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Opinion | Former Montana Governor Steve Bullock Warns: Democrats Face Trouble in Rural America

It’s in the void of inaction and failure to solve problems real people face that racially tinged cultural fights, like we saw in Virginia, take hold. My children are in high school and have never heard of critical race theory — nor have their teachers. What voters want to know is that Democrats will fight for racial justice and to improve the lives of rural Americans, no matter the color of their skin. After all, that’s what we’ve always done.

In the parts of America that are completely rural, there are nine infants and toddlers for every day care slot, one in eight lacks health insurance, and for one in four, over half of income goes to rent. High-speed internet has eluded many parts of our country. Voters in my state may have grown cynical about the legislative process, infighting and eye-popping price tags in Washington, but enacting the Build Back Better bill, along with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, gives Democrats something to run on: proof that we have voters’ backs, including those who live in rural America.

It’s time for Democrats to get uncomfortable and go beyond friendly urban and suburban settings to hear directly from folks in small towns who are trying to run a business, pay the bills, and maintain access to health care. They have stories to tell and ideas to share, and we should listen. When then-candidate Barack Obama spent the Fourth of July 2008 in Butte, Mont., he didn’t go there because Butte was suddenly key to winning in November, but showing up there sent a loud and clear message to places like Butte all across our country that he gives a damn about us.

Butte and Scranton may be a long way from each other geographically, but they’re not that far apart in terms of working-class roots, values and attitudes. President Biden can help rural Americans know and believe Democrats are tackling the challenges they face. Democrats need to get off the polling and consultant calls, get into the community and engage voters directly: Do you have a decent job that covers the bills and leaves a little left over? Can you afford your home and pay for health care? Do you feel safe? Do you believe we are doing right for your kids, educationally, environmentally and economically? Do you see a path forward toward a better life for you and your family?

Fighting for every American means that, whether you live in Manhattan, N.Y. or Manhattan, Mont., you have an opportunity to climb the economic ladder and a temporary safety net to catch you if you stumble. Too often the Democratic Party comes off as a buffet line of policies, each prepared for a different group of voters. If we talk about — and work to address — the issues that people discuss around their kitchen table or at the fence line, the issues that fill endless hours of cable television become a hell of a lot less relevant. Our kitchen tables might look and feel different, but we need to learn to talk in a way that makes sense around everyone’s table.

Voters are facing real challenges — and so is our country. They need to know that Democrats are listening, working, and fighting for them. The voters deserve that level of respect and need to know we have their back.

Steve Bullock is a co-chair of American Bridge 21st Century. He was the governor of Montana from 2013 to 2021.

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