How can a book be filled with broad generalizations, cynical misrepresentations, and ill-defined parameters — yet still feel true? 

I’ve been grappling with that question ever since reading “White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.” Published earlier this year, authors Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman argue that rural America is overrepresented in politics and power yet continues to feel aggrieved because white rural people insist on voting against their own interests by electing dangerous Republicans. 

Rural voters are, they contend, an existential threat to the Republic. Rural Americans are more racist, more misogynistic, and more authoritarian than their suburban and urban counterparts. When they don’t get their way democratically, they’ll simply abandon the nation’s founding principles to force the rest of the country to live by their dictates. 

Schaller and Waldman support their assertion that rural America is a danger to democracy by citing copious polls and studies. But some of the researchers who conducted these polls and studies have objected to the book’s conclusions, namely that racism, xenophobia and misogyny are more prevalent in rural areas than elsewhere. In particular, researcher Nicholas F. Jacobs takes umbrage with the word “rage,” preferring the academic term “rural resentment.” 

Kristin Lunz Trujillo, another researcher whose work is cited, called the book “a prime example of how intellectuals sow distrust by villainizing a group of people who are already disproportionately shut out from science, higher education, and similar opportunities,” – immediately before saying “the authors don’t misrepresent my work.” 

What, then, is Trujillo’s complaint? She claims the authors “criticize rural Americans for their anti-intellectualism, building on tired tropes of rural people being backward dumb, violent, and ignorant, while pushing a narrative that worsens such distrust in the first place.” Her own work does not refute this, she just doesn’t like it being said so plainly.

As an Appalachian Studies scholar and a rural writer, I sympathize with Trujillo’s frustration. I often feel compelled to complicate the narrative about our region. No, not everyone in rural America is some hateful caricature. 

So then why, taken as a whole, does rural America feel more prejudiced than the rest of the country? 

I should know. I grew up between the urban Miami Valley in Dayton, Ohio and extremely rural Leslie County, Kentucky. I went to college in suburban Bowling Green, Kentucky. Later, I moved to Chicago. I’ve experienced urban, suburban, and rural America — and it is in rural America I’ve experienced the most homophobia and hatred.

There’s research to back this up. A 2013 study by the LGBTQ educational rights group GLSEN found rural students were more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to report experiencing homophobia. Meanwhile, polling conducted by Pew Research in 2018 shows rural people are much more hostile towards immigration, equal marriage and a woman’s right to choose

Do these polls, with admittedly small sample sizes, mean all rural Americans are ignorant bigots voting against their interests to spite minority communities in cities? Of course not. Do a lot of white rural voters hold a lot of hateful beliefs, though? Indisputably yes. They may not think their motivations are hateful, but the consequences of them sure feel hateful to those of us at the receiving end of their electoral animosity. 

Might that hurt some rural feelings? Sure. Is it a universal rural reality? No. But it is true enough to warrant more engagement than critics of “White Rural Rage” offer.

Massive cultural issues like LGBTQ rights, abortion rights and affirmative action might, to white rural voters and critics of “White Rural Rage,” seem like straightforward policy disagreements. To many urban people, who are much more likely to know or be an immigrant or a gay person and where abortion is much less stigmatized, these are basic affronts to equality and individual rights, the underpinning promise of America. They see a mostly white Republican Party with its roots and base in rural America attacking diversity, equity, and inclusion — not policies, but principles underpinning many urban voters’ very understanding of what it means to be American.

It is important here to delineate between DEI as policy and diversity as principle. Diversity — by which I mean understanding, accepting and living harmoniously with those culturally, racially or religiously different from you — is an important value in urban America. Without it, our cities would not remain socially cohesive. 

Ironically, this is the same reason rural areas, in my experience, tend to value homogeneity. Small towns and rural communities value the familiarity born of sameness — similar Evangelical religious beliefs, similar political outlooks, similar cultural values. Not all those values are bigoted and hateful, and many — family, faith, the flag — are shared with voters from all backgrounds. Their view of these things, though, is often much more parochial than that of their cosmopolitan cousins in the city

Who can blame them? When “big city values” have been imported into rural communities, they’ve resulted in the extraction of resources and exploitation of people. Big city coal magnates swindled West Virginians and Kentuckians out of their land and then established a neo-feudal system of coal camps and company towns. A century later, big city pharmaceutical sales reps came into the hills and hollows promising an end to the physical pain of coal miners, lumber workers, and other folks with legitimate pain — only to saturate their communities with highly addictive opiates. One thing that gets overlooked by urban Americans is that many rural Americans come by their distrust of outsiders honestly. 

Talking cross-purposes is precisely the problem, not just with “White Rural Rage” but with the reaction to it and with our nation. We are increasingly unintelligible to one another. Our cultures are veering in different directions, leading to different views on everything from social and cultural norms to the role of government in our lives. 

These different views are also filtered through our lived experiences. When I hear people in small towns complain about politicians or newcomers wanting to “change” their towns, I don’t hear it as a rallying against gentrification as I did in the Hispanic-cum-hipster neighborhood I called home in Chicago. I hear it as “we don’t want any Black or queer people here.”  

Reading “White Rural Rage” was cathartic for the very reason that it spoke to that sense of exclusion I so palpably feel. Schaller and Waldman cut the bullshit and, in words made famous by MTV, stopped being polite and started being real. I don’t live in Jacobs’ or Trujillo’s rural America, I live in the real world. And in my world, bullies are more frequent in rural communities than they are in big cities. They just are.

Yet at the same time, the book pissed me off with its reductionist caricature of white rural voters. Schaller and Waldman gesture towards the material complaints of rural folks, white or not: a lack of investment in infrastructure; diminishing if not completely diminished access to health care; a righteous anger at their local economies being decimated in the name of free trade; a not-misplaced suspicion that people in cities and suburbs unfairly stereotype them; and a more misplaced, but still understandable, fear that the culture around them is changing too rapidly.

To put it bluntly, the picture Schaller and Waldman paint is of rural people, scared shitless. And you know what? They have reason to be! If you look around practically any small town in Appalachia, you’ll see why. Local businesses are shuttered and, if they’ve been replaced at all, it’s by some global conglomerate like Walmart or McDonald’s. Rural schools are chronically underfunded because of structural issues — namely that public schools are expected to fund themselves through property taxes, which even my pro-union, lifelong Democrat of a papaw railed against just last night. There is a sense not of decline, but of decay in their communities.

Your country cousins haven’t changed. The world around them did. “White Rural Rage” does nothing but chide them for not keeping up, even though most of the changes were done to them and haven’t worked out so well for them. Some battles, like marriage equality, I am glad they lost. Others, like the fight against Big Agriculture, I wish they’d won. 

But now you’re calling them hateful for holding fundamentalist beliefs about sex and gender that 30 years ago were almost universally accepted, 20 years ago were still mainstream, 10 years ago were areas of polite disagreement but now make them frothing-at-the-mouth bigots? All while their jobs have gone overseas and their children forced to move away for work or worse, killed by pharmaceutical greed? This won’t make me popular on the left, but I can kind of see how that might be hard to wrap one’s head around. 

It is here Schaller and Waldman miss some key points, like the fact that Republican messages carry more weight because for decades, their messages have been filtered through these institutions that are so central to  many rural dwellers’ lives. Not only is the church a place of worship, but it is often a community center, a social club, a networking opportunity and — in lieu of government programs — a food bank, a day care, a clothing drive, an addiction recovery center, and more. 

Do far-right political views get laundered through rural churches? Absolutely. Is that all the fault of rural voters? Not at all. Democrats increasingly don’t even try to counter it. Despite their excellent rural policies, their rural politics is terrible. 

Rage is a justified feeling in rural America, — even among rural white folks, who though they have the wrong villains in their anger against LGBTQ people, immigrants, and cities in general, are right to be angry. This finally brings us to the elephant in the room, not just with this book, but with American politics in general: A general disregard for the centrality of class and economic inequality. 

To be fair, the authors pay lip service to both, highlighting the difficulties rural communities face from dwindling tax bases and a lack of public investment. Still, they are more likely to blame GOP politicians at the state level (such as those who block Medicaid expansion) than structural problems with the American welfare state and our capitalist health care system, issues neither Democrats nor Republicans are eager to fix.

One option is clearly better, economically speaking, for rural America though — and it is not the choice rural white voters continue making. And make no mistake, these voters are not without agency. They make choices. And time and time again, they opt for a political party that wants to roll back the last 70-years of hard-won rights for minority groups. And yeah, when that happens, it feels like they’re raging against the progress those groups have made, even if that was not their impetus for voting Republican. As a member of one of those groups, it feels like they’re raging at me. 

Jacobs and his ilk can call it “resentment,” but that word doesn’t feel strong enough to describe the anger I see all around me. Rural voters may think they’re taking their frustrations out on elites, on academics, on scientists on cities — but when you’re in a marginalized community, watching your neighbors vote against your rights or embrace candidates who are openly hostile to you, it feels awfully personal. 

Critics want us to sympathize with the plight of rural white voters but offer little sympathy to the people those voters hurt by electing the leaders they elect. That’s my frustration with the criticism of “White Rural Rage.” These academics may be well-meaning, but they’re missing the fact that for those of us who live here, who have been traumatized by the reactionary politics and social views of our families and communities, “rage” rings much truer than “resentment.” 

I know many good people in rural America trying to do their best to not only survive themselves but improve the lot of their neighbors. I even know many Trump voters who I sincerely believe to be good people who simply do not understand systemic inequality the way I do. 

Does this make them dumb? No. Does it present an opportunity for me to persuade them? Yes. Does accusing them of “raging” against progress and decency make that persuasion more difficult? Possibly.

But these people aren’t likely to read “White Rural Rage”. This book’s intended audience is coastal progressives frustrated by nearly a decade dominated by Donald Trump and his particularly odious and dangerous brand of reactionary populism. 

So yes, the book is written with a certain sense of smugness which grates on the nerves of those who have a more complex understanding of rural America. Yet at the same time, it felt good that someone finally gave voice to the frustrations I’ve felt for years. Rural voters have a lot to complain about, but just as many of their complaints aren’t valid.

Reading “White Rural Rage” was cathartic. I love rural America, but Christ y’all can be exhausting. Even if “White Rural Rage” doesn’t get everything right, I’m sure glad someone finally said it.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is 100 Days in Appalachia’s Contributing Editor for Community Engagement. Support his work and our continued coverage of politics in the region by donating here.

Share your feedback and thoughts with Skylar directly at [email protected].

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