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Rural Consciousness and Democratic Politics

John Buell

The loss of the so-called flyover states was the key—and very surprising—factor in Hillary Clinton's loss of last year's presidential election. Some pundits attributed the outcome to racism among white rural voters and even blamed these voters for supposedly making choices harmful to their own economic self-interest. Common as this analysis is, it may contribute to the pathology it seeks to combat.The very designation of flyover states conceals important divisions within those states. These divisions go beyond race and class to include intensely held sense of rural versus urban social identities. Katherine Cramer's book, The Politics of Resentiment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker, elucidates the vital role of rural consciousness in contemporary politics.

Rural consciousness is a form of social identity, the us in comparison to them in terms of which many make sense of the world. Us in comparison to them need not always be converted into denigration of difference but often can be in situations of flux and insecurity. Cramer’s work is an ethnographic study of just what is bugging the rural communities within the flyover state of Wisconsin. Rural small town Wisconsin is very different from both Madison and Milwaukee.

As much as is humanly possible she strives not to insert her politics into the mix. Rather than a pollster asking questions of a single citizen she sits in on local groups as they articulate and develop their own collective identity and politics. Her basic thesis, well documented, is the prevalence of a distinctive rural consciousness. This includes the sense that rural communities are different and worth preserving and enhancing. The pace of life is slower and individuals know their neighbors. One telling example of rural values is real estate transactions. Buyers would never think of requiring a house inspection as such a demand would indicate belief the seller would lie and would constitute a serious insult.

Part of this social identity is the widely held notion that these communities are under siege. Citizens in rural communities complained about such injustices as unfunded mandates and state government cutbacks in funding, leaving poorer rural communities with lesser tax bases in difficult straights. The complaint that struck me as most basic centered around the concept of power. Mandates are obvious and crude forms of power, but even more telling is the control over what gets discussed in the first place. Citizens in many of these communities felt that they were voiceless and that power flowed only downward.

One instance where they felt this voicelessness most strongly was around the nature of work. Life in these rural communities required hard and even often physically demanding work. These citizens valued work and were proud of their ability to meet the demands on them. The other side of that coin, however, was the sense that urban bureaucrats did not value their work and appropriated an inequitable slice of the pie. Nor did these elites recognize that such liberal environmentalist favorites as the gas tax have a disproportionate effect on rural communities, whose citizens drive much longer distances.

Cramer carefully parses the fiscal impact of state government decisions and concludes that the case is ambiguous. What is clearer and gives more ground to these complaints is what some scholars have called “rural disadvantage.” They have lower tax bases and face higher costs due to diseconomies of scale. Even such advantages as tourist attractions are accompanied by higher infrastructure costs.

I see several provocative policy and strategic implications to this work. It does not help to accuse these rural residents of voting against their own self interest  One’s life circumstances, values, and even ideology shape one’s conception of interest. Identity as a rural person helps shape political stances. The fight against taxes is not an outgrowth of abstract free market principles but rather unwillingness to feed an urban machine one distrusts and blames for the state of rural communities. Many rural residents actually do favor a safety net, but that would be a job guarantee, not a welfare check or even a guaranteed annual income. Job guarantees would reflect the value they place on hard work. Whether “full time” should continue being defined as 40 hours is an important environmental and social question even on the Left. Hourse reduction, however, would be most politically palatable in an economy where work is shared among everyone.

Secondly, if Democrats hope to win back these communities, they must strengthen Social Security. Talk of saving it by postponing retirement not only is distributionally unfair, it reveals ignorance or disregard of the hard work rural citizens perform. It embitters rural citizens and encourages the harshest forms of identity politics.

Thirdly, race is part of this story but is hardly an adequate explanation by itself. Government programs, especially by and for urban groups, are coded black. Nonetheless, race alone is not determinate, and we do not even understand race without placing it in the context of class and place identification. "If we boil rural consciousness down to race," Cramer writes, "we ignore the ways these perspectives comprise many things: identities with place, a sense of oneself as a person of a particular place in the class hierarchy, identities as people with particular values and sometimes ideology." Racism is so persistent because it is entwined with other fundamental attitudes and"can be expressed in seemingly socially acceptable ways."

Thirdly, even good environmental policies leave remainders, injustices, orharms occasioned by the complexity and unpredictability of the policy field. At the very least we must acknowledge tragic implications of harm to some who do not deserve it from even the best intentionedand carefully considered policies.

Fourthly, the emphasis neoliberals have placed on education as the key to addressing persistent and growing inequality still attributes blame to powerless individuals in neglected communities and thereby increases their psychic burdens.

Finally, social scientists—and the rest of us—need to do more listening. We are all the beneficiaries of Cramer's respectful listening.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Buell

John Buell

John Buell, a long-time Common Dreams contributor and supporter, died unexpectedly on November 4th, 2021. John had a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive Magazine for ten years. John lived in Southwest Harbor, Maine and wrote on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age."

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