In White Rural Rage the Threat to American Democracy, Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman carry a grindstone in search of an ax. They just don’t like rural America. They contend that white rural America has too much power, that it is too highly regarded, and that the anger of white rural citizens is spilling over in a way that is driving the country to the brink.

Citing a patchwork of public polls, the authors make a case that in rural America there is distrust of government, fear of socialism, and that rural residents, when compared to city and suburban dwellers, polled as more prejudiced against people of color, LGBTQ community, and political progressives. The authors repeatedly point out rural violence, addiction, poverty, illness, and hypocrisy. Schaller and Waldman also write that rural voters have moved boldly to the GOP since 2000, becoming a significant part of Donald Trump’s voter base, and that Trump himself represents existential peril to America continuing as a democratic republic.

They do not talk about national Democratic Party decisions in 2000 and 2004 to move resources away from the rural battleground and to metropolitan strongholds, opting for base strategies over outreach. Or how Obama reversed that strategy in 2008, when rural voters came back. They do not mention that Trump actually won the suburban vote in 2016, and that the suburbs are where 60% of Americans live. And though it might just be me, they seem to show some smug satisfaction that the suicide rates and covid deaths were measurably higher in rural America.

They keep using straw men to debunk the idea of a “rural ethos,” and they use irony to smirk at rural as the “essential minority,” a term I hadn’t heard in my career in rural work. They are convinced that rural America is extolled in the media and throughout U.S. intelligentsia. They even believe commercial media caters to the shrinking pool of rural consumers in programs driven by advertising revenues. It might be a lot easier to believe that the results are rigged in favor of rural places if you live where the downtowns are not shuttered and the teachers aren’t using their own money to send home peanut butter sandwiches to kids living without.

Schaller and Waldman make a central argument that white rural communities have an oversized political reach, and in large part that’s due to the design of the U.S. Senate, and because of gerrymandering in the U.S. House of Representatives. They contend that the Senate now skews Republican because of self-sorting migration to higher population states, and that in turn gives small states too much clout. Here the authors seem to have a beef with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the Connecticut Compromise that broke the impasse threatening to kill the United States before it started.

I was surprised to see myself quoted in the book from an interview in Politico in 2016 talking about political speech and intonation. In White Rural Rage I seem to be giving an excuse for rural people to vote for Trump and against Clinton. But I did vote for Hillary. I share the authors’ misgivings about Donald Trump, though I am less in the camp that says he’s Pol Pot and more settled into the belief that he is a sneak thief. If someone like Trump lived in my hometown, I am pretty sure no one would sell him a dinette set on credit. And if he was your next-door neighbor, you’d make sure the tool shed was locked at night or you’d see your shop vac in his yard sale on Saturday. But I digress.

Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021. Those arrested in the national investigation into the event are no more likely to be rural than the overall population. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

I understand the authors’ challenges in sorting what is rural and what is not. But they spend a good deal of time obscuring who is which. For example, they detail the early antipathy to Obamacare, the outright racism characterizing the public debate, and states’ resistance to expanding Medicaid as part of adoption. They lay out that intransigence sometimes as rural, other times as general opposition. But then the authors say that rural states made a show by rejecting Obamacare even though their residents were less healthy, under-insured, and needed the coverage most. What Schaller and Waldman do not point out is that of the 10 most rural states, only Mississippi and Alabama have rejected expanding Medicaid. Nor do they mention that Texas which is 83% metropolitan, and Florida, which is 91% metropolitan, both rejected Obamacare.

There are other small examples that are hard to swallow. They talk about the failed attempt to kidnap and kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as a rural terrorism plot. But their focus is on two ringleaders, one born in a small town who’d moved to Grand Rapids, and another living in the largest county in Delaware just outside Wilmington. Two would-be terrorists living in major metropolitan urban areas with over a million residents each, yet the rage narrative is about rural insurrection.

It is probably not that big a deal in the long run to print this detail wrong here or to conflate suburban and rural there. Politico, The Atlantic, and the Democratic Strategist have weighed in on the misleading way the data is meted out in White Rural Rage. I am reminded of the line in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “Barrabas was a bookseller.” And I completely agree that no one is served by painting a romanticized view of rural life. We have lost a lot. Wealth, agency, trajectory. And there is way too much meanness and bigotry going around. But I also think of the Reverend Everett Parker, who successfully challenged the broadcasting license of WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi. The station was a beacon for segregation in the 1960s and used its nightly news cast to showcase images of African-Americans accused of crimes. It wasn’t that African-Americans never committed crimes in Mississippi, rather it was that the station used its platform and agency to skew the public’s understanding of criminality and of danger. It seems Schaller and Waldman are also using their platform and agency to reframe the American political struggle to make rural people the chief threat because they changed from voting for Democrats to voting for Trump. The authors are pointing at what they see as a series of flaws in the character of white rural Americans, not at a political calculation.

My rural Appalachian county is in the corner of Kentucky, one county over from Mingo County, West Virginia, where the authors spend time interviewing locals about a sudden rightward political shift. My county is majority Democrat and voted 4-1 for Trump. Even closer to me than West Virginia is Wise County, Virginia. I can see it from my back door. Wise, like Mingo, has flipped big for Trump. Virginia is a blue state however, and even though Virginians cast more Trump votes than Kentucky or West Virginia, they don’t seem to threaten American Democracy in the same way. Similarly there were more Trump voters in California than in Texas, but the threat of MAGA California seems more a curiosity than a threat to the union. We often fret over the health of the democracy as part of talking about the next election cycle and our candidate’s prospects. The campaigns always say the stakes have never been higher, with little regard for how so much breathless rhetoric itself drives division and deadens common purpose.

When I lived in the city I saw some pretty frightening racist behavior. And here in the countryside, I’ve witnessed some extraordinary selflessness that crossed color lines to help folks in trouble. I would never pretend either of those was a rule, and I do not have a set of online polls to give me clarity. I have, however, commissioned enough polls to get a sense of what surveys can teach us and what they can’t.

A different perspective is that it was a mere 2,000 people who rushed into the Capitol on January 6, 2020, and nearly stopped the transfer of power. Those relatively few Capitol insurrectionists were disproportionately metropolitan, not rural, but who’s from what Zip code is not what’s alarming. The scary part is the fragility of the American system and our weakened capacity to maintain consent of the governed. Everybody is aggravated. And there is plenty enough resentment out there to mess it all up both in the city and in the town. As former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn said, “It takes a special kind of man to build a barn, but any jackass with a box of matches can burn one down.” If we let ourselves think those jackasses are confined to rural America, the barn is in great peril.

Dee Davis is publisher of the Deesmealz and president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

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