is going to cut through their land. 

We know that this poll-tests very well: In Nebraska, 80 percent of people are against the use of eminent domain for pipelines. But it's also one of those issues that there's right and there's wrong. And it is wrong for corporations to take somebody's land away from them for their own profit. So this is something where there is a firm and fertile program for Democrats to work on, and the Republicans have completely sold out on this issue. The only time they now talk about property rights is to try to block a wind project or transmission lines. So we need to not only call that hypocrisy out, but we also need to stand up for property rights and call it that, right? We're standing up for property rights. We're the party making sure that eminent domain can't be misused.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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