How Democrats can reach rural America, build relationships, create change

Second in a series of post-election commentaries by Amber Gustafson, who was the Democratic candidate in Iowa Senate district 19. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Remember the Hippos – A Parable

Once a non-profit organization decided to “help” a poor, rural village in a country in Africa. When the fresh-faced, idealistic, young European aid workers arrived, they noticed many things right away. They noticed that the people in the village were malnourished. They also noticed that the village had no fields, no vineyards, and no orchards.

The aid workers, full of compassion, saw that what the people of the village needed was food; and more than that, they needed to be taught how to farm.

“Come and have tea with us,” the elders offered. Not understanding the great importance of the request, the aid workers demurred. There was much to be done! No time for tea.

The aid workers set about immediately to till fields, add fertilizer and plant a variety of crops. The people of the village watched with curiosity, the young ones bemused; the older, more jaded members with ambivalence.

“Look how rich and dark this soil is!” the young aid workers exclaimed.

“The rains are abundant and pollinators plentiful! We will show these people how it’s done!” they said as they patted themselves on the back.

“Come and wash clothing with us,” the women asked. Offended and incredulous, the aid workers chuckled. They were far too busy for menial work. Besides the women seemed to have a handle on it. Why would they want help?

The crops grew. They germinated. They flowered. They set on fruit. By every estimation, this was to be a bumper crop with enough to feed the village, enough to save seeds for the next year and even, perhaps enough to sell to other villages to provide income for the tiny hamlet.

And still the villagers abstained from the fields. They refused to help. They prohibited their children from stepping foot in the fields. The aid workers were perturbed by the reluctance of the villagers but, undeterred, they continued to work daily in the fields, lovingly watering and weeding, fertilizing and aerating.

One morning, as the harvest was nearing, when the crops were at their fullest and most abundant, something unexpected occurred; a heartbreaking turn of events none of the aid workers could have expected.

Suddenly and without warning, a herd of hippopotamuses rose up out of the river and invaded the fields the aid workers had so painstakingly sowed. What the beasts did not devour, they trampled, leaving a fiasco of denuded stalks and hippo dung in their wake. It was far too late in the season to replant. There were hardly any seeds left to restart with anyway. The crop and the aid workers’ efforts were all for naught.

To say that the young aid workers were devastated was an understatement. Heartbroken, they turned to the people of the village, “Why didn’t you tell us about the hippos!?” they demanded.

“You never gave us a chance,” the villagers replied. “We aren’t stupid. Of course we know we need fields and farms but first we need the tools and the resources to build fences.”


I am a fourth- or fifth-generation Iowan (depending on which family tree you use) and belong to the first generation in my family (on either side) to not be actively engaged in farming.

My ancestors came here from the Holstein-Schleswig area of Germany (Dad’s side) and the shores of Scotland and England (Mom’s side), with stop-offs in Davenport, Iowa (Dad’s side) and Southeastern Indiana’s Hoosier Hills (Mom’s side) before settling in the frontiers of Ida County, Iowa in the latter half of the 19th century.

My parents were both born on farms in Ida County, and for the majority of Dad’s life, he made his living as a farmer, first in Buena Vista County and later in Decatur and Adair Counties.

Growing up in rural Iowa was filled with one-of-a-kind experiences that my “townie” friends find fascinating – and the bigger the town from which they hail, the more shock and awe my tales of raising livestock and walking beans garner. When I tell them that yes, we really did have a Pork Queen, that usually takes the cake.

Even my own children have my own upbringing confused with that of Laura Ingalls Wilder and frequently ask me things like, “Did you have an outhouse?” (Yes, we did but we also had an indoor bathroom that we preferred) and “Did you ride a horse to school?” (No, but I did ride a 3-wheeler to my friend’s house without permission and got grounded big time.)

While the many stories of growing up on a farm and around a small town in rural Iowa may seem quaint and charming; our family’s story is also one of immigration, xenophobia, back-breaking manual labor, bankruptcy, major health crises, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, poverty, and deep family fractures that go back generations.

Our story isn’t unique. In fact in many ways it is the anecdotal yarn that weaves together the realities of life for many, many rural Americans: stubborn, self-determined, hardworking; casualties of decisions made in far away boardrooms, trading floors, legal chambers, oval-shaped offices and diplomatic conferences; hopeful, optimistic, risk-takers, big-dreamers and big-doers who are overlooked, forgotten or even more often, made into caricatures of themselves (Red Green, HeHaw, Duck Dynasty, Larry the Cable Guy…)

The Problem

Much has been made of the increasing divide between rural and urban/suburban America and the voting habits of each demographic as they decide elections, which in turn decide the fiscal and social and legal trajectories of our nation.

It is lamented that the Democratic Party, once the darling of rural America, is now less popular than a fart in church.

Pundits and scientists have written books on the subject. Talking heads prattle about it. Party officials and volunteers wring their hands and clutch their pearls in the hopes of fixing it.

And the truth is, since about 2012 (maybe longer depending on who you ask) the Democrats have been steadily losing ground in rural America, culminating in the 2016 election of a serial-philanderer, failed wannabe real estate mogul who likely committed treason against his country and whose petulance and inexperience daily jeopardize the institutions we have upheld and depended upon for well over 200 years.

To be fair, rural America isn’t the only enclave of Trump support. A recent Grinnell College poll found that Trump’s approval rating is 41 percent in the suburbs and 44 percent in small towns, two major voting blocks that went red in 2016.

There could be a myriad of reasons for this shift but I would posit two fundamental reasons rural America has rejected Democrats:

1. We fail to have a clear, straightforward party identity, and;
2. We have stopped listening.*

*Side note: it’s not just in rural America where Democrats aren’t making efforts to listen. Turn out in urban areas, among people of color and the disabled is dismal, too. Urban, minority, and disabled voters mostly don’t vote for Republicans. They just stay home. Many face boundaries to voting that prevent them from voting. Often these votes are taken for granted or are ignored altogether. It is my hope that the suggestions at the end of this piece can be used to reach other groups of voters who do not participate in the electoral process. In truth, in days of limited resources, it is easier and more cost-effective to mobilize voters you know support your candidate than it is to convince voters to change their deeply held beliefs to vote for your candidate.

Who Are We?
Many who know me or who followed my race for Iowa Senate know that I was raised in a Republican home. My mom started listening to Rush Limbaugh on WHO Radio in the mid-1980s (which meant I was forced to listen, too). I sat on my dad’s shoulders to see Ronald Reagan when he spoke on the courthouse steps in Winterset during his 1984 re-election campaign. Practically from the time I could speak, I could tell you what Republicans stood for: Small Government. Low Taxes. An identity that persists to this day. This identity is so elegant in it’s crafting for two reasons:

It’s not just powerful in what it defines explicitly.

It is powerful in what it defines implicitly, namely that those who are not Republicans only want BIG government and HIGH taxes.

Like the optical illusion of the old woman with the scarf/young woman looking away, its usefulness lies in its ability to present both arguments at the same time.

Democrats have struggled to identify and clearly articulate our values and our vision for America for the better part of two generations. Since Watergate our top selling point has been…

“Democrats: At Least We’re Not Republicans.”

…while the GOP has been hard at work defining what the Democratic Party stands for on our behalf: (in their words) anti-constitution, anti-marriage, anti-small business, anti-freedom, high-falootin’, self-righteous and out of touch.

I was once asked if I identified as a Democrat, a Liberal or a Progressive. (Can I just chuckle at how… “liberal” this question is? I love y’all.)

I responded, “Some people have moved toward using the word ‘Progressive’ to describe themselves because Republicans have been very successful at making ‘Democrat’ and ‘Liberal’ into pejorative terms. All three of those words, to me, describe Americans who are strongly committed to the dignity of all people through fair labor and trade practices, affordable health care and a government that delivers on its promise to protect and serve us.”

“There is absolutely no reason why we should cede the words ‘Democrat’ and ‘Liberal’ (or ‘Progressive’ because you know they are coming for that one next) to our opponents. They don’t own those words. We do. And we will decide how they are used and by whom. We need to be proud to stand for the majority of Americans who are largely shut out of the economic, education, and legal institutions of our nation.” I still believe this with all my heart.

Fair Labor – Health Care – Protect & Serve

Yep – it’s all in there: reproductive rights, climate action, tax reform, prison reform, disability rights, minimum wage, voting rights, immigration, gun safety, education, foreign relations, civil rights, the list goes on…

Welcoming the Other

When I was in 4th grade, I decided that more than anything I wanted a watch that you could change out the bands and the clip around the face to get “a million high-fashion looks.” I’d seen the watch set in a Target circular in the Des Moines Sunday Register. It was $14.99 and I knew it was beyond the family budget so I set about saving up to buy them on our next trip to Des Moines.

The day came for my mom, my brother and me go to the Big City to go shopping. I had the $17.43 I had saved in my purse. The anticipation of that watch set was about to kill me.

Standing in the aisle in the West Des Moines Target, looking for my prized purchase, I could feel two sets of eyes suddenly upon me. I turned and saw two girls, slightly older than me, staring at me and whispering. I could tell by their Jordaches and their rugby shirts they were above me. In every way above me. They went to a nicer school. They lived in a nicer house without hog barns out the back door. Their dad probably had gone to college and worked in an office. They had cable. They would get braces. They probably had subscriptions to Sassy and Tiger Beat. They had probably been on a vacation.

My ears and face burned as I heard them laughing. Mocking my clothes (yes, as a matter of fact, they WERE from a garage sale) and my hair (our well water was so full of iron, it had given my hair a slight orangey tint) and my… everything.

I don’t remember everything I overheard those girls say that day but there was one thing that stuck with me; one thing I’ll never forget: She looks like she’s from a farm.

It was funny. I’d never seen that as a negative until that moment. Yet in one sentence, those girls summed up everything the rest of America assumes about people from rural America and everything there was to know about me: poor, uneducated, unsophisticated, shabby.

In truth, I was all those things. The 1980s Farm Crisis had devastated our family. I went to a good school but we lacked the niceties of suburban districts. We didn’t have cable tv so much of the 1980s pop culture went over my head. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs or garage sale/thrift store finds. Even if we’d had the money, it was an hour and a half to drive to Des Moines to shop for nice things; a rural surtax payed in gas money if you will.

But that one moment in time told me much of what I could expect as a kid from Adair County, Iowa as I fought to climb out of the rocky hills of southern Iowa. In college, I’d be mocked for my “accent” by kids from the Chicago suburbs who called their mothers MAAAAHHHM. I’d fear derision from my liberal colleagues at Mizzou for choosing to leave the workforce and stay home with my kids. At cocktail parties filled with my college-educated friends, I would have to be careful of the stories I told. I would have to practice the right conversation starters, figure out ways to not be shocked at people who drove foreign cars or drank actual wine in the hopes that they wouldn’t look at me like I’d grown a second head if I mentioned that I’d never seen a real BMW or hadn’t tasted see-rah (syrah) before.

Side note: Lest you think this is some kind of fish out of water tale, I will say that there are lots of cultural signifiers that give away your upbringing and if you’d like to be able to survive in rural America, you best know how to pronounce these words and know what they mean:


For a party that hopes to represent the Common American, we have a tendency to choose leaders who have spent more time in law school than union halls. We elevate people who know Proust but have never visited a Dairee-Freeze. And long ago, we decided that if the speaker sounded more like Sheriff Andy Taylor than Justice Elena Kagan, he probably didn’t have anything useful to say.

I know it’s so tempting to make fun of people’s grammar and spelling, especially in online forums; or at the very least to point out mistakes others make. Can I just tell you what a tremendous point of privilege this is? Please do not be “that liberal.” Thank your lucky stars you were born in a native-English-speaking home, went to a good school, grew up around college-educated adults, went to college yourself, had access to supports if you struggled with reading/speaking/writing, and spend most of your day working with language.

Remember: Abraham Lincoln, perhaps America’s greatest president, only had about one year of formal schooling and struggled his whole life with spelling, syntax and grammar, yet was able to compose some of the most memorable and meaningful words in American history.

So What’s a Good Democrat to Do?

So here’s the part that you probably came for. That list of things to do, ways you can help Democrats make progress in the rural parts of Iowa (and the rest of the U.S.) – to maybe not get beat quite so badly in small towns, maybe even win a few counties.

Here’s my simple 3 Step Plan:


I’ll break these down for you a little.


The pace of life in rural Iowa is a little slower. If you wonder what I mean, drive to a small town to shop for your groceries. Take a breath. Pause. Notice other people. Rural Iowa is a place where a lot of business is still conducted face-to-face with a person you know. Make eye contact. “Sit a spell” as my grandma would say. Take time to develop genuine relationships built on trust. See, rural Iowans are used to folks blowing into town to start a business or a project without taking time to get to know the community, then pulling up stakes and leaving when it fails. Life happens in the cafes, the sale barns and the churches of rural America.

And remember – people are not “stuck” in rural America. Most rural Americans live there because they like the safety, the low cost of living, the slower pace, the closeness to family. Not everyone aspires to live in a city or a suburb. And that’s ok.

Think of the hippos. The villagers offered to build a relationship. But the aid workers were in a hurry. Crucial information was missed.


Find the places where community is already happening. Go there. Find ways to add value by helping. Friday night ballgames, livestock shows, town festivals, REC meetings. Don’t just breeze through and shake hands. Sit down. Ask questions (more on this in a minute). Are you a Democrat living in rural Iowa? How can you become more connected to the power structures in your community? Join the Chamber of Commerce? Join the planning committee for your town celebration? Join a non-profit board? Join the Lions, the Optimists, the Rotary or the Kiwanis?

Show up, proud to be a Democrat, and approach your work with a heart focused on the dignity of all. Be an ambassador for the Democratic Party. Our party would do well to reignite the tried and true method of precinct-by-precinct organizing using modern tools like social media – by equipping local members of the community to reach out to their own friends an neighbors to build relationships and party identity over time.

(As the Iowa Chapter Leader for Moms Demand Action, we employed this strategy of reaching rural voters to enlist their help to push back against the Iowa omnibus gun bill in 2017. We were able to get the Republicans to save the Iowa Gun Permit System and keep guns off college campuses and colleges. Although the bill was the largest dismantling of gun laws in Iowa history, we were able to carve out two important pieces to keep Iowans safe in the face of a GOP trifecta and tremendous pressure.)

Think of the hippos. The women asked for help. The women were the ones who did most of the farming. But the aid workers looked down on them and their work. Crucial information was missed.


Admit that maybe you don’t know everything there is to know about life in rural Iowa. Realize that without context, it’s easy for misperceptions to develop. Be open to feedback and correction. Be willing to listen on things like water quality, livestock production, and the importance of Wal-Mart to rural communities – even if you don’t agree. Find places where you can agree. (Rural Iowans don’t want to drink dirty water or live under a cloud of the stench of rotting pig carcasses, either. Yes, they would like to shop at more stores than just Walmart but Sam Walton is a big employer in rural communities and for many rural areas, if Walmart leaves, it can be over an hour’s drive to buy diapers or food.)

Remember the hippos. The aid workers waited until it was too late to ask questions. Crucial information was missed.

Building Relationships Through Conversation

College-educated liberals and most rural Americans have completely different ways of talking and using language to connect.

Liberals like to talk about themselves – their education, their work, their vacations, their kids’ lacrosse team, the car they drive, the neighborhood they live in, people they know

Resist the urge to touch on these topics. They are more divisive than you might realize. They emphasize differences rather than similarities.

At my husband’s 10-year class reunion (15 years ago), one classmate asked a second classmate, “And what do you do for a living?”

The second classmate responded, “I run concrete.” (He was being modest – typical of rural Americans. He owns a hugely successful concrete business)

The first classmate’s voice dripped with condescension: “Oh that’s very nice. Good for you.”

The second classmate said, “I know it’s good for me. I don’t need you to tell me that.”

Don’t ask “What do you do for a living?” Rural Americans aren’t defined by their work in the way that college-educated professionals are. Rural Americans don’t want to be labeled as “the guy who weighs the trucks of dead pigs at the rendering plant” or “over-the-road truck driver” or “teachers aid” or “convenience store clerk” — not because they are ashamed of their work but because they think YOU are. They know you judge others by the levels of professional and educational attainment they’ve achieved and they feel they will be dismissed for not cutting the mustard.

Instead, ask “Where do you live?” or “Where did you grow up?” and you will get more of an answer than you ever imagined. Everyone loves to talk about their home town or “the home place.” You will hear stories of century farms and ocean crossings and sod-busting and winter storms.

And if you run out of things to talk about, ask “Do you have family in that area?” And you will hear stories of grandpas still farming at 87 and uncles lost in the South Pacific and sisters who teach at the local elementary school and kids who left to go to college and never came back and grandchildren smarter than anyone at MIT.

And bring with you a few stories of your own for the journey, for all of life and memory and connection in rural America is wrapped up in stories, not statistics. Stories of your family. Stories of challenges you’ve faced, things that have amazed you and made you laugh (perhaps you have noticed how I have woven stories throughout this piece). Stories take time, so grab a cup of coffee or better yet, show up and help serve at the beer garden or take tickets at the game because we want to get to know you. And tell you about the hippos.

Top photo: A young Amber Gustafson gets her whole wheat bread judged during the county fair.

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  • This is a really good interesting essay...

    …and I very deeply hope those two girls in West Des Moines acquired some empathy, insight, and understanding as they grew up.

    I traveled to a hoglot hearing in Story County this past week, and at that hearing, there were a lot of people who recited rural addresses before they gave statements. I heard other rural Iowans talking in the hallway. The viewpoints ranged from strongly opposing the hoglots to mixed feelings to enthused hoglot proponents. I’m pretty sure some of the former were already Democrats and that some of the latter will never be. And listening to the latter was difficult, because in that situation, they had all the political power.

    And how are rural Americans defined? There were a few people at that hearing who lived miles outside Ames but seemed to have Ames academic jobs, and I’m guessing sociologists would not consider them “real” rural Iowans?

    I’m still not really sure whether what’s needed is to better clarify and communicate Democratic positions to rural Americans, or to listen much harder to rural Americans and then modify/change Democratic positions to better fit their lives and views, or some combination of the above, or other.

    Anyway, this essay was very interesting and I appreciate it.

  • Amen

    I grew up in big cities on the west coast. My parents moved me here when I was a senior in high school. I thought I was going to die. I joined the Navy and left the area for 12 years but came back. I was married and raised my kids in a small rural town of just over 3000 people almost everyone here is a farmer or factory worker. I don’t know if I could ever go back to Big City Life.
    I’m uniquely situated in the fact that I can see both sides of this situation and you have certainly hit the nail on the head.
    I’ve spent a lot of time knocking doors. I mean, a lot. The biggest thing I started hearing in 2012 was that the candidates didn’t show up and didn’t talk to them until it was a few days before the vote was to take place.
    The people at the doors could tell me that they had all seen ( if not in person, in the local paper) that the Republican candidates had been here. Branstad, Reynolds, Rod Blum and their house candidates. I’ve said it over and over again. But no one listens. Not really. The money is not up here. These people don’t part quickly with their money easily. They don’t have much of it. Asking them depart was ten or fifteen dollars is like asking them not to pay their electric bill. There also are not huge crowds of adoring fans. People here are Skeptics of politicians. As they should be.
    You have laid a perfect road map out for the party. I would love to help you spread the word.
    Also, people like myself who are County chairs in these little rural counties are tired. We often do this work by ourselves or with the last few remaining party loyalists that are left. Most of them are over 60.
    Thank you again. Good work!