I am not, and never have been, a politician. Rather, I was an educator for 40 years, most of that time in higher education, where I developed a reputation as a rural researcher and activist. I was willing to travel anywhere in the country to help rural people fend off attempts to consolidate their school districts, and I wrote and spoke about the lack of empirical evidence for consolidation as a good thing.
I sometimes also testified in court to that effect, but, mostly, I met with concerned parents, teachers, and students. I helped people cling to a dream, to a vision of a future that would have their communities reverse the long, slow trend of erosion and become vital, vibrant places once again.
By intellectual proclivity, family history, and cultural preference, I am a rural person. Fighting on behalf of rural communities came natural to me, and to do that well, I studied agricultural policy, economic theory, and the politics of rural exploitation. I gradually came to understand the importance of owner-operated farms, flanked by small cities and small towns, to successful democratic political arrangements. The erosion of the countryside, I discovered, meant the erosion of democracy. As Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor once put it: “no community, no democracy.”
My efforts at the preservation and revitalization of rural communities — with saving local schools one piece of this — had nothing to do with “nostalgia” or pining for a bygone era, a frequent accusation from those who find my analysis inconvenient. Revitalizing rural communities has always been about ensuring the equitable distribution of social and economic justice in America.
We lost roughly half of the nation’s farmers during the 1980s. That amounted to a death blow for countless rural communities, as schools and businesses closed in the wake of the crisis. We have slowly, though steadily, been losing more since. During these decades, the quality of democracy in America has eroded to the point that billionaires now routinely buy elections, a process made legitimate by such Supreme Court decisions as Buckley V. Valeo and Citizens United.
My wife and I have a small farm in Pierce County, Nebraska. The farm sits in Nebraska’s geographically large Third Congressional District, a stretch of territory the size of England and Scotland combined that’s now considered the most solidly Republican district outside the South. In 2016, no Democrat bothered to run against the five-term incumbent in the Third District, an individual who has accomplished nothing during his congressional tenure, having never authored a bill that made it out of committee. But Rep. Adrian Smith does have his fans. He regularly receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate PACs, the Koch Brothers most prominently.
During Smith’s six terms in Congress, 90 percent of Third District counties lost population. And during his tenure market consolidation in agribusiness has resulted in a 300 percent increase in the cost of planting an acre of soybeans, a 250 percent boost for corn. Farmers went four successive years with farm prices below the cost of production. Rep. Smith made no move to address any of these damaging circumstances.
Still, before the 2018 midterms, Rep. Smith appeared likely to once again run unopposed. And then came Donald Trump. His knee-jerk policies created world-wide trade wars and dramatically increased the speed of rural America’s downward spiral. I knew Rep. Smith had no intention of fighting on behalf of the rural communities he ostensibly represented. So I stood up to pick up that fight, my life’s work.
I knew the odds of defeating Rep. Smith would be horribly long. But I decided to run anyway out of a principled allegiance to rural people. I ran in 2018 as the Third District’s Democratic Party nominee.
I believe the story of my campaign puts the demise of democracy in America into full relief. I did everything I could to raise money for my race, including practically begging large Democratic PACs. They routinely ignored my requests. In the end, I acquired and spent close to $75,000. The FEC reports that Adrian Smith spent $1.6 million.
Smith had this distinct advantage thanks to out-of-state billionaires. He could utilize television and radio. I couldn’t. As a consequence, most Third District residents didn’t know they had a chance to vote for someone who would work to improve their lives and, more importantly, the lives of their children. Such is the state of democracy in America, or more accurately, plutocracy in America.
As I said at the outset, I am not and never have been a politician. I lost my election bid, but I remain more than content to live a rural academic life. It does hurt, I admit, to watch great wealth continue to exploit rural people — and squash any hope that rural communities might once again become vibrant places that can help sustain democracy.
Paul Theobald has had a long career as an educator and student of rural community life. He has worked at several different universities over the years and now lives on a small farm in Nebraska where he and his wife raise heritage-breed hogs. Theobald’s writing has appeared in many different journals. Among his books: Teaching the Commons: Place, Pride, and the Renewal of Community.