Two supporters of Donald Trump in Prescott, Arizona. Credit: Wikimedia/Twins of Sedona. CC0.
After living in the coastal cities of America for all of my life, I met rural white people for the first time in 1995. They were my sociology students at the University of Wisconsin, and I had assigned them the usual fare, heavy on the causes and consequences of urban poverty and racism. These students bristled, saying that their problems were just as bad. I was sure they must be wrong, of course: even if they were poor, they still had white privilege.
But they persisted. They described empty towns without jobs from which everyone tried to leave as soon as they could; small farmers who worked so hard to compete against agro-businesses that they had to pass up on sleep; and small communities with big drug problems.
By the middle of my first semester, hearing enough of their tales, and smelling their resentment, my emotional, moral, and political alarm bells finally went off. I realized that something big was missing from the story that urban elites, progressive journalists, politicians, media producers, and academics like me had been telling about rural white Americans for decades: we talked about everyone else’s plight except their own.
Katherine Cramer’s book, The Politics of Resentment, argues that part of the reason rural whites resent urban elites is that they think that we know nothing about them—that they and their hard work and intelligence are invisible to us and that we scorn them anyway. We eat the cheese from Wisconsin farms but we don’t think about the lives of the people who produce it.
As a religious Southerner put it to author Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book Strangers in Their Own Land, “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, redneck losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.” And let’s face it, there’s some truth in her image of us. Let’s also acknowledge that there’s some truth behind our image of them—some do behave in racist and homophobic ways sometimes.
However, a third of the counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and most of these counties are rural places full of white people. Trump’s racism and sexism were not deal breakers for them, and this is shocking. But ignoring white rural people’s suffering won’t make them less racist. Conversely, when we only talk about white privilege, we make it sound as though we think they must be losers, since even with all that whiteness they still come out at the bottom of the social pyramid. We deprive them of any rational explanation for their poverty.
Feeling invisible and scorned, they want to turn the tables, to convince each other that ‘the first shall be last;’ and that they are the real folk, humble, hardworking, and full of gratitude, while we are self-important, ungrateful, lazy complainers.
Once upon a time, our societies had broad, public visions like the New Deal and the Great Society that lessened the gap between winners and losers. Without those visions, rural people’s resentful conversion of powerlessness into piety makes sense since ‘your win is my loss.’ Resentment of this kind billows with explosive psychological and moral power. It fills not just hearts, but ballot boxes. It’s become a kind of identity politics for white people, packed tight with rage and brittle with superiority.
J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy shows how this lack of political vision feels from the inside. While detailing one childhood disaster after another, Vance tries not to blame society, not to feel like a victim, and never to ask for help. Instead, he wants to feel gratitude. He grew up with a crazy, drug-addicted mother but is grateful for the caring grandma who took him into her home.
As recent work about rural America shows, rural whites don’t want to be complainers. They don’t think complaining would help because they have no vision of any kind of change that could fix their problems. Instead, they want to find brave, fun, clever ways of dealing with them; or to bear their crosses with humility, remembering that suffering is part of the human condition; or to find some other way to adapt to what seems inevitable.
We all have a lot to learn about gratitude. Vance misses a lesson that most Americans, rural and urban alike, also miss: he implies that his extended family is the main reason that he came out okay as an adult, but he doesn’t notice the source of much of his gratitude, which is the state.
He is grateful for the green hills and fresh streams where he roamed as a boy, for running water, for not growing up in a war zone, and for decent public schools. But he doesn’t connect the dots: what saved him was not just his kin, but also wise taxpayers who paid for the good, clean, orderly public schools and the public university he attended. For most kids, playing in trees and woods and streams is possible only if someone has preserved them, so appreciating the glory of nature must include appreciating the political decision-making that preserves it.
Vance misses a crucial step that I call ‘political gratitude.’ We all need more of it. Without it, we are stuck in mutual scorn, each trying to turn the tables on the other, fearing and jealously trying to undermine them. What could end this cycle of mutual scorn, ignorance, resentment, and anger?
First, just listening to each other more attentively across the divide could help. This could mean forming organizations with white rural people, including those with whom we disagree. This is tricky, since some people do act in racist and homophobic ways. But it can work when people find themselves working side-by-side on projects whose missions they share. Some organizations are quietly doing this. For example, the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers and fifteen other unions train fossil fuel workers for better paying, more secure, and safer jobs in solar and wind energy. Working together, tree huggers and steelworkers discover they have a lot in common.
Second, we need to give people a vision for society that makes it clear that if one group wins better pensions, another group doesn’t lose money as a result; that ‘our’ job security and decent schools don’t come at ‘their’ expense; and that environmental regulation and food safety laws won’t give fancy jobs to urban elites while taking them away from rural people. Bernie Sanders, for example, proposed specific ways to protect family farms against those agribusinesses that were making my Wisconsin students’ families so miserable.
Academics and activists on the left have been so busy talking about discrimination that we rarely offer a vision that shows how lessening the gap between rich and poor could give everyone decent schools and universities; health care and pensions; parks, pools and beaches; clean air and water; vacations and parental leave and more.
Meanwhile, Fox News is relentlessly blaring its own powerful social vision across the airwaves, presenting all of these things as privileges that only urban elites enjoy. And, as Arlie Hochschild describes in Strangers in Their Own Land, right-wing funders are quietly setting up local church projects and political campaigns that propagate this vision.
Together, Fox and their funders are offering something alluring that resembles political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s image of a church or a political party: it provides both a vision and a place where people can repeat this vision to one another and feel like they’re in the same boat together. The way in which Fox and wealthy donors are structuring rural white people’s feelings about welfare is a good example of how Gramsci’s church-like political party works.
According to Fox and the rural organizations that right-wing donors fund, getting government aid is shameful because no one should need it. So in their local groups, rural white people don’t learn about each other’s actual use of welfare. In a spiral of silence, each person feels privately feels ashamed, not knowing that their neighbor shares the same dirty secret. So, when Fox News tells rural whites that all that tax money is going to universities and ghettos, each dearly wants to believe it. Fox gives rural aid recipients an easy way to forget their private shame.
The problem is that it isn’t true. Rural people get more government money per capita than urban people. For example, South Carolina gets eight times what it puts into federal coffers, while states with big cities like New York, Illinois, and California are donors, whose citizens get less than a dollar for every dollar they pay in taxes.
Everyone has a pattern of fitting feeling to fact, seeing what they expect to see, forgetting what doesn’t fit in with their feelings and expectations, and allowing themselves to feel what makes sense given what they think is real. This self-perpetuating cycle is what sociologist Raymond Williams called a “structure of feelings.” Right now, Fox News is giving rural people a secure structure of feeling.
Rural people aren’t stupid. They see the poverty, the lack of funding for education and health care, the neighbors and kin who’ve gotten cancer from pollution, and so much more. But they don’t let themselves complain about what they don’t believe they can fix. If progressives can offer a vision of society in which everyone could enjoy things that now look like the privilege of elites, and if we could all find more places to bring this vision to life together, we might stop blaming and scorning each other so much and start to repair the world that we share.
A longer version of the article appears in Contexts Magazine.