I was speaking recently to Matt Dunne, founder of the Center on Rural Innovation, which promotes digital economic development in small-town America, and he was telling me about a Vermont community near his home with a great public library: “You could drive by on any Sunday and the parking lot would be full,” he said. “There was just one problem: The library was closed on Sundays.”
The parking lot was full of cars with kids doing their homework and adults doing their office work — using the wireless connectivity spilling out of the empty building because their rural homes lacked high-speed broadband. Alas, stories abound of rural Americans going to Subway sandwich shops and Dairy Queens in search of free Wi-Fi.
And that is why I want to talk today about Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Harris is too smart and energetic to be just the vice president, a position with few official responsibilities. I’d love to see President-elect Joe Biden give her a more important job: his de facto secretary of rural development, in charge of closing the opportunity gap, the connectivity gap, the learning gap, the startup gap — and the anger and alienation gap — between rural America and the rest of the country.
President Donald Trump feasted off those gaps in our last two presidential elections to dominate Democrats in rural America. Putting Harris in charge of fixing them would be a real statement by the Biden team.
It would provide a vision for American renewal and signal that Democrats were no longer going to cede rural America to Republicans but were instead going to seize it from them. And it would make Harris a super-relevant vice president from Day 1.
Democrats must not kid themselves. Biden won this election by narrowly winning the suburbs and urban centers in key battleground states, where just enough people decided that they wanted to “de-Trump” the White House but not “defund” the police.
That is, a lot of suburban voters rejected Trump personally but also rejected far-left Democratic ideas that had percolated up in the past few years. Democrats won the presidency but took a beating from those same suburban voters in many statehouse, U.S. House and U.S. Senate races.
If Democrats go into 2022 — let alone 2024 — appealing only on the cities and suburbs, they’re crazy. They will be highly vulnerable if the GOP is led by a smarter, less offensive populist than Donald Trump.
Most important, lifting rural America is the right thing to do for all of America and fulfills Biden’s vision of a nation that “grows together” in every way.
That concept remains in the DNA of the Democratic Party, which in my home state, Minnesota, is still known as the “DFL” — the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The party needs to reconstitute that coalition.
“One way to do that is by reconnecting with its populist roots — when it really was a party focused on the empowerment of workers and farmers and ordinary citizens,” argued Harvard’s Michael Sandel, author of “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” “Trump gave populism a bad name. Democrats should provide an alternative to Trump’s xenophobic, plutocratic populism by showing how populism can be a source of civic activism, engagement and renewal across urban and rural America.”
That should be Harris’ mission, and it’s one worthy of a vice president. And it starts in rural America.
“I fear the word ‘rural’ connotes a geography that is not my problem,” Beth Ford, president of Land O’Lakes, the influential farmer-owned cooperative headquartered in Minnesota, said to me. But, in fact, spreading connectivity and technology to rural America “is an American issue, an American competitiveness issue and an American national security issue,” she argued.
Persistent “underinvestment in rural America will leave us less secure and less prosperous as a nation” — and less competitive with China, which is rapidly connecting its rural heartland, Ford said. “Some 35% of farmers lack enough bandwidth to run the equipment on their farms, ensure their kids get a good education and that Grandma has access to telemedicine.”
What should a Biden-Harris rural strategy look like? It would start with showing up regularly. “Showing up” and “just listening to people” with respect goes a long way in rural America, Emily Larson, the mayor of Duluth, Minnesota, told me. Actually, nothing earns more respect than listening to people respectfully.
“Rural areas have their own social networks,” Larson said, but they’re different from the metropolitan ones. “Here, people will show up for you in the middle of the night, but they don’t post about it on Facebook.”
On policy specifics, the Biden-Harris team should commit that in four years every rural community in America will have access to broadband — the basic infrastructure needed for an inclusive modern economy.
Dunne suggests a new federal loan program that would offer 50-year, no-interest loans to communities and co-ops (and ease regulations) so rural public-private coalitions can build broadband networks with a minimum 100 megabits per second of speed for downloading and uploading all kinds of remote learning tools, work tools and telehealth tools. Rep. James Clyburn has already won passage of a bill in the House with a similar approach.
Traveling with Dunne last year to Red Wing, Minnesota, to see how gigabit networks can support high-tech startups and traditional farmers, I wrote about a couple of inventors we met who had created a robotic rooster that patrols the poultry house for dead birds and tills the bedding, but with an unexpected byproduct: The birds exercise more and gain weight faster, because they are constantly running away from or pecking at the robot.
While these “Poultry Patrol” robots work autonomously 80% of the time, said Dunne, “there are significant periods when they need to be remotely operated and receive coding updates from afar, which is only possible with very fast broadband.”
But while better connectivity is necessary, it’s not sufficient. “We also need to ensure investment in digital skills training in rural communities and incentives for tech companies to hire remote workers in small towns,” added Dunne. “Today rural America represents 15% of the nation’s workforce, but only 5% of digital economy jobs of the future. But the pandemic has opened people’s eyes to the idea that digital economy jobs can be created anywhere.”
Kamala Harris is a natural for that task. Who better to bridge Silicon Valley and the rural valleys of America?
She is also a natural bridge builder to a more inclusive American heartland, because rural America is not white America. According to a report by the Urban Institute, “1 in 5 Americans lives in rural communities, and more than one in five (22%) rural residents are people of color.” I wrote last year about Willmar, Minnesota, a town that was all white back in the 1950s and today is nearly half Hispanic, Somali, Asian and Native American.
In Minnesota, small towns like Willmar that can manage inclusion and diversity are the ones now thriving, because they can attract new labor and homebuyers when so many of the young white adults have left for the big cities.
Harris will soon be the first woman, the first Black and the first Indian American vice president, which certainly resonates with a lot of urban voters. However, if she could make herself the person in the Biden cabinet who always shows up FIRST to listen in rural America and the FIRST to appreciate its concerns and the FIRST to make sure its concerns are addressed, she and the Democrats could make themselves competitive in a lot more rural counties.
Even if it is just 10 or 15% more competitive, it might be enough to deprive today’s deeply warped Trump-led GOP from taking back the White House or the House in the next four years — and maybe force it back to sanity. The Republican Party needs shock therapy, and nothing would shock this GOP more than losing its automatic hold on rural America.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.