Nebraska and Rural Conservatism Podcast #41

George Norris
U.S. Sen. George Norris and University of Nebraska Political Science Department chair John Senning. Both were champions of the unicameral legislature.

Ross Benes explains politics in rural Nebraska from his research and personal experience. His new book is Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold.

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The legislature is one of several examples of our history of being independent which is why I think it was such an important story to tell of Nebraska becoming like baptized into Republican orthodoxy. Because seeing that shift. That it wasn’t always that way. We founded Arbor day in this state, we settle a lot of refugees per capita, we increased minimum wage, and Medicaid through ballot measures recently. We do stuff like that.

Ross Benes

Podcast Transcript

Red states and blue states. Republicans and Democrats. Rural and urban. Polarization. It is a term often heard about American politics. Most states find their politics lean heavily toward one party or the other. And Nebraska is no different. It is a very conservative state so it makes sense for it to elect Republicans.

But not too long ago Democrats competed for state offices. In fact, Nebraska had at least one Democratic Senator from 1977 until 2012. It’s really only been the last ten years where Democrats could not compete in the state. 

Of course, the Democrats it elected were about as conservative as many Republicans. But Nebraska also has a history of progressive reforms. In fact, it was often rural America who championed many of the progressive ideas in the early twentieth century. 

This realization has caused me to go through a variety of different counterfactuals. Like why are rural Americans conservative and urban Americans liberal? Is there a scenario where this is reversed? I’m not looking to rewrite history. I just want to understand how politics change over time. And maybe where it is going next. Because history shows some of the things we take for granted have not always been that way. 

My guest Ross Benes grew up in Nebraska before moving to New York City. He has the kind of expat perspective that has given so many writers both clarity and insight. His recent book is Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold. 

Ross and I, we discuss why Democrats no longer compete in Nebraska. But I don’t want anyone to think Nebraska has to elect Democrats to prove their commitment to democracy. That’s not the point. Nebraska is one of many states with very little genuine competition between parties for statewide office. My concern is effective governance needs a range of perspectives to succeed. And this problem is not unique to Nebraska nor are many liberal states immune. 

But before we begin I want to remind listeners that Democracy Paradox is part of the Democracy Group network of podcasts. This week we are highlighting Our Body Politic. It focuses on how women of color experience major political events. Last week host Farai Chideya interviewed Congresswoman Ayanna Presley. What an interview! They just have an impressive lineup of guests are impressive and informative. So, give Our Body Politic a listen.

But now it’s time to introduce you to my favorite Nebraskan Ross Benes…

jmk

Ross Benes, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Ross

Great to be here, Justin,

jmk

Well Ross, I enjoyed your book. It goes through a lot of different parts about Nebraska and how it’s transformed over years. So it’s often easy for Democrats to write off Nebraska as Republican simply because it’s conservative, but I want to know why is Nebraska a conservative state? Obviously, the easy answer is going to be, ‘Hey, it’s a rural state.’ But why does rural America gravitate towards conservatism. Early American populism was an agrarian movement. Wisconsin led many of the early progressive reforms. So why are rural States like Nebraska so conservative today?

Ross

Well, what I’ve noticed is how being in one of those rural States, it just breeds such a different perception of what role government should play in people’s lives. And in many people’s minds out there, their perception is that Democrats are big government and Republicans are going to cut down government programs because they’re going to cut their taxes. And whether or not these parties actually hold true to those labels that’s like the predominant view. So, when you’re in that area where you don’t have many people around you, a lot of people there tend to want to limit the role that government has in their lives.

So, they don’t want the Affordable Care Act because that’s government coming to health care. They don’t support the Green New Deal which is environmental legislation. It’d be the government interfering with their ability to produce ag products. They also support gun rights. And they are very adamant about any sort of government restriction that comes in and they may receive more federal tax dollars per capita out there, but they still believe government isn’t like a good thing. And they associate big government with Democrats and that’s helped Republicans a lot. So, I think this anti-government, this anti-tax viewpoint has really put them in that Republican camp. And it’s really made those areas very conservative politically.

jmk

But Ross, why does a state like Nebraska gravitate towards small government? There was a book out about five years ago by Arlie Russel Hochschild called Strangers in their Own Land. She refers to what she calls the great paradox. The fact that the people who oftentimes benefit the most from some of these government programs are oftentimes the most hostile towards them. So, from your experience, why is a state like Nebraska hostile to big government or even any government program sometimes?

Ross

Yeah, well, the state has a little bit of history of that. Like our state legislature is only a single house legislature because they wanted to reduce government spending in the thirties during the Great Depression and cut taxes. And the state voted to not join the union 150 years ago because they were worried it was going to increase taxes. I believe there’s this sense that we can do it ourselves. We don’t need help even if people could benefit from that help. There’s this pride. Sure. We would like the government to provide jobs for us. But we don’t want like a handout. And people are really proud there to not seek assistance, but there’s this pride in being able to work and working hard. And these are the stories they tell themselves about themselves.

And they view government as this distant outside thing that isn’t in their interests because from their viewpoint, even if they have received more government spending per capita, they’ve seen their towns deteriorate. And there’s a lot of poverty in small towns and not great health outcomes. So, they just don’t feel like people from the outside are actually going to represent their interests. We could say they’re voting against their own interests by voting against those things. But to them, they don’t see those programs as genuinely going to benefit their interests or represent them. They see it as something that’s being imposed on them from the outside.

jmk

And that fits a lot with what Kathy Kramer found in her study of rural Wisconsin where she found that politics was less about ideology or issues, but more about sense of identity. And the way people think about themselves has much more to do with how they’re going to vote and how they support candidates and how they think about parties than the specific issues or the specific repercussions even of those policies.

Ross

I’d agree with that. And what’s happening in Nebraska is happening in all those states in the Midwest. So, there’s a lot of parallels to be drawn to Wisconsin or Kansas.

jmk

Now, Nebraska has a history of having Democrats in office. I mean, they’ve had governors elected, they’ve had senators elected, and it wasn’t even that long ago. It was during Obama’s administration that they had a democratic Senator in office. And today that seems unfathomable. One of the themes in your book is that Democrats have moved away from some of those conservative issues like being pro-life, like being pro-gun, other issues like that. Conservatives have also become more conservative. So, do you think that Democrats have become more liberal or do you think Republicans have become more conservative?

Ross

So, I agree that they both have moved in an extreme direction. I mean, and you can see that if you look at ideology voting data from sites like Voteview using metrics like DW-nominate scores. You can see the parties really splintering and just going in opposite directions. I do believe the Republicans have gone further to the right than Democrats have gone to the left. My experience though is that if you live in a really conservative area, like in rural Nebraska, people I talk to there tend to not see how much that party has moved to the right as they’ve identified with it. And I see it in Brooklyn too, when I say, ‘Well, Democrats are more liberal than they were in the nineties.’ And people are like, ‘No, that’s just because the Republicans have moved so far right.’ Well, both things can be true.

And I think when people strongly identify with one camp, they don’t realize how much each one has moved. But if I had to pick which one’s moved the most, I would say there has been a bigger shift to the right with the GOP than there has been with the Democrats.

jmk

You know, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, were talking a few months back about how when they started out they were considered on the far fringes of the Democratic Party or the progressive movement. And today they’re constantly being called out by younger generations that they’re not far enough that they’re too mainstream today. So that kind of comes back to exactly like you’ve said, because that’s been just 10 years probably.

Ross

Twitter is full of nonsense, but I’ve, I’ve seen people say things about Noam Chomsky not being far enough lef. Like, what are you guys talking about? Like, Chomsky is really far left.

jmk

Wow.

Ross

Don’t believe what you read on Twitter, but people have those perceptions.

jmk

So, let’s say a Democrat in Nebraska runs for office. And they’ve had Democrats recently that were perfectly acceptable completely fall flat on their face. We saw Bob Kerry who was a recent Democrat that you mentioned in your book run for reelection. He had been a Senator in Nebraska, been a popular Senator in Nebraska. He runs in 2012. Doesn’t have a chance to be able to compete. If the Democrat did embrace some of these issues, like let’s say a Democrat said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be pro-life. I’m pro-gun. I’m going to take these specific identity issues, some of these wedge issues and just embrace them. But hold on to a slightly more progressive agenda.’ Would Nebraska voters embrace that or would they simply say, That’s a Democrat? So, I don’t trust it.’

Ross

You know, they did embrace a candidate like that over 10 years ago with Ben Nelson, but now I don’t believe they would anymore. And what’s tough is an individual candidate can run like that and I believe there’ll be more competitive in Nebraska if they run like that than if they run to the far left. I mean, we just saw it in the congressional race in Omaha. Kara Eastman got beat pretty significantly even though Joe Biden won that district. And because she ran way to the left of Biden, to the left of her district, I would say. And that didn’t suit her. But in a statewide election, what’s tough is people are still going to associate that person as being with their national party and representing what their national party represents.

So as long as the national party is seen as what it is seen as for rural Nebraska, which is being against these wedge issues that they support like abortion and guns. An individual candidate is going to have such an uphill battle that I don’t think they can overcome. So there would need to be more flexibility and a change in perception of the national party for those people to have a chance locally in Nebraska. But they could have a chance in Omaha though. Biden won. Granted Trump was someone people were tired of, and the congressional Republican wasn’t nearly as crazy as Trump, but there is an opportunity there.

But I understand Democrats may not feel that they have the incentive to do that. Because if they change that perception or what they’re focusing on to appeal to people in rural Nebraska to improve the margins there, maybe they lose some voters in the cities that they are doing very well in. So, they have a tough balancing act.

jmk

Well, let’s talk about some of these wedge issues. So, one that you start with is abortion and you do it from an interesting perspective from your background in Roman Catholicism. And I can relate, because I live in a Midwestern state, I’ve always lived in a Midwestern state and I’ve grown up Roman Catholic. So I understand the type of Catholicism that you’re writing about in your book. And you emphasize how abortion has become a truly pivotal issue for Roman Catholics. In fact, in your book, you write, “Many Catholics in Nebraska have become so conservative that they favor the Republican Party over the church itself.”

But in particular it’s been abortion that’s kind of push them towards that. Why do religious conservatives, particularly Catholics, make abortion the pivotal issue? And is there a scenario where other issues like economic justice or the alleviation of poverty could have been more central to their religious identity?

Ross

I think something that abortion provides in politics for many people is like a catharsis, there’s like a clear, in their view, there’s like a clear right and wrong. There’s no gray area. It allows them to condemn the culture at large. Politics is pretty boring if you are just against some esoteric funding policy or you have a quibble against the political party It’s much more exciting and lively if you feel like you’re protesting the murder of children which is how they would phrase it in many of these congregations. So I think it just brings an emotional level that isn’t there otherwise. And the churches and the Republican Party they have worked together. The GOP has paid so much attention to the church and has given them what they want with conservative judges really.  In turn the churches proselytize the party.

And it wasn’t always that way. Reagan definitely hit that really hard and I feel like it’s just been going rightward ever since. But if you go back further there were more church leaders like in the sixties and seventies who talked about income inequality who were very antiwar, anti-death penalty. And these are still values that the churches are supposed to hold, or that they said that they hold, but they don’t talk about them nearly as much or in the same tones that they do about abortion. And for that to change the churches would have to decouple from the Republican Party. They couldn’t become so intertwined where candidates are effectively being endorsed from the pulpit.

And in my lifetime, it’s just gone in the other direction. It’s gotten more, like a synergy. You see it with Christianity and with the Republican Party. That just had a tremendous influence over all the people I knew and myself, when I lived in rural Nebraska. I didn’t really come to the church for politics, but when you hear it enough, it wears on you.

jmk

You continue to say churches. It’s interesting because there used to be a very large divide between Catholicism and Protestantism within the country in terms of politics. And as a Catholic myself, if I go to a Protestant church, I feel out of place. It doesn’t have the same rhythm as a Catholic church. Every Protestant church feels very different in how they do service. It just doesn’t feel the same.  I feel like a stranger within their service. I don’t have anything against it. It just doesn’t feel the same. It’d be the same as if, as if I went into a synagogue. I would feel out of place. Now obviously it’s a little bit closer with Protestantism, but it still feels different.

Ross

Yeah.

jmk

Do you feel like Catholicism and Protestantism have merged ideologically?

Ross

I do think so. This is kind of a weird term, almost oxymoronic, but there is like an evangelical wing of the Catholic church. That’s a weird way of describing it, but that part of the church wasn’t as politically powerful as it is now. And they vote very similar to how Evangelical people of non-denominations or Protestant denominations vote. They tend to care about the same issues. When the Culture Wars kind of took over all the sermons and you saw John Paul II appoint these ultra conservative archbishops around the country. I think that pulled Catholics political clout much closer to what the Evangelical Protestant line used to be. What’s interesting though is Joe Biden’s the second Catholic president.

jmk

The East coast is very Catholic. In fact, Massachusetts has more than twice as many Catholics as Nebraska does.

Ross

Yeah.

jmk

Do you feel like Catholicism on the East coast feels differently than Catholicism in the Midwest?

Ross

Anecdotally, it has felt that way. I mean, I’ve gone to mass here. But when I’ve gone to mass in New York, I haven’t heard the sermonizing about everyone out to get us, gay marriage is bad, abortion is bad, that like I would hear when I was in rural Nebraska. I mean, if a pastor in New York city took that approach, I don’t think you would have many people in his pews, because people out here don’t feel that way about those issues. So, Catholicism does seem to have a different focus out here.

But I also think in Nebraska people are more… there’s not as many Catholics, but the religious attendance is really high. The amount of people in town who do go to church and the amount of churches per capita, I mean, you have like little towns that will have two churches and our cities have so many churches. I mean, I just think there was like more people attending and supporting the church out there than  what I see in the East coast.

jmk

Well, I can attest that that’s true in the Midwest, even in the cities. I grew up in St. Louis…

Ross

St. Louis has tons of churches.

jmk

Yes, it does. And I would walk down the street, I would walk to school. And if I turned left and looked down the street, I would see the next parish. I mean, it was within sight of the actual building of my church, of my school. The adjacent parish was visible. It was that close. So, no, I mean, it’s different in different places obviously.

I want to ask you about the uniqueness of Nebraska though, to take a step away from some of these identity issues for a moment. And let’s talk about the political structure of Nebraska, because again one of the big things on my mind is how Nebraska has some traits that imply a sense of progressivism, a sense of independence. And yet, when we think about a state like Nebraska today, we feel that we know everything about it because we think, it’s Republican, it’s conservative. But Nebraska has a history of independence. It’s the only state with a unicameral legislature. It’s a nonpartisan legislature. It’s incredibly small, only 49 members. How does this distinctive legislative body shape politics in Nebraska?

Ross

I think it makes it more efficient. So, our legislature has been that way since the thirties. They made it into a single house legislature, non-partisan. Party labels are not officially on it. People will often vote down party lines on how they’re registered to vote, but you see coalitions built around issues more often than you see just straight party line voting in other legislatures. For a very long time, it worked wonderfully. But in the last 20 years, it has become more similar to other state legislatures due to term limits, campaign finance deregulation, and we have a governor from a family worth billions who’s pretty vindictive of people who vote against what he wants.

But the legislature is like one of several examples of our history of being independent which is why I think it was such an important story to tell of Nebraska becoming like baptized into Republican orthodoxy. Because seeing that shift. That it wasn’t always that way. We founded Arbor day in this state, we settle a lot of refugees per capita, we increased minimum wage, and Medicaid through ballot measures like recently. We do stuff like that. I am dismayed that Nebraska legislature has become more dysfunctional and they spend more time fighting about rules and they try to pass some ridiculous laws, but it still operates in a much more reasonable fashion than like Kansas or Iowa’s does who are pretty similar analogs to us. And I believe that’s because of the non-partisan system. And we also have open primaries because it’s nonpartisan.

So, we don’t have extreme candidates going to the general election as much. If there’s four candidates running for a state legislature seat, the top two are going to advance regardless of how they’re registered. And so, you tend to get a more moderate candidate who will be a little more willing to work with people who aren’t of that person’s party. So, you, still see some of that in Nebraska where people will work across party lines and whether it’s property tax reform or trying to ban the death penalty. You see some interesting groupings, but not to the degree that you used to see them.

jmk

The non-partisan characteristic is probably even more striking than the unicameral characteristic, to be honest. Was that a progressive reform that was enacted?

Ross

Yeah. So that was intentional. George Norris was really the main guy behind that and there were several other people who were pushing for that. George Norris, you know, he was a US Senator. He was also a Congressman before that in the house. He represented Nebraska in Washington for decades. Really legendary person around the time of FDR. George Norris is the reason why Nebraska is a state that has a hundred percent public power. We’re the only state in the country that has that. These were progressive reforms. While he was a Republican, Republicans during FDR era are much different than today. I mean, George Norris, his autobiography is called Fighting Liberal. So, he was very progressive. And he got a lot of hell for that from his own party and from the Democrats as well for making it non-partisan.

At the time there was more support for going to a single house because they were trying to cut government expenditures during the Great Depression. The nonpartisan part though, he caught hell from newspapers, which were very partisan at the time and from the parties. But he fought harder for that than he did for any other reform that he passed, even all the national legislation that he was a part of. The unicameral was featured more heavily in all the biographies about him than like any other thing. And he spent the last half of his career fighting for it.

jmk

You mentioned public power in your description. And Nebraska still has public power. Is there still support for it or is that considered a part of big government today?

Ross

There is still support for it.  When I was doing research for this, back in like the early 1900s, when the shift happened, all the power companies said it was socialist. So, it’s funny to see the term used again. It was like, ‘It’s socialist. The government’s taking over your power companies. You don’t want that.’ But Nebraskans passed this anyways. There is still support right now and it hasn’t been attacked. But then again, ‘When I was a kid both parties supported public education very strongly. Nebraska Republicans even more so than Democrats in some ways when I was a kid and that’s certainly changed.

So, I can’t help, but think it may be a matter of time before an antigovernment Republican comes in and tries to say, ‘Well, Nebraskans, do you really want this government agency and these bureaucrats running your public power,’ even though we have cheaper electricity than our surrounding States do. But it hasn’t happened yet. It hasn’t been partisanized yet. And people don’t even tend to think of it as a progressive thing. Like if I talk to people I know in Nebraska, they don’t tend to think, ‘Oh, that’s weird that we have public power and that’s like big government.’ They just like have associated it with normal life because they’ve had it for a hundred years and their whole lifetime. They’ve never thought about it being like this contentious thing that government programs are turned into today.

jmk

So, you mentioned education has become much more polarized as an issue. Do you think that’s because of the changing demographics? For example, your book notes that Nebraska continues to lose educated people at a very high rate. You mentioned a census study that between 2006 and 2010, Nebraska ranked 34th and between 2011-2015, it’s accelerated Nebraska is ranked 44th. I would imagine that because so many highly educated people are leaving the state that they no longer feel that education is something that brings value to their state. It becomes something that they’re, paying for to be able to help other States.

Ross

Yeah. You know, and I’m part of the problem. You know, I went to public school, my whole life. I went to the high school right down the road from my parents. And then I went to the university of Nebraska Lincoln, which was only an hour drive away. And then what did I do when I got my degree? I took a job in New York city. So part of that, there probably is a little bit of resentment of the brain drain and why are we paying for this stuff if it’s not going to benefit us. And there is also the issue of when people in my position leave who tend to be supportive of education because we’ve benefited from it. We’re not in the state now to resist attacks against it. The beneficiaries are kind of gone.

But what I think it’s more reflective of is the nationalization of the parties and the Republican party at a national level has become opposed to public education, especially higher education, but you even see it in K through 12 some too with all the push for school choice. I think a lot of that is aimed at trying to cut public school budgets. You know, it gives them another way to reduce taxes somewhere, cut expenditures.

jmk

I was fascinated by how you described the education formula in Nebraska. I just finished Kathy Kramer’s book. She talks about how they do the formula in Wisconsin and in her analysis people in rural areas get slightly more receipts than they actually pay in. They actually are net beneficiaries of public services as a whole.

Ross

And it’s like that most States.

jmk

Yeah. And education is part of that. You mentioned how in Nebraska they’re trying to equalize out the potential for property tax. So, there’s an enormous number, I think you said two thirds of rural school districts don’t receive any public funds for education. I was surprised to find that, especially in a state that has so many rules districts, and so many schools that are closing down and districts being combined, that there wasn’t something being done about that already.

Ross

Oh yeah. That’s been a political inferno for years. It comes up every year with the property tax issue. They’ve wanted to equalize spending. And one of the things that they take into account is a school district’s resources. And how this has hurt rural areas is a rural area has a lot of resources because it has a ton of land, a ton of taxable farmland, producing commodities, but they have few students. So, the amount of resources for the number of students is super high in those rural districts, therefore they don’t receive the state funding dollars and they have to go and reach into local property tax to fund their schools. So, to fund their school, they increase local property tax. And suddenly we have higher local property taxes than the states that surround us.

And everyone thinks their taxes are too high, but that’s just because they cut taxes in another area because the state decided to not fund public education at a normal level. They put in this TEEOSA formula. So, there’s this nationwide study by this think tank that looked at rural district school funding and how much funding comes from local, how much comes from the state and Nebraska had the biggest imbalance of what they get from local versus what they get from the state. There was like $4 coming from local for every $1 coming from the state. And people in rural districts, most States tended to receive more from the state, in Nebraska you’re receiving less.

So, it’s created a terrible situation where towns have to tax their local landowners to keep their school life. And if they reduce that tax levy at all, the school shutters and they have to consolidate with the town next to them. And after the school shutters, well then, the town continues to decay and it’s just a downward plunge that feeds onto itself. And they can’t seem to solve it because the Republicans in control of the Nebraska state legislature do not want to increase state funding of K-12.

jmk

Yeah, I would imagine that the formula is less of a problem than just the overall funding. Because if you just increase the funding as a whole, a lot of those schools that are receiving nothing would start having some money kicked back out to them. It sounds like they’re just underfunding the school district, under funding the education budget period.

Ross

The most recent data I could find on this from the Department of Education was from 2015, but we were 49th in the share of tax dollars that are not just rural but all K through 12 in Nebraska receives from the state. I think only South Dakota was lower. So we just are receiving much lower amounts of money, much lower share from the state then what is considered normal. And that’s continued to escalate. Something else that’s happened is farm land prices have gone way up. If you look at like time of the Great Recession and compared it to now, a 12 year period farm land prices in many of these parts of the States have doubled, which increases the resources for the school district.

So, the state lawmakers have said, ‘Well, we don’t need to kick in state aid, because look at the resources in this school district. It’s given them this excuse to not fund it through the state because they say, ‘Well, the farmland’s worth so much, let’s tax that.’ So, they’ve got themselves into a pickle there. And, no one seems happy about it.

jmk

The school consolidation issue comes up in many different states within rural communities. It’s interesting because when the school, well, you just said it, when the school is consolidated out, when there’s no longer a school there, the town oftentimes just kind of disappears from the map over time. It’s interesting because conservatives oftentimes assume that the private market thrives on its own. That government is the thing that gets in its way. But the way that the towns disappear, when you take away the school demonstrates that it’s important to have key public pieces of infrastructure to be able to establish local economies. Do you think that the fact that Nebraska has continued to take away investments from the public sector has actually caused some of the rural communities to decline and for towns to kind of wither away?

Ross

Yeah. I believe not funding public education thoroughly, it just hastens this decline.You know, they they’ve been talking about broadband forever. That’s another issue, rural broadband, not having public infrastructure for rural broadband just gives another reason for people in those areas to leave, to move out. Many jobs depend on it. There hasn’t been investment in public infrastructure. The state would continue to become more urbanized anyways, but these issues just make it worse. Like these decisions just make it worse.

jmk

It feels a bit like a paradox where the way to be able to keep these rural communities alive is to make them slightly more urban, to be able to have it so you have a larger, more vibrant public sector that then encourages private investment within the community, which then makes the community itself slightly bigger, which turns towns into small cities. Yet at the same time, that’s not what they want. They want it to be a truly rural community. They don’t want the type of city life. So, they reject it. But at the same time, that’s almost what they need to be able to keep their towns alive.

Ross

Yeah. It gets to be chicken and egg territory. I mean, anytime you start to talk about the school stuff, because the towns are in that position cause they’re already declining. But then when the infrastructure isn’t supported, they declined further. And once it’s gone: Did the town fall apart because they lost the infrastructure, or did they lose the infrastructure because it was falling apart? You know, there’s like a little bit of both. Tough to separate the cause and the effect there. I think that’s a situation where the animosity towards government doesn’t prove to be beneficial to anyone because it’s not helping those towns. And I understand being skeptical of government. Governments made their share of mistakes. And I definitely didn’t have a good view of it when I lived in a small town.

But I was lucky to be in the town that the school consolidated to. There were other towns in my area that closed and they sent their kids to my hometown. If I lived in those towns, my life would be different. The town would be much worse shape than the one I grew up in. Even though it’s all relative. My town was still only 300 people, but it had businesses at least. It had paved roads. It had people building new houses every once in a while. A lot of those small towns, you don’t even see any of that.

jmk

So there’s obviously a strong rural-urban divide between Republicans and Democrats. And a lot of that has shaped Nebraska. So Ross, do you feel that Republicans better represent rural voters than Democrats do?

Ross

I think symbolically they do. The things they talk about do. And Republicans, I think, are more welcoming. They’ll take any voter, even if it’s a voter that we should be shunning, possibly. Like some of these militia groups that have popped up. They don’t demand as much purity. They aren’t perceived as being as judgmental. So, they speak well to those people. They talk about their religion. You know, they talk about firearms. It may seem stereotypical, but that’s worked for them. Now I don’t think they’ve done anything to actually improve the quality of life for rural Nebraskans. You know, people in rural areas overwhelmingly elect Republicans. I don’t think it’s benefited them. But to say, if they better represent them in an emotional way, they do.

jmk

I find it interesting the way you say that the Republicans are more welcoming because a lot of mainstream Republicans are getting chased out of the Republican party, especially during the Trump era. This past election, Indiana Republicans almost revolted against our governor, Governor Holcomb, over how he handled the pandemic. A lot of mainstream Republican seem to not be welcomed within the Republican party today and the democratic party for all its faults, I don’t necessarily think it’s necessarily more pure. It actually feels like it’s much more diverse. In your book, you even mentioned how there’s so many different directions the Democrats are going. There’s no sense of unity. Do you really think that the Democrats  are more focused on purity than the Republicans are today?

Ross

The candidates are. I mean, they act like you’re a terrible person if you don’t support a $15 minimum wage or abolish the police. You know, they could have called it a hire more social workers, but instead it was defund the police. They go for extreme statements. So, it’s like an in-group, out-group sort of thing. At least the ones who are very online are that way

jmk

You need to move back to the Midwest, Ross

Ross

I’ve told my fiance that before.

jmk

My experience is much different living in Indiana. The Democrat who ran in my district didn’t even support Medicare for all. She supported broadening healthcare and ran a competitive race. Still didn’t win in the district. It’s a very Republican district.

Ross

Yeah. But the far left of that party probably gave her hell for being that way, right?

jmk

No.

Ross

Oh they didn’t. Because out here, man.

jmk

You’re in New York.

Ross

But New York kind of being a media center, it just sucks the oxygen out of the room.

jmk

Sure, sure.  My experience still is that the Democratic Party is growing in terms of the mainstream, what the mainstream Democrat is today. Bill Kristol is now a Democrat. He finally just decided to say that he’s not an Anti-Trumper. He now just flat out supports the Democrats and has gotten behind Joe Biden.

I find it interesting that the last few Democrats that we’ve nominated have been much more centrist. Joe Biden was the most centrist of all the candidates. Hillary Clinton was a very centrist candidate. Even Barack Obama talked a good game, but at the end of the day, he was fairly down the middle. He was pretty centrist in terms of his policies and his political approach. Whereas it feels like the Republicans are looking for something that’s a little bit that’s at least what they consider to be a little bit more radical at least in the rhetoric especially.

Ross

Definitely among Presidential candidates.

jmk

Yes. Yes. Yes. And I think it’s changing among congressional candidates. But of course it all kind of depends. So, 25 years ago, Nebraska had a democratic governor and two democratic senators. I don’t think most people realize how much Nebraska has changed. It wasn’t liberal. These were very conservative Democrats. In fact, you even mentioned that there was a case decades ago, where a Republican lost reelection to a Democrat because a Democrat ran to his right, rather than running in the middle. The Democrat out-conservatived the Republican.

So, I don’t want to pretend that Nebraska was voting in these far left liberal candidates, but they had a democratic governor and two democratic senators back in about 1995. So, how do you expect Nebraska politics to change over the next 25 years? Do you expect it to continue to become more Republican? Or do you think that there’s going to be some kind of paradigm shift?

Ross

Yeah. And it’s tough to know what the, parties are going to look like in 25 years. You may have a reverse situation where we have liberal Republicans again, but probably not. But I foresee this state becoming more solidly entrenched red on a statewide basis. But Omaha keeps expanding and I think there’s a strong, progressive core there. And it’ll probably grow. Omaha could reliably provide Democrats with a Congress member in time. It’s getting to that stage of being that level of city. Right now, it does not. A Democrat has only won the Congress seat in Omaha once like since the nineties and only held that for one term.

So, I think the state as a whole will, will just continue to be hell for Democrats. But soon they should be able to at least have some representation in Omaha. Right now, the Republicans control the mayor office and the Congress seat there. But I think that’ll change in 25 years.

jmk

So, should American politics try to adapt more to rural America should American politics, the center of American politics, rather than just the far right, try to find, a language to be able to communicate with rural America or should we just consider there to be distinct and unique interests between rural America and urban America and we need to find compromises between the distinct interests?

Ross

So, I think what you’re saying first sounded really good about trying to speak more to rural America instead of it just being this divide.

jmk

How do they do that?

Ross

That’s the tough part. How do they do that? I wish I had a great answer, because if Democrats try to do that, it’s tough, at a statewide level because Republicans can co-opt them and draw them into some national issue. It’s very difficult as long as politics are very nationalized.

jmk

It’s not even just Democrats though. Even just mainstream Republicans, mainstream Republicans seem to represent the suburban areas. They don’t seem to represent the rural areas. It seems to be farther and farther to this populist right, I don’t even want to say far right. It’s a populist right  that seems to represent rural America now. Where a politician like Jeff flake no longer represents that part of the country.

Ross

Somebody who does well though, is Senator Tester from Montana. I think what he does well is he, and this is going to sound corny, but he seriously talks about things that affect rural people. Even if it’s something like right to repair. I feel like there’s a lot of people in the US Senate don’t even know what that refers to. They don’t know anything about agriculture equipment. It doesn’t have to be agriculture focused, but if we could talk more about those issues instead of just abortion politics, I think it would be good for rural America. And it would probably become a little less cynical about government. But those wedge issues have been really effective. So, I don’t see the parties giving them up.

jmk

Well, Ross, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Very excited about your book. Congratulations on publishing your new book and best of luck to you.

Ross

Oh, thanks so much. I really enjoyed chatting with you for this.

Key Links

Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold by Ross Benes

Fighting Liberal by George Norris

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer

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