The Rebirth of Rural Populism in Upstate New York

The following article was written by Paolo Cremidis of Elmira, New York. It was originally published on the Daily Kos website in January, 2013. It was republished here with permission of the author.

We must remember as progressives that if the Democratic party represents us, and we use it as a tool to enact change that the debate we are having is not what that change is, but how the other side can attack us, as being not the party of the people but the party of elitist city borne ideology. That is what happened with the birth of the tea party, or rather it was the final punch in thirty years of regression, because the story of rural populism being regressed by the right does not begin in the Midwest but rather in rural manufacturing sections of the country like my hometown of Elmira New York. But the majority of voters who grew up under the new deal era became conservative when they got older so this shift in ideology only spans a lifetime in the majority of people, When people think of the populism in this country, they think of the Midwest and other regions of our country where populism prevailed.

What people fail to realize is that this populism had the certain cultural characteristic that redefined the left and in this modern age the Democratic Party. It is interesting that this populism came not from the Democratic Party but from the populist party among other groups. This might be strange to some but the state that gave FDR his biggest margin or 94% of the vote in 1936 was Mississippi, one of the few senators to oppose the new deal from the left was a southern democrat named Huey Long. It was the Midwest that supported the Socialist party of America during its existence was the Midwest with Wisconsin sending one of the only two socialist into Congress Victor L Berger. This state also sent to the Senate Bob Lafollete A Republican who ran as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912 garnering 12% of the vote. At this moment you might be asking yourself. What does this have to do with the Rebirth of Rural populism? If we analyze the shift of the white working class in this country it started to become increasingly conservative in our spectrum during the 1960s. So this shift has literally happened as the population had gotten older. But this is an anomaly in political ideology, because it was the Senior citizens in the 1930s that were part of the Townsend clubs (A movement created by Dr. Charles Townsend to ensure income for Senior citizens), vestiges of that movement are still alive in the AARP.

I recently had the chance to sit in a political discussion in a cigar shop a traditionally conservative atmosphere, as a progressive I could not really agree with them on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, but demographics tend to defeat that argument in national circles. But the other part of the argument they can agree with me on is international trade, most rural politics tend to center around factory towns, and this is were we can take a stance on saying we represent the majority of people. Democrats could exploit the argument against free trade, if we did something about it such as renegotiating free trade deals, and this is something Conservatives can be won over on. Especially in states that have heavy industry and manufacturing, and usually this argument tends to be more bipartisan in agreement than message. All politics are populist no matter what side of the spectrum you are on, which is why the tea party was so effective in drawing around the cultural edges of the picture of existence in rural America. It was painting the argument of the “people” which the tea party represented or at least argued to represent against the elitist federal government and its special interest such as unions and the evil Planned Parenthood. The reason this argument worked is because it played to cultural attitudes within regions such as the south and midwest that flipped once thought safe democratic seats such as Chairman of the budget committee John Spratt’s seat in North Carolina, anti NAFTA Mississippi congressman Gene Taylor among others. It is only an argument of rhetoric that Louisiana only has one democratic congressman even though the majority of their congressional districts are made up of what were considered once solid democrats. Now regionally there are several arguments that are populist in my hometown and the Surrounding Southern tier of Upstate New York its anti fracking, and it seems to have worked pretty well in unseating several Republicans such as Nan Hayworth and Ann Marie Buerkle. Both elected in the tea party wave of 2010. I believe that the anti fracking movement is key to the rebirth of rural populism, because it actually defines the rhetoric of populism perfectly.

If we look at what politicians have made the fracking debate about, it is about the elites against the people and no matter what Republicans say or do. They have defined themselves as taking the side of the elite and this is a view supported by most people in upstate New York even if they are Republican. Now the fact that this debate has cemented itself in Upstate New York as a fight against the elite even with Republicans says alot about the natural gas industry and its political supporters. Often to conservatives it is not the environmental problems but rather the economic ones such as the increase in rent prices and traffic increase. But also there is a different appeal specially with traditionally Republican winery owners within the finger lakes region of the southern tier if fracking comes to this area then the grape industry will be ruined because of lack of water. Now the anti fracking movement has united the people against corporate elite interest just trying to profit from our homes and then leave.

This rural populism is much more cultural and based on the self reliance of a region. There are other successful stories of where populist have won elections Jon Tester in Montana and Joe Manchin in West Virginia won elections in deep red states. The fact that a democrat won as a Senator and not as president in these states shows a big change in cultural attitude to their officials. I guess the label that all politics are local fits perfectly to how Democrats win and can win rural conservative leaning districts. It used to be that both Republicans and Democrats fought against NAFTA and other outsourcing policies. But Republicans tend to just want to play on the cultural attitudes of a rural area to win a congressional seat, which is failing because telling someone that banning gay marriage is somehow going to stop the outsourcing of jobs in America does not add up.

There are also several different demographic changes that will help democrats in places like upstate New York. If we look at demographics while rural areas seem to be emptying there is also a larger immigrant population. Within the 297 most rural counties within the States since 2000 immigrant populations have exceeded 5%. Generations in the future will mark this demographic trend. The outsourcing of jobs also tends to over affect rural America because 12.5% of the workforce in rural America is employed in manufacturing; this is a larger margin than farming. So this gives us progressives a better chance to fight against outsourcing of American jobs and it seems to be taking effect as well. This is why Republican senate candidates and Republican incumbent congressmen tend to lose their seats when it comes to these issues. There is no better example of this than the election of Pete Gallego in Texas kicking out tea party one term congressman Quico Canseco. The district they were fighting over was a majority latino rural district that stretched from the San Antonio suburbs to the Mexican border.

Now the antifracking movement in upstate New York is a temporary one since if we succeed there will not be fracking in New York State. But to keep this coalition alive you have to include people who have always voted Republican their whole lives. These people have already been convinced that Fracking is not a creator of jobs, so to keep this coalition alive people must be convinced that we need to bring manufacturing jobs back to the Southern tier of New York. This is how the populist would survive if fracking is banned. Not to mention that all of these rural areas contain several colleges, which are breeding grounds for activist. Furthermore the cohesiveness of a coalition lies not on its structure but on whether it can be continued by future generations. This can be replicated in several areas of the country which have bene gutted by NAFTA, CAFTA, among other trade agreements. It is isolating the enemy and creating a coalition to bring back jobs, by convincing the people. Fighting for the land rights of a landowner might not seem like a very progressive argument. But in upstate New York landowners who do not want to deal with the natural gas industry end up having to fight legal battles with gas companies. These landowners end up taking a position against fracking based on self-reliance and property respect.

Finally I want to highlight my own Congressional district the 23rd Congressional district in Upstate New York as a prime example of how rural populism can become instrumental in democrats mounting opposition to Republicans. A district that has a 2 to 1 advantage of Republicans to Democrats, the democratic candidate for Congress Nate Shinagawa only lost by 4%, in 2010 the Democratic candidate  retired Army Captain Matthew Zeller lost by 7.4% but the difference was the opposition to fracking, as well as several factories shutting down under Congressman Tom Reed’s tenure as Congressman even though many of his billboards said ” he was fighting for jobs”. This along with Republicans turning against him on the issue of fracking showed that people can fight the elite at the ballot box. With that being said we were outspent 3 to 1 but still spread the message through grassroots efforts. There is no doubt that rural populism is reborn through the anti fracking movement and the fight against outsourcing jobs. It is also fascinating to watch the people’s movements give birth to a new dialogue within rural America. While we may not agree with city liberals on gun rights and some trade deals, we do stand together against Fracking, against outsourcing, in taxing the rich. Rural America has again become a key part to the populist message.

Paolo Cremidis

About pystew

Retired Teacher, political science geek, village trustee. I lean a little left, but like a good political discussion. My blog, the New NY 23rd (http://newny23rd) is about discussing the issues facing the people of our new congressional district. Let's hear all sides of the issues, not just what the candidates want us to hear.
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3 Responses to The Rebirth of Rural Populism in Upstate New York

  1. whungerford says:

    I am uneasy with the idea that rural and urban interests must divide us. This idea may account for the difference between red states and blue states which is inconsistent with the American value ‘e pluribus unum.” It is often used by upstate politicians to cling to power by running against NYC rather than addressing common concerns. Dividing people according to place of residence is no more right than using racism or sexism to divide us.


  2. Pingback: After Gov Shutdown, GOP Can Kiss Congress Goodbye in 2014 | New NY 23rd

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