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Overcoming the Urban-Rural Divide, Part 2

People tune out when we go on and on; and if we let a little contempt seep into our erudition, the door slams shut. Maybe it’s time to start talking like a neighbor rather than an advocate.

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three photos of rural scenes
Lef: Bar across of the ET Works in Braddock, PA. Center: Backyard, Braddock, PA. Right: Stockton, CA., Robert Gumpert

“Overcoming the Urban-Rural Divide", Part 1” is linked here

The four-week period since the November 3rd election has demonstrated more than Donald Trump’s complete self-absorption and utter contempt for Democracy. Far more disturbing has been the willingness of nearly half of Americans to support him and to readily accept his lies that the election ‘was stolen’. Trump voters, we now know, include white women and men; the very rich and working- and middle-class people; suburban and rural. For some of these folks, Trump’s appeal is obvious, from lower taxes on the wealthy to reduced regulations on banks and businesses to the choice of judges aligned with the values of the Christian religious right.

But what about rural people? With the exception of a relatively small number of large-scale farmers who have benefited from Trump’s massive subsidies (instituted to compensate for their Trump-driven loss in export markets), most rural communities have seen little to no benefit these past four years. The coal industry has continued its decline, new jobs in manufacturing have largely been offset by factory closings, and long-standing problems of underfunded schools, declining infrastructure and opioid addiction have been given only fleeting attention. So why is Trump’s support so strong in the countryside?

Here’s what I think: A lot of folks love Trump because of who and what he hates. The media. Academics and experts. The ‘liberal consensus’ and the language of inclusion. The Washington establishment and its insiders. And all the snooty liberals who embrace these things. These people, these norms and institutions have, in the view of many rural people, dissed and marginalized them for decades. Seeing belief systems and ways of life ridiculed for so long, and new ideas and other people embraced by the same liberal elite, many have come to feel like strangers in their own landas Arlie Hochschild explains in her book of the same name. This deep sense of alienation constitutes our fourth underlying cause of the urban-rural divide.

I’m not arguing here that the confederate flag is about “heritage, not hate” as some bumper stickers in my area proclaim. Nor do I contend that the neglect of rural needs and communities is somehow greater than what many historically marginalized people have faced across our history.  Rather, as Ms Hochschild shows through the testimony of rural Louisianans, their own lived history is one of declining incomes and wealth, increasing health and social problems, and a steady march by the wider, dominant culture away from many of their core beliefs and values. Is their plight comparable to that of the native peoples of the Americas, or of African Americans who’ve lived through enslavement, Jim Crow, federal policies of intentional exclusion, and mass incarceration?  Certainly not.  Rural, mostly white people have been privileged by comparison.  But the history of their own lifetimes is, mostly, quite the opposite: steadily declining fortunes, stature and privilege. Rural people have never been at the front of the line in this country, but now that they see themselves falling further back in the line (paraphrasing Ms Hochshild), they’re pissed.

The broad sense of alienation from the mainstream has been furthered by two shifts among Democrats and liberals more broadly: An embrace of wealthy elites and their priorities and culture; and the steady growth in contempt for those outside the elite liberal consensus. This dramatic shift among liberal leaders, pundits, media and organizations has fueled and justified the deep sense of alienation and the “us vs them” outrage it has spawned. This is our fifth underlying cause.

For more than a decade, Thomas Frank has been documenting this shift in the culture and priorities of Democrats. In Listen Liberalhe details the more than four-decade long march that has transformed the Democrats from the party of the working class (primarily) to the party of the professional class. In Frank’s analysis, liberals and Dems have too often minimized the collateral damage of a growth-obsessed global economy of transnational corporations, instead embracing the academic and technological superstars who have either justified or been enriched by this transition.  Michael Lind goes a step further, characterizing the professional class as a “managerial overclass” of bureaucrats, academics and assorted experts whose job it is to make and enforce the rules that the rest of us must live by.  

For liberals who can’t fathom why so many rural people dismiss the warnings of experts – whether about climate change or pandemics – part of the answer is that they do not trust those whom they see as spokespersons for liberal elites.  And their skepticism is not always unfounded. We need look no further than the promises of Bill Clinton and his top economists that NAFTA would create a million net jobs within five years. The experts aren’t always right.

The parallel component of this shift has been the sharp increase in what author and activist, Erica Etelson calls the language of contempt. In her book, Beyond Contempt, she begins with the realization that her own communication was often steeped in contempt for Trump voters and others who just didn’t get it.  She provides many examples of dismissive, contemptuous language from liberals, while also quoting numerous right-leaning moderates to show how this language creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here’s part of one such quote, from a young white man: “I am very lower-middle class. I’ve never owned a new car and do my own home repairs as much as I can to save money.  I cut my own grass, wash my own dishes, buy my clothes from Walmart. I have no clue how I will ever be able to retire. But oh, brother, to hear the media tell it, I am just drowning in unearned power and privilege.” Speaking of the pull of right-wing narratives, he says, “It baffles me that more people on the left can’t understand this, can’t see how they’re just feeding, feeding, feeding the growth of this stuff…”. 

The sixth and final factor underlying the urban-rural divide is the politics of incrementalism that has increasingly dominated the Democratic Party over the past four decades. This is of course hotly debated within the Democratic Party and I am sure that many liberals will disagree with me on this. Yet there can be little doubt that Centrist, ‘new Democrats’ have embraced Wall Street, investor-driven trade policies, Silicon Valley elites and a kind of monopolistic technological determinism that has little use for farmers, mom and pop businesses and rural places. Given this tide of ‘progress’, the party has essentially offered two solutions to the millions who’ve been left out or wiped out: Get with the program, either by moving to urban centers of innovation or by upgrading yourself to 21st century competencies; or grin and bear it, because, well, at least we aren’t trying to cut your food stamps or privatize your Social Security.

Incrementalism assumes that the system basically works, that it just needs a few tweaks to include more folks in its ever-growing pie of prosperity. For a party increasingly in thrall of educational and tech superstars, this makes sense.  For this mostly urban, generally affluent crowd, “the benefits of globalization are myriad, and the downsides invisible,” to quote Etelson.  Ditto that for the politics of incrementalism. That’s why, to the oft-asked question from liberals, “Why do those people vote against their own interests?”, I now respond, “Exactly who can they vote for who really has their interests?”.

These then are our six underlying causes of the urban-rural divide: 

  1. An economy that has failed 80% of Americans and most rural communities 
  2. A hatred of elites and resentment towards those in power
  3. A profound distrust of government, generally, and regulations in particular
  4. The sense of alienation among rural people, of being strangers in their own land
  5. The loathing of liberals and Democrats, in part because of the shift away from working people’s priorities and in part due to the language of contempt that is now commonplace
  6. The embrace by Democrats of centrist politics and incrementalist policies that do little to address the deep economic and political failures that got us here.

If this is a reasonably good explanation of how we got to such a powerful divide, what can we do to overcome it? Or more to the point, what can we progressives, liberals or Democrats do to change course and begin to win back working folks and rural communities? This is exactly the challenge we are now grappling with in workshops and community forums we’re doing with a range of liberal and progressive groups around the country. The content builds on the writers quoted in this series, some of whom have joined me in this effort. For our purposes here, I’ll share the rudiments of the three-pronged strategy we’re recommending to change course: 

Think differently

                                    Act Differently

                                                                        Talk differently

Thinking differently begins by getting outside of our echo chambers and deliberately challenging the assumptions we bring and conclusions we’ve drawn. That can, and should happen in conversations with neighbors, co-workers or family members. But it probably won’t happen just by following our Facebook feed, or from the pundits with Daily Kos, MSNBC, the New York Times, or the Washington Post. Even NPR rarely explores this issue in depth. One place to start is with the articles and books cited in this series, or by linking on any of a number of articles in the Urban-Rural Divide GuidebookI’ve assembled. This is just scratching the surface, but it’s a great place to start reconsidering long-held beliefs and gaining a bit of empathy. 

Acting differently can take many forms, but in this context I’m suggesting something quite specific: Join or launch local community development projects, and do it as the liberal or progressive organization of which you’re a part. All kinds of incredible things are happening to revitalize local economies, to build healthier food systems, to transition to clean energy. Many are happening – or could be – in your local community. What would happen if the local Our Revolution chapter joined with community banks and independent businesses in a buy-local campaign supporting home grown companies? What if the county Democratic Committee helped launch a “farmacy” program, through which prescriptions are written for fresh local produce, helping people eat better while expanding markets for farmers? Or a peace and justice organization worked with local contractors to make energy efficiency improvements more affordable for working families and lower-income households? At a minimum, important things will get done in your community. If enough of us take this approach, we might even begin to change the image of liberals among rural people. Think of it as an outreach strategy with short term tangible benefits.

Talking differently begins with a simple but challenging rule: Talk less. Much less. We liberals and progressives are a wordy bunch. We contextualize; we reiterate our reiterations; we love nuance and complexity and avoid simple, direct statements. Our desire to be inclusive and our embrace of the terminology of academia and tech too often plays out as vague, non-committal pronouncements. We talk about “co-morbidities” and “the community of health care professionals” rather than just saying “health problems” and “doctors and nurses”. I get it; we want to be accurate in our representation of reality. But I assure you from more than 40 years in rural communities, it ain’t working. People tune out when we go on and on; and if we let a little contempt seep into our erudition, the door slams shut. Maybe it’s time to start talking like a neighbor rather than an advocate.

There are no easy answers to how we got to this place of profound division and animosity. There are no simple or fail proof strategies for how we get out it.  But surely we can agree on this: What we’ve been doing clearly has not been working, and almost surely has been making things worse. If we acknowledge this, and then begin to try new ways of thinking, of acting and of communicating, maybe we’ll finally begin to undo and reverse the urban-rural divide.

Anthony Flaccavento is a farmer, author and bottom up economy consultant from Abingdon, Virginia, and the two time Democratic Candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 9th district.