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You See a Lot of Empty Barns
A Rural Democrat Calls for Bold Action
I reached out to Bill Hogseth in late September to talk about deep canvassing. Bill is the Chair of the Democratic Party in Dunn County, Wisconsin, which lies about 90 minutes from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Hogseth, 40, is an ecologist who works with the Wisconsin Farmers’ Union. He grew up in the Chippewa Valley, moved away for college, and returned when he was in his mid-20s.
Before we began our interview, I asked Bill if he had listened to The Daily episode: The Field: “On Election Day, ‘Two Different Worlds.’” I confessed that the Democratic candidate interviewed in the piece, Kirk Bangstad, rubbed me the wrong way. Bangstad greeted The New York Times reporters with: “Cold enough for you fuckers today?” He also told the reporters that he thought support for Trump was high in his part of the state: “because they’re consuming the wrong news. A lot of them, I feel, haven’t been equipped with the tools of media literacy or critical thinking skills to be able to discern if they’re being told something that doesn’t quite gel or is not true.”
To me, whether The NYT intended it or not, this episode of The Daily highlights a range of issues that go much deeper than party affiliation. Because Bill has been doing deep canvassing in rural Wisconsin for months and because of his leadership position within the Democratic Party, I wanted to talk with him about why so many people voted for President Trump.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ZS: You said you think that there are some tone problems with the party, you know, taking this podcast episode as a jumping off point. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
BH: Yeah. I mean, just looking at that specific comment, and you hear it all the time that rural voters need to be educated, and that they've voted against their own self-interest. Both of those come from a place of arrogance, in my view, that rural voters don't know what's good for themselves. And you hear it all the time. You hear it amongst some of the local democratic activists, who are on the ground and --you know, God bless them, like their heart's in the right place and they want to do good work -- but you hear this thing, like we need to go out there and, and enlighten these backwards voters because they just don't know how to vote. And yeah, it's unfortunate because a lot of the folks out here in these counties are really, really sharp people, but they have a different kind of intelligence and maybe it doesn't come from getting a master's degree or even a bachelor's degree.
I'll just focus on farmers that are some of the most intelligent people I've ever met. Even though they might not have a formal degree. I mean, they understand economics. They understand ecology. They have all these different realms of knowledge that they have to draw upon to be successful in their business -- that I don't think somebody who is unfamiliar with that type of life can appreciate. And I think it comes through in that that dude's comments are totally tone deaf. There's not a lot of farming up where he is, but I would say the same applies to the logging industry up there, for example. I mean, talk to a logger. It's fascinating because of the different intelligences they have to have in order to do their job, and they understand the world through that. It's just a different way of seeing the world than, you know, somebody who has all that education.
ZS: I mean, this is sort of a tangent, but it makes me feel like the dominant framework marginalizes more rural experiences and understandings.
BH: Yeah. And I think people in rural areas feel that as well, that all the focus of where things are happening in society is in cities. It's where decisions are being made. It's where new businesses are being developed. It’s where culture happens. And I think there is a sense of stigma amongst people who live in my own community here that they feel that. That folks in cities look down upon us. And comments like what that guy mentioned really reinforces that. You know, the basket of deplorables comment reinforces that. Obama's guns and religion comment reinforces that.
ZS: I'm not familiar with Obama's guns and religion comment.
BH: He was at a fundraiser, I think in San Francisco, and someone was recording his comments to a closed audience. And he mentioned how people cling to their God and guns or something, or to their Bible and guns when they get afraid, they cling to those things. And that reverberated around here quite a bit. Like, you know, these elite Democrats don't understand us. They think we're dumb.
ZS: One thing I'm curious about is, what remedies, if any, do you see for the party in terms of that tone deafness or that sort of arrogance?
BH: I'll just start by saying it's really hard to run as a Democrat or organize as a Democrat in rural areas because you feel like you're swimming upstream. The way some of the messaging happens at the national level handicaps us in connecting with voters in rural areas. It’s something I think a lot about just because it feels hard to do this work in a rural area because of that. So, I would start by saying the party needs to do a better job at showing rural voters that it cares for rural America, and do it in a way that's more than just having a 12-point rural plan and posting it on your website and pointing to it, right? Or making the obligatory photo op of visiting a farm and like shaking hands with a farmer and showing you care that way.
If Democrats could show that they'd be willing to take on agricultural monopolies that are squeezing farmers on both ends of the supply chain and really addressing the fact that farmers are getting a smaller and smaller share of the food dollar. When a consumer pays for food, the farmers get like 15 cents on the dollar of that dollar. And back in the fifties, it was like 50 cents, 52 cents or something. It's the share of prosperity that rural Americans are getting to take in is getting squeezed through economic consolidation. And there was not a hint of discussion about that this year during the election cycle. And that's a bummer.
It would make it a lot easier for me to do the work of organizing and trying to help elect Democrats, if I could point to something like that and show, hey, this party is willing to take on these industrial giants in the agribusiness world, so that farmers and the other folks who are in the farm economy in these communities can have a larger share of the economic pie.
Farmers, rural people understand economic power. They're not dummies in recognizing that a lot of important decisions are made by CEOs and investors and the shareholders. They get that and, they know that nothing's gonna change unless there’s a fight.
So, say like the platform would be a helpful start, like taking up economic populism as a platform, I think could put us at an advantage in rural races.
ZS: I'm sure you saw the interview that Ocasio-Cortez did. And, basically what she's saying is that the problem aren't progressive policies, it's that Democrats aren't being bold enough in swing districts. And so, I'm wondering, what are your thoughts on that?
BH: Yeah, I agree. I agree on that. I agree. I think the messaging would have to be worked out for it to resonate in a rural area in a way that folks around here could hear. But I'll go back to the problem of agricultural monopolies. It would be a pretty bold thing to propose starting to enforce antitrust laws again in the same way we had to during the Gilded Age when railroads and things like that were accumulating insane amounts of power. We're at that stage again, where bold action needs to be taken. And it could be like, I'm not an anti-trust attorney, but do we need to take a look at all the mergers that have happened in the last decade between like Bayer and Monsanto and Dow and DuPont and, breaking some of those monopolies up? That would be bold. A signal to rural Americans that this party is interested in their livelihoods in a way that it's not just talking points. I think action speaks to too many people, not just rural Americans or folks in Wisconsin. And I think being bold is a way of showing that you're willing to fight rather than just having all the right talking points up your sleeve. Actions speak louder than words.
ZS: Do you talk with people about ideas, like a Green New Deal or about the slogan of defunding the police. I feel like there's probably a way to talk about moving money out of policing and into community initiatives that doesn't sound like you're going to abolish the police, but I would be curious to hear your thoughts on those things
BH: Yeah, I've heard concerns come up from folks that I've had conversations with about defunding the police. And I'll tell you, based on those conversations, that those three words, defund the police, doesn't sit well with many of the folks that I've talked to around here because I think they boil down a really complex issue into something that is so oversimplified that it can be misconstrued. And I think it is misconstrued. I think you're right. It's just about where do we make investments in our communities? Do we make them with policing or do we make them in with community development? And I think that's really what the question is.
ZS: I guess, to me, it seems like the phrase provides a lot of ammunition to conservatives who want to discredit the idea of changing budget priorities.
BH: Yes. I would agree. I think I would think, yeah, not only does the phrase itself oversimplify the issue, but I do agree that it was skillfully used by conservatives in their messaging to ramp up some of those concerns about lawlessness. And I heard many, many people really concerned about riots and really heightening that sense of the urban and rural divide that all of these problems are happening in the city. This is what I'm hearing from other people. So, yeah, I think the phrase was well used by conservatives to distort that issue and create more fear and emotions around that as a key election topic.
ZS: Right. Can you tell me about the deep canvasing work that you're doing? What are the things that you talk with people about, and what are people saying to you?
BH: Yeah, so we made a decision to do deep canvassing this year, and we were lucky to get some training from people who’ve been doing it since the beginning. We trained 100 people and about 20 really got engaged. We were specifically calling infrequent voters, so people who, based on their voting history, are not chronically voting in every single election. Those were the people we wanted to talk to because we thought that they might be open to a conversation about this election. We were really focusing on these conversations, not having a conversation about politics per se, but really having a conversation about people's personal experiences and their values and trying to get under the surface of politics to help these people who may not regularly vote, help them understand why this election is personally important to them and to the people in their life who they love.
We had a script and, but at some point, after a few minutes, the script becomes this sort of open landscape where you're just exploring with the person on the other end of the phone. You're exploring their own stories. You're sharing your story as a way of inviting them to share theirs. And it becomes really a two-way conversation, which is so rare in politics, right? Like everything is one-way messaging, whether it's like ads or billboards or postcards in your mailbox. These are like really, maybe some people's first opportunity to actually have a two-way conversation about politics with a stranger. So, really letting the conversation open up. We trained the canvassers not only to tell a story about someone who they love, someone who they're thinking about, that's motivating them to vote in this election. But we also trained the deep canvassers to ask open-ended questions to try to draw things out from the person on the other end of the phone. So, really listening and hold the silence so people have room to talk.
And, so there's just a lot that you hear from people. Some of it's really surprising. Some of it's really beautiful. Some of it's heartbreaking, but every conversation is different with each of these folks. What we learned was, once you show empathy, once you show the person on the other end of the phone, that you're not going to judge them for what they say, and once they trust you, you can actually have some really open conversations where some real connections are made and help people see the election, not just from what's going on in the news cycle and what are the pundits saying? But like, oh yeah, my mother might be affected by this election, or my son, my children might be affected in this way or that way, and really bringing it into a personal frame rather than a political-pundit type of frame.
ZS: I guess what I'm wondering is, it sounds like your goal isn't to go out there and convert someone, is that right?
BH: Our goal was to help people convert themselves. Our goal is to not try to change somebody's mind by telling them, you know, the perfect combination of words or phrases about particular policy or candidate, but to let them think out loud about the people they love and who they care about, and then to help them think about those people within the context of why they would or wouldn't vote.
ZS: It sounds like these conversations not only create opportunities, in a sense, for people to think out loud for themselves about what their priorities are and how they might vote, but also to have a better understanding of the community that you're living and working in and, consequently, what kinds of policy positions might be effective and be supported? Is that right?
BH: Yeah, totally. Yeah, and the other thing is that it, I think, having these conversations really humanizes a lot of the policy discussions that happen in an election season. And one of my takeaways from the conversations I had is that this just the tremendous amount of pain and struggle in the world right now in my own community that you don't really see or feel when you're like out and about. Not that I'm out and about right now a lot, but, it takes some time to have someone open up and reveal some things to you about why they're afraid for the future of their kids, or why they're concerned about their cousin. You get into people's lives, and you just started touching on these nerves. And I don't hear the democratic party speaking to the pain that's in rural America right now. And that's one of my takeaways, is that this party doesn't understand the pain that's in these communities right now and therefore isn't speaking to the pain that's in these communities right now. And a lot of my neighbors, I don't think they feel like the democratic party speaks to their own experiences. So, it's like, it kind of creates this feedback loop where I just don't think the party’s hearing the desperation that's around in rural communities.
ZS: Can you give me some examples of the kinds of desperation or pain that you're talking about? I mean, I know for example, right, there was somebody did an analysis after the 2016 election that found that the majority of the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump were also counties where there were very high rates of, um, suicide and opioid addiction.
BH: Yeah, yeah. I mean that doesn't surprise me. We're rural. The rural counties in Wisconsin have a higher suicide rate than the suburban and urban counties. There's a lot of things to point to when you ask about the desperation. I'll just start by saying, just traveling around rural counties, you see a lot of empty barns, many of them with their roofs collapsed from -- we had a winter with really heavy snow, like two or three years ago. And after that winter, half of the barns are there, their roofs sank in. And it just creates that feeling of like, these are all these reminders that, that used to be a small business that supported a family. You could raise a family, you know, milking 30 or 40 cows and growing some crops on the side. And that was prosperous. And there was dignity in that. And there was a future in that.
And now, you drive around, and you see these hollowed out barns with a collapsed roof, and it's just a reminder that that way of life has gone. And there's a lot of reasons it's going away. But I guess I'm just saying that like, it's hard to ignore the signs that there's not a feeling of prosperity around right now. Whether it's those empty barns or whether it's the empty storefronts on the main street. I live near a town called Colfax, and it's just empty storefronts. There's some antique stores where you can go in and buy some junk. There's some bars; there's some churches. We do have a pizza shop, thankfully. But other than that, there's not a lot. And you look at the data and it's like since 2008 there's been almost no new development of small businesses in rural America since the great recession. It's all happening in cities. You hear those types of statistics and data, and that doesn't really mean a whole lot until you start living in this place where you really just don't see new things cropping up in your small town.*
And there's not a sense that things are going on here, you know? And then the other thing I'd point to is just the whole collapse of the dairy industry** in the last decade has been really painful. It's just like, you know, you see your neighbor having to sell their herd of cows. And then that neighbor sells their herd of cows, and it's just these farms blinking off the landscape, and a sense that we're losing our way of life here. And it circles back to what I think is one of the root causes of just economic consolidation and a lot of the profits getting squeezed out of the process, so that it's just harder to make a living as a farmer right now. And so you see all these bankruptcies, and it's a hard thing to see your community go through.
ZS: Well, there used to be price-support policies and production management, and those policies were eliminated in the seventies, I think. So, basically the risk lies entirely with the farmer now.
You've already talked about if the democratic party wants to reach people then it needs to actually do something. And you're saying, for example, an example of that kind of action would be taking anti-trust measures against a company like Monsanto or another big agricultural company.
BH: Yeah. Or at least examining, taking another look at those mergers and whether they have harmed consumers, if they've harmed others, you know, producers. And I would say, getting back to your first question, like what are some remedies?
The other thing, I would add is, that the democratic party could do is get back to the roots of organizing. There's organizers that the democratic party will send into a community six months before an election, and there are the people who organize the canvasses and the phone banks until the election, and then that person disappears. And they're called organizers. But I would contend that they're not organizing, in the way that I view organizing, which is where you sit down with people, and you have a conversation with them at their dining room table or wherever, and you hear where they're at. And you really get into the community and try to understand what is the pulse of the community and what are the things that people are facing in their daily lives that they need to have solved?
I don't see the Democratic party doing that type of organizing. I see a very, very different style of political operation. But I think if there were real organizers doing real organizing year-round, not just in election years, and really sitting down with people in communities and having one-to-one conversations and having like house meetings. I mean, this is all classic organizing tactics that I don't see getting used right now. I think there'd be a lot of information gained that the party could use rather than just relying on polls and focus groups and trying to develop these slick messages where you think, if you just have the right campaign slogan, you know, more people are gonna vote for you. I don't think that's the case. There's not a lot of listening happening. You hear a lot about the need to listen, but I don't see it happening in practice by this party.
ZS: Is there anything you would like to add or anything you feel like we should have touched on that we haven't?
BH: One of the things that I just would add, that's kind of picking up what one of my last comments on this culture of how the party does politics and the need to get back to grassroots organizing where the party actually has people in the communities where they're working and take a deeper approach to organizing than just mobilizing our supporters. I mean, we already know our supporters support us, right? So, how about we organize amongst the people who may not support us and do that deeper work of listening where they're at and what we need to do to reach their needs. And I mean, honestly, I'm not super hopeful that this party will figure things out unless it can start, putting people on the ground and, and into the communities.
Part of the disconnect, I think, with how this party engages with rural America is the fact that many of the folks making the decisions and leading the party are from an urban class of highly-educated people, and there's an industry around political elections, you know, that people have a stake in perpetuating because it's their livelihood. I'm thinking there’s a lot of consultants that get pretty rich every, every election season. So, there's an incentive to maintain the way we do politics that's not real deep organizing. I don't see that solution coming anytime soon because there is a lot of profit to be made in the way we do elections and the way we do campaigns. I see that as a pretty significant barrier to this party, actually making contact with rural voters in a meaningful way because they're kind of insulated in their little bubbles of consultants and operatives. And so that's another kind of barrier that I see to making progress on this issue.
ZS: To synthesize that, essentially, you're saying that the party is more interested in self-perpetuation and elections than it is in creating change.
BH: I wouldn't generalize it and say the whole party is only interested in maintaining this industry of campaigning, but I would say there are certain people who are in leadership positions, yes, who have a stake in maintaining the way we do political work in the progressive side of America. I think there's a lot of good people in the party who have really great intentions who do want to make change. I know there are a lot of those really good people. The question is: how effective are there voices within a system where there's a lot of money to be made in a political campaign?
* Unlike Minnesota and Iowa, which have seen net population gains since the Great Recession, Wisconsin residents have declined.
** The total number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has dropped from more than 16,000 in 2003 to fewer than 7000 today. The number of cows, however, has remained stable.
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