Rebuild Democratic Party? Start in rural America.

It always amazes me how so many of us fight to ensure that we keep doing the same thing, even when it clearly doesn’t work. Two examples stand out.

The first is “trickle-down economics”, the idea that if we just cut the taxes on the wealthy and big corporations, we’ll free them up to innovate, invest and create wealth, which will then trickle down to the rest of us. This idea has driven our economic debate and policies since Ronald Reagan brought it front and center in 1980. It’s the essence of President Trump’s tax and economic plans. The problem is, it doesn’t work. Never has.

The 1950’s through the early ’70s saw sustained economic growth and widening prosperity in the US. During that period, corporate taxes were at 50 percent and the top tax bracket on the rich was more than double what it is now. During those same years, not only did the economy grow substantially, but the main beneficiaries of that growth were working people and the middle class, whose incomes and wealth grew far more, proportionately, than those of the rich.

Since then, through nearly 40 years of tax-cutting trickle down, the results have been starkly different: An economy that’s nearly three times bigger, with extraordinary increases in overall wealth, yet the vast majority of Americans treading water or going backwards. Trickle down hasn’t, it doesn’t and it won’t. But that hasn’t shaken the confidence of its many proponents.

The second example is this: the strategy of the Democratic Party (I’m a Democrat). Once aligned with labor unions and working people, with helping the poor and vulnerable, with fighting for rural as well as urban prosperity, it has steadily morphed into the party of the elite, the highly-educated, the technically-competent and the well-to-do. As an alternative to the Republicans’ full-on embrace of the rich and powerful, we Democrats have been a miserable failure. Our messages and our messengers — with too many words and too much nuance — have further befuddled and alienated so many people. That’s especially true in Southwest Virginia and other predominantly rural parts of the state.

For a moment following the election of Trump, it seemed that the Democratic Party might be ready for a little soul searching; that given not only Clinton’s electoral loss, but the decade-long hemorrhaging of Democratic seats from state houses to Congress, it was time for some candid self-examination; that if regions like the Fighting 9th began to receive sustained attention, resources and respect, we might rekindle the progressive streak that had once been a part of its politics.

You’d think. But much like the continued embrace of trickle down in spite of its demonstrative failures, the Democratic Party continues to marginalize large swaths of the country, including the 9th District of Virginia and countless other rural communities.

It was in this context that Michael Hudson and I reached out to a small group of Southwest Virginians last December in hopes of changing the debate. Michael is a veteran and an IT guy from Blacksburg. “Progressive 9th” as we call ourselves, also includes farmers, students, small business owners, school teachers, academics and activists, from eight different counties, spanning much of the district.

As described in the August 28th Roanoke Times editorial “The rural liberals,” this group has written a Rural Progressive Platform, released in June. We wrote it to confront the failings of both parties, but also to assert that what we most value — a healthy landscape, meaningful and dignified livelihoods, and strong communities —are “progressive” values in the truest sense of the word.

The platform is neither comprehensive nor prescriptive. We’re not seeking endorsements. Rather we offer it as a discussion starter, to begin to rethink not only our language, but our understanding and priorities.

You’ve probably heard it said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.” Like pushing trickle-down policies that have failed for four decades; like Democratic strategy that ignores the very communities we need to win back. I don’t know if that’s insanity, but I’m pretty sure it’s flat out stupid. For Democrats wanting to transform their party, rather than give up on it — like many of us in Progressive 9th — the platform could be a good place to start. For independents and others who just want more honest and productive debate, it might also be of interest.

The platform is available at our website,

This piece was published in The Roanoke Times on September 25, 2017.