The Reddening of Rural America with Ross Benes

Ross Benes

Moderate Party
Moderate Party
The Reddening of Rural America with Ross Benes

On this week’s episode of Moderate Party, Hillari sits down with Ross Benes to talk about Rural America: why they responded to Trump, their perception of Government, which party is serving them well, and how both parties can serve Rural America better. Along the way, they discuss the magic of Nebraska’s independent spirit and Hillari shouts about how many President’s it’s going to take to get Rural America some freakin’ broadband internet!

// Subscribe to our email list and we’ll send you free ModPod Swag //


Hillari Lombard: Hello and welcome to Moderate Party. A Political podcast for moderates, centrists, and independents. Today we’re going to be talking about Rural America, how it became infested with the alt-right, and how democrats and republicans can serve them better.


We left Rural America Behind.

I’ve been thinking about Rural America a lot lately. I went back to my grandpa’s house for my birthday last month, he still lives in the same little town he’s lived in my whole life.  I used to live there too. Over the last twenty years I’ve seen that town through its ups and its downs. I remember when Walmart came to town. I remember coming back as a teenager and seeing main street boarded up. The Bike shop that sold me my first big girl bike – closed. The Bakery I used to get cookies from – closed. I hated that. But when I was back there recently, one of the things that really stuck with me, was how often we ask rural America to settle for less.

They settle for less in so many ways – healthcare, social services, government accountability, food quality, economic opportunity. The country doesn’t ask, it expects, them to settle for less. The country ignores places like the town my grandpa lives in. They get ignored at the state and federal level and they pay the same taxes that we do, yet they receive less for it. The only place they aren’t second class citizens is the electoral college – but that’s a conversation for a different day.

Now, I’m not trying to paint a picture of rural America that makes it sound like they need your pity or your charity. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that we as a country have left them behind. We’ve forgotten about them. The only time you hear about rural America in the news is when democrats are looking for votes or when they’re bemoaning trumps support in small towns. Parts of Small Town America used to be reliably blue, some were red. But, now rural America is dark red. It’s not just republican. If it was traditionally republican, I would be happy with that. I think traditional conservatism lines up well with small town American values.  My more conservative leanings were all grown in that small town in Nevada. I have no problem with that, I think it’s good actually. But, what I do have a problem with is the blight of white nationalism seems to occupy rural America these days. the good, god-fearing, salt of the earth people that make up that part of this country – how did they get so radicalized? When did they start sounding so much like trump? How did they get so angry? Those are the questions you read about in the long form pieces that fill up sites like the Atlantic or the New Yorker.  The media can’t understand it. I’ve heard people in my own social circles complain, How can they support trump? Don’t they know his policies hurt them? It’s a fair question – I get it – what I can’t stand is the subtext of that statement. Why are they too dumb to vote in their own self interest? I hate that. I think the country, red and blue, talks down to small town America in a way I just can’t stand. But, the question, is a fair one. Over the last decade or so, small towns in rural America have gotten redder and redder. They’ve become a breeding ground for the alt right. They’ve thrown their support between a lying, cheating, billionaire from New York City. How does that happen? Not only do his policies not support them but his character doesn’t align with them either. That’s what I was thinking about when I met Ross Benes.

Ross is the author of a book called Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold. He’s written for many publications including the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian Magazine, FiveThirtyEight, and Rolling Stone. And he seemed like the perfect person to talk through these questions with. Without further ado, Ross Benes.

 Interview with Ross Benes

Hillari Lombard: [00:00:00] thank you for being with me.

[00:00:02] Ross Benes: [00:00:02] Yep.

[00:00:03]Hillari Lombard: [00:00:03] I guess as far as the interview goes, I have a lot of questions. I wanted to start with what motivated you to write a book about rural America?

[00:00:11]Ross Benes: [00:00:11] What motivated me to write about a book about rural America is I saw it overtaking the conversation in the press, this urban rural divide. And I wanted to add in my own 2 cents because I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in a town of 300 people.

[00:00:29] And now I live in the largest city in the United States. So I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. In a drastic way. And I thought telling the story of the urban, rural divide through my experience of living in small town, Nebraska and New York city would one be one way to make that story accessible and meaningful.

[00:00:52] Hillari Lombard: [00:00:52] So what is your experience? I’ve lived in small towns before, but never 300. What is that like?

[00:00:57]Ross Benes: [00:00:57] It was great for growing up. There definitely were times where you’d get bored because we didn’t have a lot of Options for entertainment. You entertain yourself. And I played a lot of sports, which help pass the time. And I played guitar and made movies with my friends and stuff.

[00:01:12] But you’re really isolated and you don’t really realize how isolated you are until you leave that. It’s you’re in an outlier situation to live in a town that has no There’s no street lights, no police force. There’s no restaurants. You can get food at the bar car, but there’s no standalone restaurants.

[00:01:31] There’s no quick shop or a gas station, stuff like that. Just a lot of things people take for granted, no gyms, no movie theaters there’s a church and a school and a few other ancillary businesses like my dad’s plumbing business and the electrician shop but, it’s not you have to go elsewhere to do most things, but it was great for, being unsupervised. My parents didn’t have to be helicopter parents because not much is going to happen to you in Brainerd when you know everyone and hardly anyone comes into town and there’s no traffic and the streets are wide and you can ride your bicycle everywhere you want.

[00:02:07]Hillari Lombard: [00:02:07] What impact do you think that kind of isolation has on people in those communities?


[00:02:13] Ross Benes: [00:02:13] I believe that’s part of what has made them less receptive to government policies when you’re isolated like that, you can feel like those from the outside are against you, or they don’t have your best interests or they’re ignorant of what you really need. So government feels so disconnected.

[00:02:32] So something that is big government is like very terrible in their eyes. And it’s easy for politicians to brand, whatever they’re against as being big government to turn people against it. It isn’t clear out there how the government may benefit you. So you don’t think you need regulation of pollution or fireworks or firearms.

[00:02:54] You just want to live with your neighbors and not be told anything. And I believe that sentiment has made Republicans more favorable to those in those really tiny towns.


[00:03:08]Hillari Lombard: [00:03:08] I want to jump off of something that you just said.

[00:03:12] In the lead up to this interview, I was reading one of the articles that you had written on this topic, and you brought up this idea. That  people in rural communities. Are often receiving more federal money than people in urban communities. But then they have this negative sentiment towards government. Can you walk me through that? Where do you think that comes from?

[00:03:33] Ross Benes: [00:03:33] Yeah. And when I say more money, like when you just think about stuff like public schools or roads or even healthcare systems, it’s going to cost more per capita to fund those things in a tiny area where there are a few people, then when you’re in a city where you would have. Economies of scale.

[00:03:51]And also there’s, huge ag support in rural areas as well.  In the rural areas you tend to see more dollars actually flow that way, but from their perception, they’re not thinking about it like a think tank analysts, they’re just seeing their towns shrink and their schools consolidate and their businesses close. And most of those small towns, their town is much worse off than it was like 40 years ago. And it’s easy to blame the government for that. So they become skeptical that the government will have solutions to any of their problems. Even if that’s solution is as simple as providing healthcare to people who can’t afford it, that’s something that they don’t want the government in their lives that’s like part of the backlash to Obamacare. So in that rural area, Government is just in the community, not viewed good. Even though you may be getting more per capita, you don’t have as many overall services in your way of life. Your quality of life has declined over time. So, you would hear people say things like, what are you doing, working for the state. Whatever they think you’re not working hard. That’s what my dad would tell me if I wasn’t like helping him plumbing. Pipes, the way I should be or helping him install an air conditioner. You’re like, what the hell are you doing? Working for the state that gets like, that’s the way government is viewed there.

[00:05:11]Hillari Lombard: [00:05:11] I guess in your book, real rebellion, you talk a lot about taking back rural America. So I think that the first question is how did we lose them?

[00:05:19] Ross Benes: [00:05:19] Yeah. And when you say, how do we lose them? Are you referring? Like, how did the democratic party lose rural America?

[00:05:24]Hillari Lombard: [00:05:24] Honestly, no, I feel like. The country has lost rural America.

[00:05:29] Like I, when I was little, I grew up in a pretty small town. Not 300 small, but a small town in Nevada and it’s Eastern Nevada. So it’s just surrounded by just dirt and I don’t even really think it’s a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s like when I go back there, that community’s kind of, it’s like it’s lost or it exists outside of the rest of the country. In a way it’s become so isolated that it’s almost a country unto itself. Because when you’re there. Perceptions are different. The culture is different. The economy is different. The industries that are thriving, they’re not thriving everywhere else. I guess what I would say to clarify my original question is how did the country. Lose sight of the priorities in rural America?

[00:06:23]Ross Benes: [00:06:23] Rural America, isn’t where many media sources are located. There’s not a ton of fortune 500 companies. Operating in rural areas. So their voices over time, haven’t been as heard as much the, there, there may be some wealthy farmers independently, but like they don’t have the marketing power that all these corporations and all these media sources do that tend to be located in cities.

[00:06:53] In rural America, the industries that have been there have been hollowed out and it’s created a brain drain in many areas, but the Midwest has a worse brain drain than any other region. And in Nebraska specifically, it’s really bad. I’m an example of that. People leave much more often than they stay there. And as their population has shrunk and these mega cities have become more influential over the direction of our country. It’s reduced the the amount of attention that’s given to rural areas. The only reason we’re paying attention to them now is because they helped elect Trump in 2016. If Hillary Clinton won, I don’t think rural areas would be getting much coverage still.


[00:07:33]Hillari Lombard: [00:07:33] And do you think that’s because Trump paid attention to them?

[00:07:36]Ross Benes: [00:07:37] Yeah. He gave the appearance that he cared about them. And I think it’s something that is very satisfying to the people I know in rural Nebraska, like my family and friends is they feel looked down upon. They feel like they get talked down to, and Trump tells everyone from people in the press, like myself to academics, to powerful business people F like they, they find that satisfying, even if he’s not really designing any policies that actually benefit their lives.  There’s this satisfactory vengeance they get whereas like someone in a New York press person sees his on hinged press conferences be in like, Something that they hate something that’s dangerous to democracy. In Nebraska they laughed their ass off and they’re like, wow, that guy’s hilarious. I’m glad that he’s sticking it to the man. Even though, Trump’s a billionaire from New York city, but that’s the perception

[00:08:35] Hillari Lombard: [00:08:35] Yeah. I think that there’s almost no better example of this than his trade war with China, that like disproportionately impacted farmers. And then we had to have an, a farmer’s relief aid package

[00:08:49] to get them out of that. And it was a trade war on a whim. And then you have States like California that did not receive as much money in that aid package.

[00:08:58]Ross Benes: [00:08:58] Yeah, the aid package definitely benefited the red States who tended to support him.


[00:09:01] And it’s funny as if, cause if any, like other industry got that type of bailout It’d be viewed as socialism to the people I know in Nebraska, but when it benefits their industry and their politician pushed it they will work around the cognitive dissonance and come around to support it.


[00:09:20]Hillari Lombard: [00:09:20] I totally agree. It’s the sort of it’s the dark side of American exceptionalism because. In my opinion, we basically, we have the American dream that says that you as an individual can do whatever you want. Be whoever you want, no matter the cost and that radical individualism. In many ways is what has made us successful as a country, but then there’s stuff like this. And it frustrates me because I feel like sometimes we, as a people are so focused on our individual prosperity.

[00:09:53] That it creates worldviews like this, where you’re basically saying, oh yeah, it’s socialism for everyone else. But for me, It’s hard earned relief that is necessary and essential.

[00:10:11] Ross Benes: [00:10:11] Yeah. And I, and the individualist and many ways, and I think people have more agency than liberals tend to give them. But yeah, you’ve seen a lot of nuttiness embracing individuality over the last year. You see it in COVID protest too.

[00:10:27]Hillari Lombard: [00:10:27] Totally. Totally. I think for me up until this year, I’ve been pretty firmly on the. On the individual Liberty side of things until we couldn’t wear a mask without it being a political issue. And then it’s Nope, that is the line. That’s it right there.

[00:10:45] Ross Benes: [00:10:45] Yeah. It’s gotten to asinine proportions.

[00:10:49]Hillari Lombard: [00:10:49] With Trump he weaponized grievance. And you’re saying that landed in rural America. So, one question that I have is if it wasn’t Trump, do you think that any other like Republican nominee would have grabbed their interest the same way? Or do you think that it was particular with him?

[00:11:08] Ross Benes: [00:11:08] I think any Republican nominee will grab most of that interest. Trump probably just gave it a little extra juice than what a normal Republican, like. Mitt Romney, but McCain Romney, both one in, in rural America as well, not to the degree Trump did. I think Trump’s supporters though are just much more vocal about appreciating his grievances than the middle of the road, Republican candidates who were, very much bland and establishment You don’t see people saying that their political opponents need to be thrown in jail two years after an election that was in upstate New York. Yeah. I was in upstate New York and it was like a winter 2018 full two years that I still saw Hillary for jail signs. It’s you got to let it go at some point.

[00:11:59] Hillari Lombard: [00:11:59] Yes. Like she’s just now a woman living in her home.

[00:12:02]Ross Benes: [00:12:02] She even lost, they didn’t put those stayed up a long time. They might even still be up

[00:12:08]Hillari Lombard: [00:12:08] Okay. So historically rural areas have not always been solid red. So then how did Democrats lose sight?

[00:12:16] Ross Benes: [00:12:16] Yeah. The parties have changed so much. If you’re going to go back like a hundred years or more and talk about William J. Bryan, that’s a way different. Democratic party than today’s party. The rural area, a bracing  abrasion, identity politics. These things have been successful for Democrats in the cities. They are not in, in the rural areas. And of course, media consumption has changed drastically, even since just the nineties, repeal and us a fairness doctrine rise of cable news, a rise of internet news sources. That’s all had an effect. There are many things, but I don’t think the issue is that Democrats tend to focus on the most resonate in rural America.

[00:12:58] And it’s very easy for Republicans to brandish them as being. Anti-Christian or secular or against individual rights things that these people in small towns have been taught to hold dearly. These are all stereotypes, but they tend to work and political messaging, unfortunately, over the last 20 years.

[00:13:17] Hillari Lombard: [00:13:17] What role do you think that religion plays in all of that?

[00:13:19] Ross Benes: [00:13:19] Oh, a huge part because, and so religion plays a massive part and in the nineties, Especially, and today absolutely as well, the culture Wars have been a bigger issue with evangelical churches, even within the Catholic church. It’s much more about these frivolous culture, war things.

[00:13:38] Maybe some people don’t view them as frivolous, but when you’ve her 20,000 sermons on abortion and nothing on protecting the environment, it, it starts to seem a little silly at some point. I believe the church has had a huge impact because as the churches became more political, they talk about this in their masses, in or in their ceremonies.

[00:13:57]That they go out and help campaigns. They’ll basically adores candidates, even if they don’t officially. And that messaging is much more effective than just buying it nine ad space in a newspaper or on a TV station because people go to church. They’re not necessarily like. Putting up their safeguards to protect themselves against political messages.

[00:14:18] And I’m going to add, goes on TV. And it’s like from a Republican or Democrat people tune out. They just want to watch their football game there. They want the ad to be over. When they’re going to church, they’re getting a lot of fulfillment and like things that enrich their lives.

[00:14:30] And if politics is just sprinkled in, it’s much more effective, it’s coming from A place of community and from someone, as opposed to something that’s distant, that’s being forced onto you because people are voluntarily going to church. They’re not voluntary. They may be voluntarily watching football and the ads come on, but they don’t necessarily want to watch those ads, but they do want the service.

[00:14:51] Hillari Lombard: [00:14:51] and they’re not watching the ads to learn. Whereas when you go to church it’s to be taught something,

[00:14:55] Ross Benes: [00:14:55] yeah, it’s, to better yourself and to Bring your family together. And all these good things that churches really do provide, but they’re also providing politics and there are left-wing churches and there are some very progressive pastors. But they’re significantly outnumbered by right-wing churches and denominations.

[00:15:18] The church has influenced on like the left is nothing like it is compared to what it is on the right. And it’s influenced the Republican party. And that I believe really began taken off during Reagan. And we’ve just continued to see more and more of it.

[00:15:31] Hillari Lombard: [00:15:31] do you think that’s driven more by the party’s values or by the urban rural divide? There’s more Democrats in cities and there’s layers less churchgoing populations in cities, like which one drives the other.

[00:15:44]Ross Benes: [00:15:44] It’s probably a little bit of both. I just think Republicans found that was an effective way to pull some voters away. Especially after you had Supreme court decisions like abortion. I have talked about it a lot that wasn’t as bifurcated by party before it was a national decision by the Supreme court and Republicans.

[00:16:06] After that, very much pushed out there, moderate candidates slowly, and you had to be pro-life if you’re willing to win as a Republican and that’s been effective for them and vice versa for the Democrats. They purge their pro-life candidates, to be a pro-life Democrat now is moron.

[00:16:26] Hillari Lombard: [00:16:26] right. I, yeah, it’s, it’s, I feel for people that are on that side of the issue, because it is such a divisive one because it’s such a moral issue for so many people that if you are pro-life but agree with everything else in the democratic party, you’re in a tough spot because you have to compromise on one of those two things. I think that’s hard.

[00:16:44] Ross Benes: [00:16:44] And Democrats have done a terrible job of saying those voters are still welcome. Th they, the Republicans will welcome any voters. Even, I’d say even too many voters in some cases like, like they should tell the proud boys to like, not be a part of their

[00:17:00] Hillari Lombard: [00:17:00] You can’t sit with us.

[00:17:01]Ross Benes: [00:17:01] Someone should exclude them.

[00:17:03]Whereas Democrats in, especially in recent times, if you’re not like as progressive as the most progressive Democrat, like you just get shit on.

[00:17:14] Hillari Lombard: [00:17:14] Joe Manchin is having a hard time on Twitter right

[00:17:17] Ross Benes: [00:17:17] Yeah. And you know what, there, Joe Manchin is having a hard time and you know what he did does it represent people in New York.

[00:17:22]Hillari Lombard: [00:17:22] He represents West Virginia.

[00:17:24] Ross Benes: [00:17:24] Exactly. And he’s, if Joe Manchin didn’t run for reelection, they’re not going to elect the Democrat. They’re going to do the same thing that happened in Nebraska. When Ben Nelson left. Progressives are very annoyed at Ben Nelson. Even though he represented Nebraska, he was a Democrat, he was a moderate Democrat, but when he left.

[00:17:41] He was replaced by Deb Fisher. One of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, and the same thing would happen in West Virginia. It’s not like West, Virginia is a hot bed of liberalism. Joe Manchin is as good as you’re going to get from that state. You might be annoyed with them from time to time, but people who are annoyed with them, you don’t live in his district.

[00:17:59] Hillari Lombard: [00:17:59] and he represents his district. That’s what frustrates me so much. It’s if he was out here talking like AOC, he wouldn’t be serving his

[00:18:05] constituents.

[00:18:06] Ross Benes: [00:18:06] No, he would have an NFL. See, you talked like Joe Manchin. She wouldn’t be serving her constituents either.

[00:18:12]Hillari Lombard: [00:18:12] I think that the people that you elect should reflect their community. It’s if you want Kyrsten Sinema to always vote down the party line, she’s going to lose Arizona.

[00:18:21] Ross Benes: [00:18:21] Yeah. But Democrats have demanded fealty and I don’t think that’s helped them.

[00:18:26] Hillari Lombard: [00:18:26] yeah, the purity test. Definitely do not.

[00:18:30]Ross Benes: [00:18:30] We had a democratic mayor candidate and Omaha four years ago get denounced by the DNC because he voted for an ultrasound bill like four years prior to that in the state legislature. And it was the mayor position, he’s gonna, the best he can do is support unions and fix potholes and, have a reasonable police budget. He’s not this isn’t, he’s not going to decide Know national case law, but DNC still came after him

[00:18:56]Hillari Lombard: [00:18:56] We’ve nationalized everything.

[00:18:58] Ross Benes: [00:18:58] Everything’s nationalized. And that’s been a albatross for Democrats in rural areas, harder for Democrats to take their own stand and deviate from their party and what roll America wants. Isn’t just the democratic party platform.

[00:19:13]Hillari Lombard: [00:19:13] And they shouldn’t, it’s policies that work in New York don’t work in Nebraska.  I guess just circling back, my question is, do the, do you believe that the Republican party is serving rural America right now?

[00:19:27] Ross Benes: [00:19:27] No, I do not.

[00:19:31] Republican party’s biggest policy issue lately. It’s just been tax cuts for the rich and rural America is tends to be poor than. Urban areas. There, there is some abject poverty in urban areas and a lot of homelessness, but there’s a lot of wealthy people too. And in rural America, you don’t have nearly the share of wealthy people that you have in some of these mega cities. So, I don’t believe Republicans have really benefited them at all. And even the grievance issues that they’ve supported, Republicans have had control of the presidency and Congress and Supreme court. Prior to this last election for the last few years they didn’t end nationwide abortion or gay marriage or any of these things they campaign on, they just used them as a wedge issue to get people out.

[00:20:21] So I don’t think they’ve actually delivered on what they’ve promised to rural America.

[00:20:29] Hillari Lombard: [00:20:29] well. And how many presidents is it going to take to get rural America? Some fucking broadband, like every year it’s we’re going to get him some internet and I’m like okay. Let’s see it. Let’s just get them the internet. And it’s Oh,

[00:20:40] Ross Benes: [00:20:40] And that’s yeah. So in Nebraska, we’re Republican dominated through and through from our Congress reps to the governor, Lieutenant, governor two-thirds of the legislature the mayor of Omaha, basically all the state constitutional officers, attorney general auditor, everyone. And they don’t get shit for broadband. They’ll talk about it. But yeah, I go to my sister’s farmhouse out in the country and I still have to try to use my multiple data. And that’s a, that’s an issue that they failed them on and they’ve had uniformed control of our state for a long time that they could have done something about it, but they go, they don’t want to irritate their corporate backers and telecoms don’t want to work with rural areas because there’s no profit incentive. When you have few customers, you need a government driven mandate to go out there because it’s going to cost more than it’s. Then you’re going to get in revenue and that’s why services like the post office are fantastic for real America.

[00:21:35] Hillari Lombard: [00:21:35] Yeah. Yeah. So I guess, okay, so then counterpoint, do you think that Democrats are serving rural America?

[00:21:43] Ross Benes: [00:21:43] Not really, but they haven’t had as much of a chance lately either because they’re not elected in rural areas. So I wouldn’t blame Democrats right now for not serving rural America that great because rural America is not, they’re not representing rural America. If all the Democrats in the house are in urban areas they don’t have as much incentive to talk about rural areas because that’s not their district. They just don’t have the representation there. I think if they could be more competitive, they would have a chance to, and maybe they’d be able to afford it Republicans too, because Republicans would have to moderate their stances because they’d be fearful of losing an election, but when they’re not afraid of losing anything and they can just do what their national party wants, regardless of whether that actually aligns with local voters in a rural area

[00:22:31]Hillari Lombard: [00:22:31] What would it take to make Democrats more competitive?

[00:22:35] Ross Benes: [00:22:35] yeah, that’s a tough question. I know. I wish I had a one line answer that cause I could be like rich and sell 8 million copies of this book. Yeah. But I don’t, I’m better at just saying here’s the problem. Here’s how it happened. The solution is much more difficult. Just being honest with you.

[00:22:50]I do believe they’re going to have to try to find a way to make. Everything less nationalized, like Ben Nelson won in Nebraska, he was able to make the more about local issues and you see some  Democrats do that in swing districts like Connor lamb for instance but it hasn’t been, something had been able to replicate and it’s tough because their opponents will try to drag it into a national context. National democratic party carries a lot of baggage from rural areas. And our news sources are, very nationalized, especially Facebook pages. They have an uphill battle, but they need to talk as much as they can about issues affecting that district. Instead of these big, broad culture war things we’ll help them win in urban areas and may they, Democrats may even win over time, but they’re not winning rural districts.

[00:23:41]Having races focused on these like same five issues that dominate everywhere else. If you could go to rural Nebraska and make it about school district funding and like broadband and hospital closures, I think they’d have a better chance. But the tough part is most of the money’s got to come from outside the state and those donors may not give a shit about that.

[00:24:06] Hillari Lombard: [00:24:06] Do you think that do you think it’s a problem that the money is coming from outside of the state?

[00:24:10] Ross Benes: [00:24:10] yeah, it is a problem, but it’s a problem everywhere. That’s a problem with both parties. That’s not, it’s a almost like a catch 22 sort of thing where. Your opponent’s getting, millions of dollars from out of state. And if you don’t get that money, you’re going to be significantly out spent. So, you have to do it because your opponent’s doing it. And then your opponent has to do it because you’re doing it

[00:24:31] Hillari Lombard: [00:24:31] yeah, you can’t be poor on principle.

[00:24:33]Ross Benes: [00:24:33] Yeah. If you just say I’m principal, I’m going to, limit my campaign to have 80% of my contributions come from within the state. Your opponent’s going to have six times the ad spend as you, and that’s really gonna cripple you.

[00:24:43]It is a problem, but it’s tough to fix. And deregulation of campaign finance has just been a boondoggle. Citizens United as the poster child, but there’s been dozens of other cases from all the way to SCOTUS all the way down to appeals courts that have incrementally chipped away at the.

[00:25:01] Campaign finance rules that have been in place to stop robber barons. Some of them were implemented after Watergate because of everything that happened there and they’ve been eroded away and now, money remains hidden. If the money wasn’t so hidden and the donations so unlimited, you would probably see more races being funded locally. What I’m trying to do is bring this down to a local level when you have These rules redacted. It affects things all the way down to us, a small state house race in a district of 35,000 people where suddenly the amount of money comes in is, over a million dollars for this race. Whereas in 1990, it was probably like a hundred thousand dollars total, it’s just asinine.


[00:25:45]Hillari Lombard: [00:25:45] The For The People Act is currently in the Senate. And one of the things that it’s really pushing for as a public financing model which would basically give candidates that could reach that certain threshold of small dollar donations, a government match dollar for dollar. Or whatever formula they work out. But basically the hope in doing that is that by empowering these small dollar donors or people like me and you. It makes politicians pay attention to them, as opposed to corporate lobbyists, and what have you.

[00:26:20] Do you think that reforms like that would keep campaign finance more localized?.

[00:26:26] Ross Benes: [00:26:26] It could, if you if you were able to expand it more broadly Nebraska had a rural kind of like that called the campaign finance limitation act. I think that was the name of it. I’m forgetting the acronym right now. And it was basically thrown out in the last six years because all these deregulations at the national level had invalidated that local statute.

[00:26:49] But for a time that local, that statute did help make our state legislature races more reasonable, but It was, totally in isolation because it didn’t apply to any other races really within the state. So, if you’re gonna have a rule like that, for it to have a big effect, you would need to have people seriously adhered to the rule, enforced the rule and have it applied widely, which is difficult.

[00:27:15]Hillari Lombard: [00:27:15] Okay. So let’s bring this back to rural America. Tell me something that makes you optimistic. If you don’t have, if you don’t have the easy solution. Just tell me something that’s given you a little bit of hope.

[00:27:26] Ross Benes: [00:27:26] The, what makes me optimistic is that when things are put in a nonpartisan context, people can tend to form together on issues, even if their parties don’t. So just to give you a few examples, and I’ve always used in Nebraska, because that’s where I’ve spent most of my life S in the last 10 years, Nebraska has expanded Medicaid, increased minimum wage, implemented casino, gambling, and capped payday loan interest rates so what payday loan companies can charge their customers. Those issues tended to be opposed by the Republicans who hold power in Nebraska. They were only passed because they were passed through a ballot initiative. And that worked because on an, a ballot initiative, you don’t force people to go R or D you put it in two paragraphs and they just vote on that one issue.

[00:28:21] The baggage that their parties bring is irrelevant. Yes. Are you for minimum wage? No. Are you for not minimum wage? And you saw a lot of cross-pollination of Republicans and Democrats working together on those campaigns and voting as a block together to pass them. And that makes me hopeful that there are areas we could find agreement on.

[00:28:44]Like I believe there’s widespread re support in the United States for both parties to limit campaign finance donations. When it’s done through a partisan context, it’s never going to work as long as one party adamantly opposes it, which Republicans do right now, if it was put through a ballot initiative state by state, I think you could see some progress.

[00:29:06] So that makes me hopeful that people aren’t just drones of that they can work together. It’s tough though, because legislating that way is very expensive. Each initiative costs a few million dollars to gather the signatures and do the legwork to get it out there. And when you just think about living in a modern society and adapting to the way, our society and culture are changing, you need laws constantly updated and changed and, implemented and redacted, and you can’t just do a ballot measure for every single thing.

[00:29:37] And it’s just impractical. At most you could probably get a handful of them in most States and not even every state allows them. So cause for optimism, but then you have to be pragmatic and know that. There are significant limitations in how effective that strategy can be.

[00:29:54] Hillari Lombard: [00:29:54] But hopefully with ballot initiatives, it’s you can rely on the goalposts for the rules that people would then use to legislate. If it has to be down a party line.

[00:30:03] No

[00:30:03] Ross Benes: [00:30:03] I agree.

[00:30:04]You could take out some of the venom and it also helps something, I believe that helped Nebraska pass Medicaid, even though they significantly opposed Obamacare. And these are both, government mandated healthcare. Is that what the ballot initiative is it a tied to a specific person? So it’s much harder to attack an issue. It’s easy to attack Obamacare because it’s from a democratic president. It has a face, it has a name attacking. A concept or just the law by itself that a faceless group of people are pushing is difficult to demonize or more difficult.

[00:30:49] Hillari Lombard: [00:30:49] Yeah that’s an interesting way to think about it is it’s really, it’s

[00:30:52] difficult. You can’t run

[00:30:52] Ross Benes: [00:30:52] Yeah, you can try, but I know, I think it sticks the same way. You don’t have your pro wrestling villain like you do when it’s tied to a human being.

[00:31:02] Hillari Lombard: [00:31:02] Yeah. It’s interesting with Nebraska. Cause I feel like in a way you guys are kind of Mavericks. It’s there’s a lot of interesting pro-democracy stuff coming out of Nebraska.

[00:31:13] Why do you think that is?

[00:31:14] Ross Benes: [00:31:14] That’s just always been our state’s history. It was like, when it was settled, it was by these pioneers men and they blocked conventional wisdom. Nebraska voted against statehood. Who does that?  Cause it was going to raise taxes.

[00:31:29] Hillari Lombard: [00:31:29] I feel like that’s so on brand for Nebraska.

[00:31:32] Ross Benes: [00:31:32] Yeah. They eventually relented obviously. But what do you know when it came up? First time people were afraid, Oh, joining the union, we’re going to have to pay all these additional taxes. We don’t want that. We’ll just be a territory. And, w we supported back when populism actually meant something people like William Bryan were very much independent of the given parties of that time and had their own independent streak.

[00:31:57] And I believe the most clear application of our history of weird progressivism. Isn’t our state legislature. It’s the only legislature in the United States. That’s non-partisan. That’s just us like walking a different beat.

[00:32:12]Hillari Lombard: [00:32:12] How do we get more of that? I want more of this Nebraska energy nationwide.

[00:32:16] Ross Benes: [00:32:16] Yeah. That’s what I, that’s what I like more of that as well. And it’s been tough because even within our own state that nonpartisan legislature has become more partisan and our unique way of allowing, we give electoral votes in a unique way. Like we’re only us in Maine split it by district. So you don’t, if you win the state of Nebraska, you could still lose a vote. Trump won state in Nebraska. Biden got the Omaha vote. We’re very unusual in that. Republicans have tried 17 times since 1993 to end that. All of these norms are under threat. How do you get more of that? I’m not sure because the only reason Nebraska has these idiosyncrasies is because they were adopted, a long time ago.

[00:32:57] They’re just under threatened. Now when people protect them from crumbling. But how do you create more of that in other States?

[00:33:04] Hillari Lombard: [00:33:04] Yes, we need a bottle of Nebraska’s energy and just ship it, state the state because there’s something going on there. Like I feel like there’s a lot of yeah, it’s that independent spirit that you’re talking about in Nebraska and Maine. That’d be the other one.

[00:33:18] Ross Benes: [00:33:18] Yeah. But eh, but though all I can’t stress enough, how much people have tried to change that independent spirit and in some ways that has become less independent. Like even within our own state, it’s tough to apply it elsewhere because there’s so much pressure from parties to make our own state adapt to the same thing that’s happening in every other

[00:33:38] Hillari Lombard: [00:33:38] Do you okay. This is a surrendered question, but bear with, makes me curious. Do you think that parties are too strong or too weak?

[00:33:46] Ross Benes: [00:33:46] I think they’re too strong. I don’t think it’s good for the parties to dictate so much, like they do now. I believe it would be better if the parties had more leeway in where their members could lean. Like I think government functioned better. Let’s say 40 years ago, when you had actual liberal Republicans and you had conservative Democrats, like those terms seem crazy now because it just.

[00:34:17] If I say Democrat, like you assume someone is moderate at most probably liberal, and same with Republican. Like you don’t have Nelson Rockefeller anymore. You have people who are very far to the right. If they are Republicans in Congress, I don’t think that’s good because now we have extreme choices on the ballots.

[00:34:35]When the choices were less extreme The severity of the fallout of an election. Wasn’t so crazy. So I don’t think we’re in a good spot

[00:34:46] Hillari Lombard: [00:34:46] But if I, so if I press you on that, because one of the arguments that I’ve heard recently, that I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I’m somewhat receptive to it is if our parties were stronger, they would keep ideologues from seizing control of the party. If the Republican.

[00:35:01] Ross Benes: [00:35:01] Oh, you’re saying like they would stop like a Trump person. Yeah. I guess it’s nice to think of it that way that there have been crazy people in the past who like were throwing out of the party convention before, everything was like more voted on by the people, before we had direct representation.

[00:35:22]Essentially if you go way back I believe one of the Coors magnets was Trying to get into politics. And the Republican establishment was like, you’re too crazy. Like that’s happened with many rich people over time. I think Henry Ford might even not even happened with the Henry Ford.

[00:35:38]So I guess there is that, but I just I’m skeptical that the party establishment really will have the best interest of the people. Even with what trapping with Trump Yeah, I’m just skeptical. They’re going to keep out the ideologues. Cause when I think about the parties right now, the ideologues seem to be who’s running the party.

[00:36:02]Hillari Lombard: [00:36:02] Yeah. Yeah, that’s a fair point.  okay. So tell me about this book.

[00:36:07]Ross Benes: [00:36:07] okay. My book is rural rebellion. How Nebraska became a Republican stronghold. And what I’m looking at is how we went from a bipartisan state when I was born electing Democrats and Republicans, and many moderates to how we become dominated by the far right. And how that’s symbolic of what’s happened nationally because other States with low population density have experienced the same thing.

[00:36:35] And I tell that story through interviewing many people, governors, senators lobbyists and so on, but I also have a lot of memoir in there too, because I’d have to, talk about my strange experience with the rural urban divide to tell it fully.

[00:36:51] Hillari Lombard: [00:36:51] I think, I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve ordered it and it just is not at my house yet. Yeah, but I encourage anybody listening to check it out as well, especially you folks in Nebraska. So is there a question that I should’ve asked you and I didn’t.

[00:37:08]Ross Benes: [00:37:08] I tend to end up talking about too long Fu whenever these interviews happen. So I guess you could have asked what’s the most exciting thing to happen in your home town? And I would reply the making of two long foo happened in our small town back in the nineties, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes. Drag Queens across America, stranded in rural Nebraska. My dad fixed

[00:37:33] Swayze’s air conditioner.

[00:37:35] Hillari Lombard: [00:37:35] This is a movie

[00:37:36] Ross Benes: [00:37:36] yeah, this is how the book opens up. The first passage of the book is about my my dad seeing these guys in drag. It’s a great movie to check it out. Nineties camp, movie most of the movie takes place in Snyder’s Ville, Nebraska cause so the movie starts out and it’s these drag Queens in New York.

[00:37:54] Are venturing out to California for this big ball, they’re going to drive all the way their car breaks down in rural Nebraska. And then that’s when the hilarity ensues and that town of Snyder’s Advil is actually Lomma Nebraska. That’s where it was filmed. And that’s just right outside. Where I lived. So we had a lot of merch and it’s a source of fond nostalgia.

[00:38:21] I have a shirt somewhere in a closet, back in Brainerd at my parents’ house. I don’t have it on me. I have the braider history book behind me that talks about it a little bit, but that book isn’t focused just on too long food, but it has a passage within it.

[00:38:38]There was a book it’s out of print. I’ve had trouble getting a copy of it. It’s called Loma wood. And it’s about this whole thing. I think it was self published like in the nineties. And I have had difficulty finding a library or even a used bookstore that has, if any listener has a copy of Loma, would

[00:38:59] Hillari Lombard: [00:38:59] Yeah. If you do, please email the show and we will get that to rise. Oh my gosh. I’m the one, an unexpected gem that was asked a couple people that question. And that is by far the best answer that I have received. Yes. I will be Googling that movie as soon as we get off of this interview.

[00:39:19] Ross Benes: [00:39:19] Oh, I’m sure. It’s streamable. We watched it on Netflix again about six months ago, but with streaming rights,

[00:39:26] Hillari Lombard: [00:39:26] Oh, I’ll find it. I’ll buy it. If I have to, Patrick Swayze is just drag queen in Nebraska is, must have content.

[00:39:32]Ross Benes: [00:39:32] I think John Leguizamo is

[00:39:33] Hillari Lombard: [00:39:33] Oh yeah. I’ll keep you posted. I’ll watch it. And I will, I’ll assess them fairly.

[00:39:39] And I will get back to you about who is the

[00:39:40] superior drag queen.

[00:39:42] Ross Benes: [00:39:42] forward to your review of, to Wong

[00:39:44] Hillari Lombard: [00:39:44] So Ross, thank you so much. What a, what an interview and what an unexpected gem you have brought into my life.

[00:39:52]Ross Benes: [00:39:52] I’m just glad to bring awareness to that movie.

[00:39:54] Hillari Lombard: [00:39:54] I, what a gift. All right. Thank you for being on the show.

[00:39:59] Ross Benes: [00:39:59] for having me on.

[00:40:00] Hillari Lombard: [00:40:00] You’ve been a star. It’s an absolute pleasure.

[00:40:01] Ross Benes: [00:40:01] All right. Good to hear.

[00:40:03] Hillari Lombard: [00:40:03] Take care.

[00:40:04] Ross Benes: [00:40:04] See ya.

Alright guys, that’s it for me and Ross. But I have one very important thing to share with you guys


[TRAILER: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything.]


The full title of to wong foo is to wong foo thanks for everything. And after watching it, all I can say is to wong foo, THANK FOR EVERYTHING. That movie is a freakin’ treat. Very underrated. You guys should absolutely watch it. It is peak 90s camp and it is glorious. Also for the record, Ross was right, Jon Leguizamo is the superior drag queen.



Ross is the author of Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold. He’s written for many publications including the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian Magazine, FiveThirtyEight, and Rolling Stone.

Find Ross on Twitter

More ModPod

Join the Moderate Movement

Never miss a moment of Moderate Party! Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up on the news, policy, new episodes, and the moderate perspective. Spoiler alert: we only send one email per week. Nothing spammy, promise!

Join our community