The Future of Rural Republicans

Republicans have a lot on their plate these days. Ballooning deficits, an unraveling Middle East, and a looming impeachment battle are enough to make any member of Congress seriously consider retiring, or at least chucking his cell phone in the Potomac. Yet as heavily as the crises of the moment weigh upon Republicans’ minds, and as intense as next year’s election will surely be, smart Republicans must be thinking about life after Donald Trump. Even if the president manages to win reelection, he will very quickly become a lame duck, and members of his own party will begin to stake out positions in the post-Trump realignment.

Much of the political analysis to date has centered on the question of what a post-Trump GOP might look like—what kind of leaders and ideas might emerge after Trump leaves office. But a related and equally interesting question has received less attention: What will the Republican electorate look like?

In an opinion piece for the New York Times last spring, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center examined the “vitality index,” a statistic created by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project to combine various indicators of wellbeing—like income and employment and poverty and life expectancy—for every county in America. GOP policies, Wilkinson argued, have left Democrats with an opening in rural America, if only they were willing to pursue it. Judging by the state of the Democratic presidential primary, it’s hard to believe they’re taking this opportunity seriously. In any case, Wilkinson’s argument should also be heeded by Republicans. The plight of rural America is such that both parties should be seeking ways to improve the lot of their fellow citizens far removed from the city centers that dominate our media and cultural landscape.

The challenges for Republicans are twofold. All voting is cultural to a degree, but if Republican voters ever wean themselves off the politics of resentment, they may wake up and ask how Republican policies have helped them. Indeed, that was part of Donald Trump’s original appeal to middle America: The political bigwigs have failed you! What will happen if, after four (or eight) years of trade wars and high deficits, GOP voters feel no better off than before? Will they conclude, once again, that perhaps the political class made a poor calculation? If Republicans want to keep these voters’ trust, they must present policies that attempt to address the problems of life in rural America: stagnant jobs and education, poor infrastructure and technology, and uncertain rural health care. Those issues are ripe for big-government Democrats (and not a few Republicans, these days), but conservatives must present conservative solutions, as well.

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