Can Dems win in rural areas with this new populism? Linderman says Yes. Skip to content

Can Dems win in rural areas with this new populism? Linderman says Yes.

9 min read

“[President Ronald] Reagan turned old populism on its head by persuading folks that the real problem was big government,” syndicated columnist Richard Reeves wrote going on 14 years ago.

The original Populists argued exactly the opposite: poor farmers and workers desperately needed “big government” for protection against an almost entirely unregulated capitalist system that was creating “two great classes—tramps and millionaires.” 

Hank Linderman, a Grayson County union-card-carrying singer-songwriter, guitarist, music producer, sound engineer and Democratic activist, is championing a “Contract for Rural & Working America.” The 11-plank platform looks like a kinder, gentler variant of the 1892 Populist Party platform, which declared that “the interests of rural and civil labor are the same; their enemies are identical” — “capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts.”

Linderman twice ran for Congress in the largely rural Second Congressional District. Seven-term Republican Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Donald Trump loyalist, routed him in 2018 and last year. Bloodied but unbowed, Linderman is mulling a rematch next year.

Linderman the politician likens himself to the star of “Ted Lasso,” a comedy streaming TV series named for an American college football coach (played by Jason Sudeikis) who is unexpectedly hired to coach a professional English soccer team. Never mind that Lasso knows next to nothing about soccer.

Said Linderman: “To paraphrase the great Ted Lasso: For me, success is not about winning or losing. It’s about the Democratic party rediscovering its rural and working class roots and to have Democrats be the best version of themselves for the benefit of all Americans.”

Linderman’s lopsided losses were hardly unique. Republicans are winning handily in conservative, largely rural, white and conservative Christian America “because Democrats don’t have a coherent message for rural America,” said Linderman, who has worked with legendary rock bands including “America,” “The Eagles” and “Chicago” and with musicians like John McFee of the “Doobie Brothers.”

Democrats don't have a coherent message for rural America. That's why they're losing those voters. — Hank LindermanClick To Tweet

Linderman and his wife, Pam, split their time between their home on Rough River Lake and a Culver City, Calif., house with a one-and-a-half car garage they turned into a tiny music studio.

Culver City is near Los Angeles. “Where we live, you could throw a stone and hit a musician or a studio,” joshed Linderman, a member of Los Angeles American Federation of Musicians Local 47.

Half a continent east in west-central Kentucky, the sprawling Second District reflects the Bluegrass State’s gradual shift from a mostly moderate-to-conservative Democratic state to a mainly hard-right Republican Red bastion. (Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, plus five of the state’s six congressmen, are Republicans. The GOP also enjoys super majorities in the state House and Senate.)

Democrat William Natcher held the Second District seat from 1953 to 1994. In 2009, Guthrie succeeded fellow Republican Ron Lewis who had followed Natcher.

Last year, Guthrie, McConnell and President Trump won every district county in blowouts. (Trump carried every Kentucky county save Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington). McConnell won them all but Jefferson, Fayette and Franklin, which encompasses Frankfort, the state capital.)  

In rural America, Republicans almost always win by running to the right on the so-called social issues, notably abortion and guns, and by pandering to white cultural and racial angst and animosity against nonwhite “others.”  

“But Republicans aren’t actually helping rural — and working — America,” said Linderman. “All the Republicans are offering is fake populism and they’re getting away with it. The Contract for Rural & Working America is meant to address this.”

Republicans aren’t actually helping rural — and working — America. All the Republicans are offering is fake populism and they're getting away with it. The Contract for Rural & Working America is meant to address this. — Hank LindermanClick To Tweet

Yet will rural voters buy what Linderman is selling? For about 40 years, social issues have trumped economic issues with millions of conservative white evangelicals, a big chunk of the Trump-GOP base. A frequent critic of liberal-leaning stories on the progressive blog Forward Kentucky seems typical of the demographic.

In response to a story about the KDP’s ongoing reorganization, “M.T.” said the Democrats “would have to do an about face…….. a total 180…… become popular again with conservative Christians.” He meant the party would, for instance, have to turn against abortion rights and LGBTQ rights, both of which he vehemently considers un-Christian.

Critics and skeptics aside, Linderman’s faith in the contract is unshaken. He’s convinced that if Democrats run on the points in it, they can win over at least some voters in overwhelmingly white and deeply Republican Red counties like his. 

At the same time, Linderman has no illusions about a tsunami of Road to Damascus experiences in which voters in rural Kentucky — and rural America — en masse shift their fealties Team Red to Team Blue.

He quoted James Carville: “Here’s the deal. No matter how you look at the map, the only way Democrats can hold power is to build on their coalition, and that will have to include more rural white voters from across the country. Democrats are never going to win a majority of these voters. That’s the reality. But the difference between getting beat 80 to 20 and 72 to 28 is all the difference in the world. 

“So they just have to lose by less — that’s all.”

Still, the numbers are daunting. In 97 percent-white Grayson County, Trump tallied nearly 78 percent of the vote in 2016 and almost 79 percent last year.

Linderman chairs a six-member board that is promoting the contract with near missionary ardor. He also chairs the Kentucky Democratic Party’s Rural Council, an advisory group. In addition, he is on the party’s state central executive committee.

“The Rural Council has adopted the contract and it has been presented to KDP state central for adoption and endorsement,” Linderman said. “I expect it will be taken up and voted on in the September meeting.”

Unlike the usually laid-back Linderman, most Populists were militants. Kansan Mary Ellen Lease — “Mary Yellin” to her enemies — supposedly urged farmers “to raise less corn and more hell.”

Fed up with getting shafted by railroads, banks, monopoly corporations, and politicians bankrolled by plutocrats, hard-pressed farmers started the Populist Party in 1892. They welcomed impoverished workers to join up.

Though the Populist Party didn’t survive, its platform did. The preamble doesn’t pull punches: “… The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind … From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes — tramps and millionaires.”

Populists urged the federal government to broadly intervene in the economy to aid struggling farmers and workers victimized by a system that was widening the gap between rich and poor into a Grand Canyon-wide chasm.

Besides Linderman, the Contract for Rural & Working America board includes Genia McKee of Garrard County; Daviess countian Barbara Bennett; Joe Shepherd of the United Rural Democrats; Mark Dowell, president of the Kentucky State United Auto Workers CAP Council; and Kenny Fogle, KDP deputy political director. Linderman can be reached via email at

The Contract for Rural & Working America has a preamble of sorts, too:

“For far too long, rural America has been abandoned, by government, and by business. This has left large parts of the country devastated – with not nearly enough good paying jobs, insufficient health care, obstacles to education and opportunity, and a general feeling of being left behind.

“The Contract For Rural & Working America is a set of aspirational goals for government to apply to the very specific needs of rural and working America. Implementing these will lead to more opportunity and economic security for the rest of America as well.”

Here’s the contract:

1. Restoring Health Care In Rural AmericaRural hospitals are failing at an accelerating rate. As we address reforming and modernizing our health care system, we must secure the survival of rural hospitals. Our goals for America’s health care system are: significantly reduced costs, coverage for everyone, and a system that is easier to use and that gets better results. A modernized health care system will also provide relief and stimulus for businesses which are paying rising health care costs each year.

2. Education and ChildcareEducation must once again be an investment in our Nation’s future. Higher education, from trade schools to universities must be made available to any qualifying student for free or for very low cost. Public schools must be expanded to provide childcare and preschool in order to allow working people to work. These programs must be available to all children regardless of income. Excessive student debt carried by many Americans is a 1.7 trillion dollar drag on the U.S. economy, so financing of education must be cleared of predatory lenders. We need the return of high school shop classes, home economics, trade schools and apprenticeship programs. These will be critical as we move forward with rebuilding our supply chain. All of these programs will create jobs.

3. Support for Small, Subsistence and Family FarmsFarming by individuals, families and co-ops needs to be encouraged. Tax benefits like those given to large agri-businesses that will work for and not against the family farm must be implemented. Possible policies include: price supports for family farms or co-ops, a national non-profit disaster insurance program designed to protect family farmers, a national non-profit credit bureau to finance family farms and equipment, and community tax benefits for businesses using or selling local family farm products. We will also support “Right To Repair” laws and common sense migrant worker policies. We need high quality locally grown food, clean water and air, sustained wildlife habitat, and the assurance that our children will continue to want to call rural America, “home”. The resurrection of vibrant rural communities will bring much needed health and economic benefits to all Americans.

4. Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure And Domestic Supply ChainFor too long, working people have been denied the benefits of global trade. The needs of business, working people and national security must all be considered and balanced. We must rebuild our domestic supply chain, particularly in industries with national defense ramifications, such as tech, electronics, and renewable energy.

5. A Living WageCompared to the 1970s, wages have dropped, in fact, 1977’s minimum wage adjusted for inflation and purchasing power would be $22/hr. today. Raising the minimum wage is one way the Nation can begin to address the extreme inequality we now face. It will also raise tax revenues, stimulate the economy, and provide much needed opportunity throughout America.

6. Support For Workers In Declining IndustriesWe believe American workers need protection from the increasingly turbulent changes they experience in the workforce. As industries decline, working populations need support. Some of this support must be direct, such as using targeted / universal basic income when factories shut down. By designating development zones and using tax credits and grants to encourage new industry, these areas can be spared the devastation they are currently facing. We also recognize the crucial role unions provide in protecting workers: we support eliminating anti-union legislation and policies.

7. Renewable Rural Energy: Water, Wind and Solar – The tremendously profitable fossil fuel industry is subsidized annually to the tune of billions of dollars. We question the need to subsidize highly profitable international corporations. We think rural America would be better served if subsidies were redirected to make energy costs lower for all Americans. This will reverse the pollution of our air, water, and land, safeguarding a cleaner environment to pass on to our children, as well as creating more and better paying energy sector jobs. To ensure the best future for America, our energy must come from renewable, non- polluting sources. The transformation away from petroleum powered vehicles to electric has already begun – providing clean power for all of our needs will be a challenge we cannot afford to ignore.

8. Rural BroadbandThe internet is now a requirement for daily life, like water and power. We must bring the internet to every place Americans live and work – this will improve education and provide business opportunities that are currently impossible. Construction of this new infrastructure will provide jobs as well. This must be a national project, like Rural Electrification (1936) or the creation of the Federal Interstate System (1956), and it must be administered by a Federal agency, like the United States Postal Service. Additionally, we need higher standards for wireless carriers. Extensive sections of rural America are without any coverage. Wireless providers that benefit from doing business in cities must up their game in Rural America, or other ways of providing coverage must be found.

9. Abuse Prevention, Rehabilitation and SupportDrug abuse in America is a complex problem that will require efforts on several fronts to control. Prevention programs in schools, expanded health care, rehab and follow up will all be important, as will be addressing America’s rising inequality. In Kentucky one in four public school students have a parent in jail or serving time for a drug related offense. The collateral damage from the “War on Drugs” continues to do almost as much damage to rural families and communities as the problem of abuse and addiction. The War on Drugs has failed. It is time for a more enlightened approach. We must also hold drug manufacturers liable for misleading the public, and for irresponsibly promoting and overselling addictive drugs.

10. Legalization of CannabisCannabis is under prohibition in many states, but the writing is on the wall: legalization is coming sooner or later, medical or recreational. Legal cannabis and hemp mean new cash crops for farmers, new business opportunities for investors and business owners, and new ways of treating pain without addiction. Cannabis enforcement disproportionately punishes people of color; legalization will eliminate a significant piece of systemic racism.

11. Secretary of Rural AffairsThis new [federal] cabinet level position must be created with the goal of making rural life more than survivable: Rural America must become a place where families can thrive, with new opportunities for work, education and a dignified life.


Cross-posted from the KY AFL-CIO web site.

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY