Are Rural White People The Problem?

A new book argues that the basic threat to the U.S. comes from rural America’s bigotry and anti-democratic tendencies. This is the wrong way to think about it.

I have a basic hostility to analyses of politics that blame voters for making bad, stupid choices. This is in part because I don’t think voters in the United States have many choices. They are barraged by propaganda. It’s very hard to figure out what’s true. I’m not surprised that people believe deranged things in this country, where most of us are barely taught any critical thinking skills and more than half of those between 16 and 74 read below a sixth grade level. Take the pandemic, for instance. People were told that they should wear masks and take vaccines. They were also told, sometimes by people who had impressive academic credentials and came armed with a bunch of charts and statistics, that masks and vaccines were useless and harmful. How was someone with little time and without any specialized training supposed to figure out the truth? 

Yesterday, I flipped on the radio, and the first thing I heard was the Sean Hannity show. He was talking to two guests from an organization called “Border 911,” which tries to whip up panic over immigrants, warning that murderers and child traffickers and terrorists are pouring into the United States from Mexico. When I turned on the show, the guest was explaining that China was sending people en masse to sneak across the border and spy on Americans. 

What’s anyone supposed to make of this? You turn it on the radio, you hear it, you don’t hear any counter-argument or anything disproving it. If you try to “do your own research,” by googling “are Chinese people coming across the border to spy on Americans,” you’ll get some fairly neutral news stories about Chinese migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., and then a report by the “America First Policy Institute” arguing that these migrants are a “trojan horse” and coming as part of “malign CCP infiltration.” You’ll see a story in which Dr. Phil speculates that Chinese migrants are sending “seeds” and “plans” back to the Chinese government. Another reports that Chinese migration to the U.S. has increased 7,000 percent and “military-age men” and “spies” may be coming here to “wreak havoc.” Now, if you know that Dr. Phil has turned into an idealogue in recent years, and was never as trustworthy as his gentle public image, or if you know that the Daily Mail is a trashy tabloid that will print almost anything, or if you know that the America First Policy Institute was founded specifically to boost Donald Trump’s agenda, you might be skeptical of what you read. But you still might not know how to refute it. (Try it. Try proving that Chinese immigrants aren’t all spies controlled by the CCP. Even though the claim is ridiculous, conclusively exposing it as false is not easy, and it’s better to say that there’s no evidence for it beyond things like Dr. Phil’s wild speculation.)

So I’m always pretty sympathetic to people who believe even quite delusional things, because it’s hard not to, given the informational ecosystems we inhabit. That might explain my revulsion at a lot of what is said in the new book White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy by Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman, which casts American rural white voters as the #1 source of the country’s problems. “More than at any point in modern history, the survival of the United States as a modern, stable, multi-ethnic democracy is threatened by a White rural minority that wields outsize electoral power.” The problems with rural white people are many, Schaller explained:

“They are the most racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, geodemographic group in the country… Second, they’re the most conspiracist group. QAnon support and subscribers, election denialism, COVID denialism instead of scientific skepticism, Obama birtherism… They don’t believe in an independent press, free speech. They’re most likely to say the president should be able to act unilaterally without any checks from Congress, or the courts or the bureaucracy. They’re also the most strongly White nationalist and White Christian nationalist… Fourth, they’re most likely to excuse or justify violence as an acceptable alternative to peaceful public discourse.”

Michael Cohen of The Daily Beast characterizes the book’s thesis as: images of rural white people as a bunch of Trump-loving, homophobic, gun-toting, violent bigots aren’t “hurtful, elitist stereotypes by Acela Corridor denizens and bubble-dwelling liberals… they’re facts” and “most of the negative stereotypes liberals hold about rural Americans are actually true.” These truths are backed by “reams of data” such as the fact that “support for Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban ran 15 points higher than in urban areas” and “rural whites are 13 points more likely to view LGBTQ+ Americans in a negative light, and express fear and anger toward immigrants.” 

Now, the first thing to point out here is that this kind of data doesn’t prove that the stereotypes and caricatures are “true.” There are plenty of rural people who don’t support Donald Trump, and one of the dangers of stereotypes is that they treat demographic groups as hive-mind monoliths. In the book, Schaller and Waldman are careful to say that they’re not saying all rural white people are like this, but by talking about “rural white people” as a group that possesses these qualities, it’s hard not to reduce everyone in that category to a cartoon. 

I also think people tend to be very complicated, and even those who hold false and dangerous beliefs should usually (not always) be empathized with. Take election denial. Rural white people “are the largest segment of the population that incorrectly believes Trump won the 2020 election, at 47 percent.” But that’s what they were told! Those people aren’t necessarily disbelievers in democracy, they were just told that democracy produced one result, when it had in fact produced another. Many of the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6 sincerely believed that they were protecting democracy from a usurper, because Donald Trump had led them to believe an elaborate fraud had been conducted to steal the election from him. They get bad information, they believe it, they act on it. 

Schaller and Waldman deserve credit for covering the genuine ills of rural America. They explain that “the devastating force of late-stage capitalism has inflicted enormous damage on rural Americans.” They describe:

“…resource economies where powerful interests extracted wealth and left the people who toiled to remove it with little or nothing to show for their decades of labor; manufacturing jobs that fled overseas; inadequate healthcare and physical infrastructure; limited opportunities that push talented young people to leave; and much more.” 

Amid job loss and despair, many rural people were “open to someone like Donald Trump who would come along and tell them something that was true, that there is a system that has not served them well,” as Waldman says. They argue that Republican politicians have manipulated rural voters by stoking their grievances, trying to get them to panic about, say, Chinese spies coming over the border by “deploy[ing] a sophisticated propaganda system meant to ensure that every problem rural America faces will be blamed on faraway forces and people who have little if any actual influence on rural Americans’ lives.” And as Cohen writes, “Rather than offering an agenda for rural development, Republican politicians simply ladle out more steaming hot bowls of resentment and targets for rural anger, be they urban-dwelling liberals, undocumented immigrants, trans kids, beer companies, or the ‘fake news’ media.”

I think this is completely correct. But when Cohen asked Schaller how this could be turned around, he replied: “Why…is it the responsibility of liberals to solve these problems?” White Rural Rage argues that Democratic politicians have been extremely generous in supporting rural communities, and received nothing but resentment in return. They acknowledge, however, that “In many places, there is scant Democratic presence; the party has little or no organization, and if there is a Democrat at all on the ballot in many races, they may just be a placeholder, someone who agreed to have their name entered but doesn’t do much campaigning.” In other words, Democrats have given up trying to win in rural areas.

Surely that’s a terrible mistake. Schaller and Waldman seem to think that the solution to the problems they identify is not to convince rural white people to “vote Democratic” but to “get themselves better Republicans” through a movement that represents rural interests. I agree that the effort shouldn’t be focused on turning red areas into blue areas, but Schaller and Waldman essentially point the finger at rural white people and tell them they need to fix themselves. Democrats have tried to help you, you said no, now you need to start a social movement. Well, good luck with that.

Personally I’m far more of the Bernie Sanders school on this: the solution is not to aggressively call out rural white people for all their moral failings and demand they do better. Instead, we need an inclusive social democratic movement that both speaks to their needs and engages with these voters. The Sanders approach to Trump voters was to listen to them, and try to redirect their “rage” toward their health insurance company and away from their immigrant neighbors or trans kids. Sanders would not have asked Schaller’s question “Why is it our responsibility?” In fact, White Rural Rage shows exactly why it’s our responsibility. Because the suffering of rural America is real, and because if violent, anti-democratic, grievance-based politics continues to surge in these parts of the country, the disproportionate power of rural America in our political system will mean that MAGA Republicanism becomes a permanent, terrifying force. We can’t defeat it by hoping some new movement spontaneously arises in the red states.

I personally wish Schaller and Waldman had spent more time talking about how the right-wing propaganda apparatus can be countered, something I think about a lot. I believe media has a major role in shaping people’s perception of the world, and when the radio is telling you Chinese spies are coming across the border, well, a lot of people are going to think there are Chinese spies coming across the border. How do we counter that? How do we build better information distribution systems that actually reach and persuade people? It’s a major challenge for our time. 

Schaller and Waldman also fall into a tendency that I find basically useless in politics, which is to find someone to blame rather than find a path to a solution. Okay, so rural white people are the main source of right-wing power in this country. How do we organize them? How do we change their minds? How do we keep them from being sucked into right-wing conspiracy theories, and believing what they learn on QAnon forums and from Jordan Peterson videos? Let’s get constructive here, rather than just reaching the self-satisfied (and wrong) conclusion that our most simplistic stereotypes are all true. 

Even though I share a lot of Schaller and Waldman’s understanding of the process that has produced the MAGA movement’s strength in rural areas, what disturbs me most about their book is their lack of solidarity. Solidarity is, as the wonderful new book on it by Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor explains, a core moral principle that sees our fates as tied together and believes in, as Bernie Sanders put it, fighting for someone you don’t know, and who has different problems from yours. The left looks at rural white America and sees a population that needs to be organized. Liberals like the authors of White Rural Rage see mostly (though not entirely) Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” and instead of encouraging Democrats to come up with a clear plan for how to win these voters back, they argue that rural America has toxic pathologies that it needs to fix itself. I think if we wait for that, we’ll be waiting a very long time, and I am less interested in the question of what’s the matter with Trump voters than I am in the question of how social democracy can gain broad support even among those feeling “white rural rage.” 

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