Of all of the outcomes of the 2016 election, I suspect that the most persistent and longest lasting one will be the irrevocable bifurcation of the American electorate into two mutually-exclusive tribes of people, the urban "progressives" and the rural "conservatives". I use scare quotes around the political orientations given that those progressive and conservative labels less reflect the actual political dispositions of the two tribes as opposed to an inherited group labels that have become less meaningful as tribal allegiances have hardened. Traditionally, I've enjoyed being a "fellow traveler" with both tribes, but within the overall context of the Trump presidency, and especially in light of recent incidents such as the Parkland shooting, it's become crystal clear to me that these two sides mix as well as oil and water, no matter how vigorously you try to mix the metaphorical mixture.
It's in this particular context that I read Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow's "The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America". I believe that I was made aware of the book via Rod Dreher's blog over at The America Conservative (but could be mistaken in that point). The context that I do recall was highlighting the differences between conservatives and progressives and how the gulfs between the two camps aren't merely a surface issue of rural conservatives tipping the election towards Trump due to a severe antipathy towards Hillary Clinton, but rather that there are structural issues at play that may render a political reconciliation – even between left and right-wing populists – impossible.
In my own view of the 2016 election, I was resistant to succumb to the "white racist" narrative as an explanatory vehicle, but my own defenses of the "economic anxiety" hypothesis wasn't as strong as I thought it could be, given the exit surveys and subsequent polling that showed voters on the lower end of the earnings spectrum (those most impacted by the candidates' economic policies) broke for Clinton instead of Trump. For a larger part of the past year, I've been looking for another explanatory vehicle (given that I think that the "systemic racism" explanation is too simplistic), and it's in this personal context that I read Wuthnow's book.
The volume is an exercise in classic sociological ethnography in that Wuthnow and his assistants conducted several hundred interviews with residents of rural communities around the United States (defined as towns and surrounding areas with populations of less than 25,000 outside of urbanized areas) over more than a decade to understand the factors and perspectives that inform rural outlooks and attitudes.
His most significant contribution is the notion of rural communities serving as "moral communities" where there are implicitly shared attitudes and perspectives in the community (from politics to religion to the local sports team) and those assumed values and attitudes define the boundaries that define the community, especially the "us" versus "them" dynamic. On a structural level, dissent and debate disrupt the implicit heuristic that allow members of the community to feel part of the whole, much more so than what is encountered in urban areas where the diversity (in terms of race, religion, and lifestyle) is on constant display and there are few analogs to the conformity enjoyed and encouraged in rural communities.
Despite highlighting the conformity that comes with being part of a moral community, Wuthnow unpacks both the occupational and historical structures, to challenge the commonly-held attitude within rural communities that "everyone knows everybody else here" and "we're all pretty much the same here". On the occupational level, Wuthnow identifies common structures across rural communities where the "gentry" are typically the wealthiest members of the community largely due to historical presence (esp. in the ownership of land) or holding the high paying jobs (doctor, lawyer, etc.), followed by the "service class" who consist of the local clerical and professional class, then the blue collar "wageworkers", and finally the "pensioners" who are the elderly retired population. These occupational differences make up the largest diversity experienced by rural community members, so much more so than race, nationality, and sex/gender. Wuthnow highlights the importance of community spirit where members of the community are expected to help out where possible (such as volunteering in churches, belonging to local civic organizations and boards, organizing regular community events/rituals) and it's in fulfilling those community service expectations that the bonds between members of the community are reinforced and strengthened.
Wuthnow identifies the problems facing rural communities: population decline, "brain drain", teen pregnancies, drugs, lack of jobs, and internal cultural strife as newcomers join the community and their outsider perspectives challenge the "way things have always been done". The book follows up with the ways that members of rural communities try to maintain the community they have known through volunteering, competing with other rural communities for economic development opportunities, charity, and religion. As someone who grew up in a community that fits Wuthnow's description, he pretty much captures and describes rural living in a way that highlighted and explained many of the practices and rituals (such as always waving at other drivers) that I took for granted or practiced just because that was what you did there.
After his description of the communities, Wuthnow follows up on three topics: why rural communities think Washington is broken, the overall decline of morals in the outside world, and bigotry within the communities themselves. I think that the "Washington is broken" chapter didn't really cover any new ground outside other commentary pertaining to attitudes that Washington is out of touch, there's too much centralized decision making, and the federal government is being unfair saddling rural communities with additional rules and regulations without the resources to assist with compliance (leading to a drawdown of the community's existing modest resources).
The main takeaway from the chapter on declining morals isn't so much about the outside changing culture, but rather on communities' inability to rely on geographic isolation and the infrequent arrival of newcomers to drive local evolution in culture. (Where I grew up, we used to joke that it took a good decade for some fad, trend, or popular music to be noticed and adopted locally.) In the age of the Internet and DirectTV, institutions such as broadcast networks (esp. the decline of internal Standards and Practices) and the local libraries no longer serve the role of gatekeepers and filters that they once did in these communities. As a result, the older population in these communities feel like they are being bombarded with too much change too quickly. I grew up at just the right time in my life for there to be pre-"everything-on-demand" and post-"everything-on-demand" chapters in my life, so I'm completely sympathetic to the sheer cultural shock would have on populations for whom a predictable cultural stasis is a positive in their lives. In addition to the availability of new media, there's a rightful concern that the community will not be able to protect its identity in ways that were viable as recently as fifteen years ago. (This attitude echoes much of Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option" thinking.)
Given some of the arguments I've been a part of online (and the few that I started myself), the chapter on bigotry is the one that I was most anticipating. Before I get into discussing this chapter, it's probably worth recounting that the rural community that I most associate with "growing up" was a ranching community in Northeastern New Mexico that was approximately 80% White, with 35% identifying as Latino or Hispanic (with no Asian or Black members in the immediate community). Growing up in that area, there really wasn't much race-based prejudice that I can recall, even from my present perspective that's a bit more sensitive now. To the extent that you would get overt racist behavior, it would come from newcomers to the community, especially from areas to the south, noticeably from West Texas. To the best of my recollection, those behaviors never caught on, and those folks would cycle out of the community quickly enough.
To the extent that there was some sort of prejudicial attitudes or behavior, it was toward newcomers who were not quite onboard with the community's program. If you adopted and reflected the community's attitudes, perspective, and style (for men, that was owning and wearing a nice set of boots and cowboy hat during community gatherings), you could assimilate pretty quickly and easily. If you weren't on board with that (and that was the bulk of my own teenage rebellious behavior), there were a lot of very minor things that were going to involve a little bit more friction than would have otherwise been the case. That's not to say that rejecting the local community culture made me anymore "woke" (to use today's term) or more cosmopolitan, as I learned early in my college career when I described my physics TA as "oriential" in a completely innocent way (in a room full of my fellow students). The cultural awareness that particular descriptor was offensive had not quite made it to me of its own accord by that time – remember, the ten-year cultural lag.
To the extent that there was anything remotely resembling racial strife in my own rural community was more a clash of cultures between the old-fashioned Western cowboy culture and the hip-hop culture filtered through Mexican "cholo" clothing and ways of speaking (the "Raton accent" in local parlance). Given that I arrived after this process had already begun, I can't speak to whether the attitudes were just the latest manifestation of something that predated the "gangsta" mindset or if it was something new arising out of the gang culture that spread out from urban areas in the 1980s. In any case, I knew plenty of people who were able to switch from one side to the other and assimilate successfully.
It's this lived experience in the Southwest that informs probably most of my skepticism towards reductionist views that reduce rural communities un-cosmopolitan attitudes to simple racism or bigotry. Now, my rural lived experience is probably not universal, so I cannot comment on how racism and bigotry played out in other parts of the country (esp. the Deep South), but where I grew up, the things you needed to do to make the transition from out-group to in-group were pretty clear if you chose do them. And if you didn't choose to become part of the in-group, peoples' attitudes toward you are more similar to those normal in a city (where everyone's a member of the out-group) than it was some form of insidious prejudice against you.
I hope that digression was worthwhile to explain why I think that Wuthnow is one of the few scholars who really captured this dynamic. He is correct in that the community itself isn't inviting to newcomers who don't want to assimilate, but that reflects more the structural elements that sustain the community itself than some animus founded on skin melanin content. It's not that the community is erecting barriers to keep people out, it's just not going to change itself to accommodate you as an outsider. The same kind of phenomenon that led to a community with very few to no Black and Asian members is the same that keeps me from moving to California (or back to my own rural community) – there's not a lot for me there that I can't get better somewhere else.
Getting back to Wuthnow, in his discussion on bigotry, he focuses immigration, Muslims, racism, misogyny, and diversity in rural communities. Immigration is mixed bag for these communities. On one hand, the new arrivals to offset the trends of population declines are welcomed, but there's a tension about the immigrants' culture supplanting the community's existing culture. Some communities deal with this productively, others not so much. Wuthnow attributes apprehension over Muslims to 9/11 and ongoing terror plots, but Wuthnow doesn't elaborate whether this is a media-driven phenomenon or something else. On racism in these communities, Wuthnow highlights that many calamities that affect rural communities often affects the non-White population more (plant closings, natural disasters), leading to a heightened sensitivity of people of color making use of the social safety net, and that use reflecting on particular racial groups as freeloaders in ways that Whites receiving the same aid don't generate the same attitudes. On perceptions of Obama, Wuthnow would have been well served digging in deeper and determining to what extent poor attitudes about the president were arrived at through some deliberative internal processes versus being a reflection of the media consumed. On the topic of sexism, Wuthnow highlights how expectations to be familial caretakers, and to take second jobs further from home fall disproportionately on women than men in the community. In terms of diversity itself, Wuthnow doesn't attribute more bigotry to rural individuals than their suburban and city counterparts, but does acknowledge that the way rural communities define themselves in terms of shared attitudes and perspectives, leads to a different kind of defensive posture to new members and culture.
Overall, I was a big fan of the book and recommend it highly, especially to folks who did not spend any significant time in a rural community. Wuthnow's much closer to the truth of things than his counterparts drawing sweeping conclusions from questionnaires and surveys. That said, there were a couple of glaring omissions.
To say that Wuthnow glosses over the variantion in character of rural communities in different regions is being generous. Given how much he travelled and how much material was collected to create this book, I would have been very interested to read about how rural communities differ from New England to the Rust Belt to the Deep South, to the Southwest, to the Northwestern Plains. Maybe this is fodder for a subsequent book, but given how much of the structure of rural communities is dictated by its history, looking at how the differing historical contexts that established these communities in the first place and how that is reflected today would have been quite significant.
In his section on political views and attitudes toward issues like abortion, gender-rights, and gov't responsibilities towards the poor, the lack of any discussion on gun culture and gun rights is painfully absent. Given the Parkland shootings and the current public debate on gun control, I expect that Second Amendment rights will be the pivot on which the next election turns. There's very little discussion in this book about attitudes towards firearms and how rural communities' physical situation (long distances between places with few police officers) leads to attitudes that (from my own observations) are completely alien to suburban and urban counterparts on the other side of the issue.
Finally, the lack of discussion of media consumption is stark. Wuthnow describes how rural community members feel under siege by new media forms, but he never follows up on it to describe how the new media that does penetrate the bubble affects local attitudes. From my own experience, comparing the adoption of FOX News with some of its counterparts would have been instructive as well as examining the earlier AM talk radio culture and how that shapes views. Internet e-mail forwards and the adoption of social media within rural communities to either challenge or buttress the existing cultural attitudes would have served this book well.
The book itself is pretty short (I read it quickly in one day), so the lack of coverage of these subjects can't be an editorial decision. I don't have a good hypothesis for these absences, and I'll be waiting for a subsequent volume that expands on these topics.
If this book sounds interesting, I encourage you to pick it up and let me know what your read on it was.
Purchase on Amazon: "The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America"
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