For years, United Vision for Idaho Executive Director Adrienne Evans has been a regular at Boise rallies pressing for minimum wage increases, environmental regulation and other progressive issues. For the last four years, however, she and others in her circle of activists have been knocking on doors far afield from their usual bases of support.
“What we’re trying to do, and what we’re doing, is crafting a national policy and ensuring that rural voices are showing up in that space,” she said.
The effort began with a listening tour. So far, Evans said she and a small army of canvassers have made contact with 1.2 million people in Idaho alone amid a nationwide push to uncover the needs and concerns of people living in rural areas. In August, People’s Action, a progressive network that includes UVI, the Hometown Organizing Project, Progressive North and many, many others, released a report on the initiative entitled “Relief, Recovery and Reimagination: A Federal Policy Agenda to Meet this Moment in Rural and Small Town America” outlining a bevy of policies engineered to fold so-called Flyover Country back into the national dough.
The planks of that platform include initiatives in the areas of healthcare, the opioid crisis, clean energy, housing, agriculture and more. It calls for an increase of the minimum wage; and investment in education and infrastructure like internet access, healthcare, clean water and roads. Many of these categories are familiar across the political spectrum: In his initial bid to become president, Donald Trump promised massive infrastructure spending to harden his domestic policy bonafides.
Despite the national interest and overtures, disparities remain. Expanding broadband internet across Idaho has been on policymakers’ wishlists for years; and when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the heartland, it overwhelmed local healthcare systems, spilling patients into other, larger networks that were themselves under enormous stress.
The problem is twofold. Rural America suffers from a case of political invisibility. According to the report, “Many in the political establishment seem to assume that it isn’t worth the effort to compete for rural votes,” contributing to an atmosphere in which there’s little urgency behind solving problems. Such a state of affairs, the report concluded, has made rural areas a breeding ground for the Alt-Right, which has transformed political disaffection into a social problem and contributed to xenophobia, racism and white nationalism.
“It’s destroying the frameworks that we have,” Evans said. “The entire purpose [of white nationalism] is to eliminate and subjugate all others to preserve a white, Christian, male ethnostate. That’s the real force that we’re up against, and it’s not like this is new.”
The antidote, according to the report, is to crack open heartland America: foster encounters, encourage political participation, and build connections among and between communities. That has meant putting the report and “People’s Bailout” priorities—direct economic relief for people, an eviction moratorium, financial help for local and state governments, and fully funding the United States Postal Service—into the hands of policymakers, but more directly, it has meant that political organizations like United Vision for Idaho will continue to make inroads outside of cities.
For Evans, that has meant connecting with people who don’t align with her political philosophy. She recalled knocking on the door of a man whose truck was coated in conservative-leaning political bumper stickers, and who expressed adamant disapproval of a single-payer healthcare system and other left-leaning policy propositions. Their conversation began to make headway when Evans asked him how he felt about the treatment of veterans. It’s only when people refuse to talk with each other, Evans told Boise Weekly, that problems become truly intractable.
“You may call them progressive issues or values or ideology, but really, it’s just what we all need to live, thrive and create a better world,” she said. “All of the rhetoric and the notions and the divisiveness fall away. It’s bearing out in real time how we bridge the divides between us.”
Evans described what happened in that instance as a case of people overcoming their profiles of each other—of finding common ground. She warned that like cities, not all rural areas are the same, and exploring their similarities and differences can reveal political nuances that are lost in dividing America between “city” and “country” folks.
There’s an old adage that the personal is the political. Historically, it has been interpreted as meaning that the personal, private realm is never free of political implications; but fundamentally, politics touches on people’s overall wellbeing. The political is also the personal. Decisions made in Washington, D.C., or in state capitols oftentimes are insensitive to people who are remote to those places; and Evans said that rediscovering those people politically had a great personal impact.
“One of the things that was really glaring: I can’t tell you how many people said things like, ‘Nobody’s asked me in 30 years what I think or feel,” she said.