Rage, Race and Residence

I've known some straight-up, stone-cold racists in rural areas. But then I've also known some in urban areas.

Rage, Race and Residence
Photo courtesy of me.

I promised the week before last to write about what a church based on friendship might look like. But I realized that piece needed some research and additional thought. So I've postponed it for now — I regret to inform you that I will come back to it some day — in favor of another topic. So:

Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman have a new book out titled White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy. It has proved controversial. There are two major objections, as I understand them. First, Schaller and Waldman may have misrepresented or misunderstood scholarship on the rural context. Second, their thesis — White rural voters pose a unique threat to American democracy — may be overstated and under-supported.

I've known of Schaller and Waldman's work for a long time, and know Tom himself at least a little. So I was a bit surprised to see the vehemence and breadth of the pushback on the new book. I was equally surprised to see other folks I know strongly defend their thesis. The authors got their own word in at The New Republic.

Is it rural, or is it race?

It may surprise you to hear this, but I am neither a rural sociologist or political scientist. I decided I was in no place to give an authoritative assessment of these arguments. Then, while I was groping around for what I did want to say, Noah Berlatsky...just went ahead and nailed it?

Democrats struggle not with rural voters in general, but with white rural voters in particular. And white rural voters do not vote for the GOP because they are rural. They vote for the GOP because they are white.

That's pretty much it. As one scholar argues, if you control for other factors, the difference between rural and urban voting patterns essentially disappears. Race is a much stronger predictor than things like income, religion or place of residence.

Let's put that more anecdotally. I've known some straight-up, stone-cold racists in rural areas. But then I've also known some in urban areas.

It's not quite as simple as saying that rural Whites are a bunch of racists. But for at least some people, it's a straightforward enough syllogism:

  1. Cities are the source of all our problems.
  2. Black People live in cities.
  3. Democrats run cities.
  4. Ergo, Democrats and everything they stand for are bad and wrong.

There are variations on this theme. Illegal immigrants are overrunning our society! Democrats let them all in! Therefore, etc. Or: COVID is a city problem, Democrats run cities and liberals run health departments. Therefore we're not interested in getting vaccinated or practicing social distancing.

As with any White people, rural or urban, the supremacist elements of these formulas are more or less explicit, depending on the individual and their community. It could be that rural whites are more prone to bias due to lower levels of education. But other than that, racists are racists, no matter where you find them.

Social incentives

There is one factor particular to rural areas that deserves consideration before we look at potential answers to the "rural problem." Rural folks traditionally don't move around as much as city folks.1

Deep roots feed social capital through rich networks of relations, neighbors and friends. Rural communities are able to offer impressive support to those in need, or to accomplish shared goals. Think food pantries, volunteer fire companies, churches that persist with a handful of members.

But those same roots provide lots of incentives not to rock the social boat. This boils down to "Don't tick off the neighbors because you're stuck with those assholes for a long time and you never know when you might need their help." That makes it difficult to confront your loudmouth bigoted uncle. It makes even harder to disagree with those weird dudes down the road with all the AR-15s. It also can create a "culture of bullying" that reflexively smashes down anyone who doesn't conform to gender, political or racial norms.

Asking better questions

I don't say these things to valorize or demonize rural areas. It's just that knowing them helps us to ask the right questions.

For example, Kathy Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, tells Tyler Austin Harper:

The question of our time is not who are the bad Americans, but what is wrong with our systems—our government, our economy, our modes of communication—that means that so many people feel unseen, unheard, and disrespected by the people in charge? And what can we do, constructively, about that?

On the surface, this seems like a decent enough question. But it falls apart when you consider its easiest answer. Some people feel unseen, unheard and disrespected because they're bigots who have been spoon-fed a diet of resentment and entitlement courtesy of right-wing media. That leads to the practical but not very satisfying conclusion that they're best ignored in any kind of political project to the left of Attila the Hun.2

You might also ask, as Thomas Frank did, What's The Matter With Kansas? Or as Frank's thesis is often formulated: Why do White rural residents vote against their economic interests?

The usual hot take is that they've been hoodwinked by Republicans into voting on culture rather than cold hard cash. But that doesn't give them much credit. They're not fools. What if they know what they're doing? What if there's something they value more than economics?

To put it more exactly: What is it that White rural voters are willing to sacrifice so much for? It could be maintaining various forms of privilege, especially racial hierarchies. Or it could be saving a rural way of life that they perceive to be under threat of vanishing. (These options are not mutually exclusive.)

Getting better answers

Whatever the case, I suspect the most productive response to the situation will involve two things. They might seem like pie-in-the-sky projects at first. But I at least think there's some cause for a bit of optimism for each of them.

Democrats and progressives will need to do a lot less writing off rural districts as hopeless and a lot more intentional work on developing solidarity with them. A revived union movement such as we're currently seeing could go a long way toward meeting this goal. So could a new "green economy." It would help if there were a left-wing media ecosystem to push the good news coming out of those developments. Rural voters may not be fools, but there is evidence that messages of economic success aren't getting through to voters. There is also a desperate need for more positive racial narratives than the ones provided by Fox News and AM radio. But that might be too much to ask, given the kind of investment it would take.

And in the end the answer to overcoming divisions between rural and urban areas will have to come from within the communities themselves. They'll never accept a solution imposed from outside, and it is their community, after all.

It may very well be that cultural differences and the tensions between extractive and information economies are too big to bridge. On the other hand, MAGA extremism might prove finally too much even for country mice. Trump's unpopularity might create an opening for home-grown — and less extreme — leadership to emerge. And as Schaller and Waldman point out in their New Republic piece, there is a sizable rural minority population to build upon.

On the third hand, I despair.

Why bother?

But on the fourth hand,3 I'm pleased to see homegrown rural Democratic candidates emerging to challenge Republican hegemony. I'm also encouraged to hear of communities adopting more inclusive policies out of self-interest, if nothing else. With time and investment, I'm fairly confident liberal messages can get through to rural voters and a progressive vision can take root.

Rural White voters aren't more extreme than anyone else in my experience. Nor are they more racist. Your mileage may vary. They are however primed to support Republicans in a lot of ways. It would take a lot of time and investment to overcome those factors. There are legitimate arguments to be had about how worthwhile the effort would be. I've made some of the same arguments about religious outreach.

But it can be done, and I think it should at least be attempted. It won't win Democrats the next election, probably not the next few, either. But if the nation is ever to emerge from the shadow of racialized politics, it will have to confront White beliefs and practices. White racism may not be all that different in the cities than it is in the country. Still, it's as good a place to start as any. Which, come to think of it, is the tacit motto of a lot of rural places.


1Things have gotten a little more complicated recently.

2You might expect me to say "To the right of Trump." I know what I've done.

3I seem to be developing a lot of hands.