Is the DFL dead in rural Minnesota?

As far back as when I headed MPR News’ political unit in the ’90s, I’ve found Rep. Collin Peterson’s relationship with his own party to be among the more fascinating storylines in Minnesota politics.

At national and local conventions, you never heard his name uttered; he rarely appeared in person to schmooze with the powerbrokers of the DFL.

I often wondered why he was in the DFL at all.

The Washington Post’s interview with Peterson this week left out that question, which seems rather obvious since Peterson made clear he and the Democratic Party no longer have anything in common.

He’s one of only nine people in Congress sent back to Washington from a district that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Peterson lamented the death of the rural Democrat, abandoned by a party now run by DFLers from the cities, thanks to gerrymandering, he says.

And he says there may be little Democrats can do to save themselves.

Well, I don’t know if they can. What’s happened is the Republicans have been smart. They’ve spent a lot of money redistricting and everything, getting control of these governorships and statehouses.

So they packed all the Democrats into districts, very Democratic districts. What that’s done is made our party urban, more liberal, and so those people are doing what their constituents want. But that’s not what my constituents want.

I don’t know how you change that. There’s hardly anybody left like me in the Democratic Party in Congress. These districts have been so gerrymandered that, in most of them, a Democrat can’t win. Somebody like me trying to start off today, he’d never get endorsed. Because I’m too conservative.

So it’s a problem. Pushing gun control drives people [in my district] crazy, gay marriage, abortion, deficit spending, you name it. All of that stuff adds up to be a problem for Democrats.

Minnesota Democratic leaders have written the rural voter off, Peterson says.

“Some of the people in my caucus, some of the people in the state party in Minnesota have basically said, ‘We don’t want to deal with these guys because they’re too conservative,’ or ‘We don’t agree with them on social issues.’”

That makes them bigots, a large number of people commenting on the Washington Post website concluded, showing exactly why the the future of the DFL in rural Minnesota is grim.

Let’s start here – these antique bigots just happen to live in areas that are overly represented in electoral college votes. More Americans voted the opposite way…

May this group of ppl die off soon…

There may yet be a way to reestablish the party in rural parts of Minnesota. But wishing the death of people who live there probably isn’t it.

  • Chris

    Isn’t the corollary here the death of the GOP in urban areas, where most of the people live? Hillary did get more votes in Minnesota after all. Tim Walz and Rick Nolan probably have some thoughts too. But yes the DFL does need to work on broadening appeal, but not at the expense of catering to voters who oppose gay marriage, as one example of an issue that defines the rural Mn voter in 2012.

  • Moffitt

    It cuts both ways. Rural MN has chosen its champion. Alrighty then.

  • Will

    I don’t think the DFL is dead in rural Minnesota, they still hold a lot of Congressional seats; I do think the Democrats (as a national party) need to reach out to rural, blue collar voters and choosing people like Keith Ellison, a far left-wing liberal with scandals in his past, to lead the party is the wrong move and sends the wrong message to rural, blue collar voters.

  • jon

    Well Republicans do tend to be older and more likely to die soon that Democrats… But that is a broad generalization.

    And the conservative social agenda is not supported as strongly by it’s younger members as it is it’s older members… The prolife antigay movement did look to be literally dying out on years past… What that looks like in a post Trump America remains to be seen.

    That being said, if some one can unite rural and urban areas in politics at this point that person will get elected to any office they choose… There is a deep divide… One doesn’t need to look far into mn politics to see that…

    • Rob

      I think the Pushme/Pullyou of Dr. Dolittle fame would be the likely result of such a union.

  • tboom

    In my opinion both parties are a mess. A half century ago Republicans were elitists who stood for a conservative fiscal and monetary system, Democrats were “of the people” believing in Keynesian deficit spending as a way to cushion the effects of our economic cycles. Social issues were caught in the middle where on occasion both sides could work together to solve something.

    At one time, the Democrats were the party of the “Southern Democrats” and Richard Nixon (of all people) proposed the Safe Drinking Water Act. Somewhere between then and now both parties, in an effort to peel away support from the other side, have used shifts and hardening on social issue positions to divide us. In the process Democrats have forgotten labor, I’m shocked talking to my blue collar co-workers as they practically spit the word “Democrat” while hanging desperately to their unions as a way to keep from falling further behind. As of today I’m not really sure what the Republican Party stands for, but it seems Trump has taken the Presidency by becoming a defender of labor in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

    If the Democrats want to become relevant they need to define themselves and stop allowing the Republicans to do that job. Perhaps both parties need slightly “smaller tents” and let the swing votes fall where they may (if they even show up).

  • Gary F

    Oh, please have Ellison as the head of the DNC!

    Think our Washington Post Red Lake MN writer will someday vote Republican?

    • Rob

      Write the reporter a letter outlining the Republican platform, urge him to adopt it, and see if he’ll respond.

  • rover27

    The GOP has lurched into a reactionary extremist party over the past 20 years, especially the past 8. Their base voters have driven them there via their consumption of right-wing media. The bulk of the base lives in more rural areas.

    Combine that with loads of Koch brothers/ALEC money and you have what you have now. They’ve demonized anyone that doesn’t follow their extremist agenda as “the enemy”. Not a political opponent. That’s how they end up with a Trump. And now we do.

    Anybody that lives in a rural area knows this. People who were fairly normal people have become raging, hate-filled demagogues. The anger and conspiracy theories that come out of their mouths are unbelievable. They and the people they elect have zero respect for the political “norms” that make for a functioning democracy. It’s all about power and sticking it to people they’ve been trained to hate. Look at the GOP congress in the past 8 years. How many norms did they break? Constant obstruction, filibustering everything, blocking a Supreme Court app’t., filing lawsuits against any legislation Obama was able to pass, shutting down the gov’t., threatening to default on the national debt, voter suppression in GOP controlled states, etc. And yet their base was still not satisfied. They felt they hadn’t gone far enough.

    Democracy is dead in this country and the Republican party killed it. When they put their party and their idealogical agenda before the good of the country, they put a bullet in its head. How do you ever get it back? We’re headed into very dark times.

  • Rob

    I read the WaPo interview, and wondered the same thing about Petersen’s political affiliation…

    I think the Dems have to accept the fact that, for the foreseeable future, they are destined to be a minority party. But if the way to being a majority party in rural areas means Dems have to oppose unions, deny climate change science, profess to be anti-choice, give unquestioning support to whatever the NRA wants, ignore the legitimate needs and concerns of minorities and LGBT communities, oppose paid parental leave and living wage legislation, and discard Keynesian economics in favour of supporting tax cuts that don’t do squat for the 99% – that’s a party that I will no longer be able to identify with.

  • Mike Worcester

    These comments might not go over well, but here are some brief thoughts from being politically active in rural Minnesota during the 1990s and into the early 2000s: We as Dems would try to talk about school funding, how to better help owner-operated main street businesses deal with the big box competition, whether or now funding mass transit in the urban areas was hurting transportation in rural Minnesota, or how to help keep rural medical centers alive and thriving.

    The response?

    Well what about abortion? That’s what I care about most. Why should gays be given equal rights? That’s more important than school funding. Mass transit? That’s for city people, it does not mean anything to us out here.

    It got very frustrating that as we we tried to argue economics, tried to demonstrate how we could solve fiscal inequities, tried to help keep nursing homes from having to pay bare minimum wage to care givers, we were told none of that mattered over social issues. And it even came from fellow Dems. I won’t name names but at least one rural Dem state rep would never vote for a Speaker/majority leader/minority leader who was not sufficiently pro-life.

    We had candidates who were sincerely pro-life, even if it conflicted with the party platform, and still people would not cast their ballots for them because, you know, they were a Dem and the party stood for all that.

    Am I pessimistic that Democrats can once again make gains in rural areas? No, but at the same time, if the prevailing attitudes of voters are that hostile towards the party, will they be able to make any headway despite their best efforts?

    Just some thoughts, thanks for listening.

  • crystals

    I’m a child of rural Minnesota. I sometimes struggle to know how to best talk about my deep beliefs in marriage equality, the right of women to control their bodies, and the way in which our country systemically disadvantages people of color and how these beliefs connect to my political activism. But you know what? I consider being able to have these conversations – with my grandparents, cousins, and more – a gift. I do not hope they die off soon, I hope we have much more time to talk and to understand one another. So far as I can tell, that’s the only way forward.

  • Jay T. Berken

    It is all about preservation. One sides wants the preservation of traditions and the past, and the other side sees the preservation of what is to come and the planning to be open to it. Both sides are right, but unfortunately do not see each others point of view, or at least realizes each one’s point of view.

  • Zachary

    One of the biggest problems that I personally have observed, is the steady widening of the parties. Both major parties have moved further to the left and the right, while, I think, most Americans are still in the Center-Left/ Center-Right spectrum.

    However, the current ‘discussion’ climate is such, where if you disagree (however small or largely) with a Party Plank – you are “Bad Person” “Evil” “Nasty” “Deplorable” etc., etc., etc. This leaves people with the “in for a penny, in for a pound” mentality.

    -“What’s that? I happen to believe that science says life begins at conception and should be protected? And you call me a misogynist woman-hater? Well, I might as well be then…”
    -“What’s that? I happen to believe that people should be hired based on their skills and assets? And you call me a bigoted racist? Well, I might as well be then…”
    -“What’s that? I happen to believe that a community of people working together can solve the problems that government can’t? And you call me a Marxist Commie? Well, I might as well be then…”
    -“What’s that? I happen to believe that people should be paid fairly and treated well for the work they do? And you call me anti-business and the Destroyer of The American Dream? Well, I might as well be then…”
    -“What’s that? I happen to believe that people should have the right to walk down the street in safety and not get harassed? And you call me anti-police and a riotous thug? Well, I might as well be then…”

    And on it goes. The issue is not about the party – the issue is with how we – yes, I said we – communicate with others who may share a different viewpoint.

    People will still vote for the Party they identify with the most. What we need are more parties. Smaller parties that will work together on issues with other parties who share similar views on those issues. Think of the European Parliaments, or heck – any non-two party system. People may disagree on some issues, but will come together on issues they align with. That’s what we need.

    I was excited for the Ron Paul Revolution back in ’08. I was dismayed when it was hijacked in ‘09/’10. I was excited for the Occupy Wall Street movement in ’11. I was dismayed when it was hijacked in ‘12/’13. Heck, I was excited for the Feel The Bern! Folks this past year. And, once again, dismayed when it too fizzled out as well.

    Local politics are where this starts. Start breaking up the Big Party Machine. Alt-Left, Left, Center-Left, Center, Center-Right, Right, Alt-Right… whatever works. Whatever you want to call yourself is fine by me. Just start splitting! All this will take to get going is local politicians bucking the trend, saying “no” to their party and splitting off. Once you get a few going, it will keep rolling.

    I believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. My rights End where yours Begin. That’s my party. Party On!

    • Mike Worcester

      One of the criticisms of the caucus system used in Minnesota is that it both discourages general participation by voters and encourages participation by those who have strongly held views. However, one of the concerns in moving strictly to a primary is that it would allow a candidate to overwhelm others by sheer force and $$. In theory, the caucus system should provide a check on those types of candidates.

      Good thoughts, thanks for sharing.

    • Mark in Ohio

      I tend to agree with you, and would like to add an expansion. I think that to have a multi-party system working, you need at least 5 parties present and functioning. A third party would only tend to form form the extreme end of one of the big two splitting off. A fourth party would form in the same way from the opposing large party. We kind of have that now, with the Green and Liberterian parties being the extreme ends of the Democratic / Republican parties. You really need a fifth functioning party to break the “this or that” mentality and to have a chance to get some discussions and diversity of opinions / ideas churning.

  • Anna

    I find it ironic that the full name of the DFL is the Democratic Farm Labor Party. It got that name for a reason. Perhaps it is time to either live up to it or change it to the Democratic Party of Minnesota.