How the last presidential election changed rural organizing in the South
There's been an organizing surge across the rural South since Donald Trump decisively won the region in the 2016 presidential election. Several coalitions, collectives, and grassroots networks have sprung up since then — some energized by Bernie Sanders' 2016 primary run, others by Donald Trump's victory, still others by local issues that pushed residents into political work, often for the first time.
These new organizers share at least one thing in common: a deep conviction that if they don't take it upon themselves to organize their communities, nobody else will. From the mountain communities of Northwest Arkansas to the old factory towns of Northeast Tennessee, from Western North Carolina down to the Alabama Black Belt, rural organizers are doing what national parties and politicians have not.
In the last few years, the national discussion about "the rural voter" has been clouded by mystique, suspicion, and paternalism. The common assumptions are that rural regions went for Trump because of ingrained racism, or "economic anxiety," or because they're uneducated and don't know what's best for them. The rural South, however, includes some of the most ethnically and racially diverse rural counties in the country — and many of them didn't vote for Trump in 2016.
Facing South spoke to 10 people organizing around the South. All of them have an intimate connection to the rural communities they're working in; they live there, they grew up there, they're raising children there. And that's key: Most politicians, if they come to rural areas at all, knock on doors to turn out the vote once every few years. It's traditionally a transactional relationship, with no long-term commitment.
"No one was organizing in a lot of these rural communities and small towns, which are the places I grew up and lived most of my life," said Justin Vest of Montevallo, Alabama. In 2017, he started a rural organizing collective in his state called Hometown Action, which aims to build inclusive and sustainable communities through multiracial working-class organizing and leadership development.
This new generation, working for the most part outside partisan politics, plans to be there for the long haul. "We're not just showing up in an election year, knocking on your door," said Vest. "We're showing up all the time, and asking for your input on an issue."
In 2016, Chelsea White-Hoglen of Clyde, North Carolina, worked as a field organizer in rural counties in her state for the Democratic Coordinated Campaign, which works to elect Democrats up and down the ballot. But on Election Day, she was told not to knock on doors and get out the vote in the rural counties she'd been organizing. Instead, she said, she was reassigned to more populous areas, leaving behind the communities she'd been working to bring into the progressive fold.
"I was one of only two organizers in the seven far western counties," she told Facing South. "When I asked why [I was being sent somewhere else], they said it wasn't worth their time to organize out here."
For White-Hoglen, that was a turning point. She'd lived her entire life in the same rural area she was now being told to ignore. And she knew that this political disinvestment would lead to even more political disengagement in a state that — along with seven other states in the South — has a population that's more than one-third rural.
It's not mere coincidence that many of the Southern states with the largest rural populations are also among the states that have the lowest voter turnout rates. In the 2016 general election, for example, four of the 10 states with the lowest voter turnout were in the South; two of those states — Tennessee and Arkansas — have disproportionately large rural populations. The trend continued during the 2018 midterms, when seven of the 10 states with the lowest voter turnout were in the South, five of them states where rural areas include 30 percent or more of the total population.
Along with fellow organizer Brigid Flaherty, White-Hoglen formed Down Home NC, a collective of organizers and community members that currently works in three rural counties in North Carolina. They started by knocking on doors in rural communities and asking residents three simple questions: What are you struggling with that keeps you awake at night? Who has the power or responsibility to change this? And what is the change that would actually solve your problems?
Hometown Action followed a similar process in Alabama, knocking on 10,000 doors in rural communities, focusing on those with high concentrations of low-income people and people of color, to talk to residents about their concerns. Meanwhile in northwest Arkansas, socialist organizer Blanca Estevez began organizing in the region's rural communities after leaving the Democratic Party in 2017, fed up with what she saw as the party's moderation and disinterest in the powerless.
"They just automatically assume that these people are going to vote for Republicans, or what have you," said Estevez, a political refugee from El Salvador. "But the truth is, these people are workers."
In just about every community, organizers heard two issues of concern come up over and over again: health care and jobs. That's not surprising: Since 2005, 94 rural hospitals have closed across the South, and many Southern states including Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee have refused to expand Medicaid. At the same time, the South's non-metro counties have a poverty rate 6 percentage points higher than metro counties, the most pronounced gap among all U.S. regions. As factories and small businesses have shuttered, rural communities have lost many well-paying jobs. Financial inaccessibility together with geographic inaccessibility make adequate health care and living-wage jobs feel like a pipe dream for many rural Southerners.
"These are people's issues," said White-Hoglen. "It doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat. We all just want to feed our kids and work a good job and be able to go to the doctor or the hospital, and not have to worry about going bankrupt."
Organizers have also come to recognize that residents of the rural South often lack basic information to help them engage civically. Many of those visited by organizers with Hometown Action and Down Home NC said they had never before been visited by an organizer or candidate. The disconnect between the people and their government is compounded by a lack of local news media; as rural newspapers shutter and news deserts form, an important way to access nonpartisan information about government and public policy is lost and misinformation and disinformation can spread without check.
Some organizers like Hometown Action's Kathleen Kirkpatrick believe digital and social media work is the next frontier for rural organizing. But there are challenges to this approach, too, as many people in the rural South still lack broadband access — either because it's not available in their community, or because they can't afford it.
"We go to these rural areas that are pretty much forgotten," said Sugelema Lynch, a former teacher who began organizing with Down Home NC in 2019, after students with undocumented-immigrant parents started missing school due to drivers' license checkpoints in Alamance County. "I feel like Down Home has a huge responsibility to bring awareness and education to politics, and especially to local politics." Down Home NC members are now running for local office, talking to local elected officials about issues like the county budget, and speaking to state legislators.
It's a sea change from the status quo, Lynch said. Before joining Down Home NC, she had never done political organizing work or canvassing. She had felt like it wasn't worth investing in a system that didn't care about her or her community.
She's not alone. Many of the new organizers in the South's rural communities weren't politically engaged until the 2016 election. In rural Northeast Tennessee's Tri-Cities region, a group of progressives and leftists were brought together by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' first campaign for the presidency that year. They successfully organized three rural mountain counties — Washington, Unicoi, and Carter — to vote for Sanders, the only counties he won in the state that year. Though Sanders eventually dropped out of the 2016 primary, his campaign connected like-minded people in the region.
"Being a progressive or leftist, you felt like you were completely alone," said Jordan Buchanan, a former construction worker who lives in the Tri-Cities and was part of the 2016 Sanders organizing effort. "We finally found a place, a cause, for us to all get around."
Since then, he and several of the people he met on the campaign trail have turned their focus to local issues. Buchanan works with Kids Like Us, a new community learning center in Watauga, Tennessee, that serves children regardless of ability or disability. Other former Sanders organizers are working with a local agricultural organization and community wealth-building initiative called the Drop Collaborative, which they hope will resuscitate the region's longstanding tradition of small farming.
"It has to go deeper than just politics for there to be real progressive change," said Victoria Hewlett, who works for the Drop Collaborative and organized for the Sanders campaign in both 2016 and 2020. "Many of us feel like taking a step away from the national political narrative and taking a step closer into the community that's right here."
Olivia Paschal is the archives editor with Facing South and a doctoral student in history at the University of Virginia. She was a staff reporter with Facing South for two years and spearheaded Poultry and Pandemic, Facing South's year-long investigation into conditions for Southern poultry workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, Southerly, Scalawag, the Arkansas Times, and Civil Eats, among other publications.