Over the past several years, it has become impossible to ignore America’s urban/rural divide. The causes of that divide are subject to debate, and the focus of a good deal of research. Back in 2018, Robert Wuthnow–a noted scholar– published a book based upon eight years of interviews with rural folks across the country. It was titled The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, and Wuthnow was interviewed about his findings by Sean Illing of Vox.
it made for fascinating, albeit depressing, reading.
The interviews were conducted between 2006 and 2014, and included people in every state in the country. The research team limited its focus to small towns with fewer than 25,000 people and excluded those close to suburbs or cities in recognition of data showing that suburban and exurban cultures differ from those of more isolated small towns.
Approximately 90 percent of small-town America is White, a demographic factor that explains a great deal (although Wuthnow notes that diversity is growing even in these precincts, as Latinos increasingly settle in them).
Wuthnow argues that the anger being expressed in rural America is less about economic concerns and more about the “perception that Washington is threatening the way of life in small towns.”
And just how, Illing asks him, is Washington accomplishing that?
I’m not sure that Washington is doing anything to harm these communities. To be honest, a lot of it is just scapegoating. And that’s why you see more xenophobia and racism in these communities. There’s a sense that things are going badly, and the impulse is to blame “others.
They believe that Washington really does have power over their lives. They recognize that the federal government controls vast resources, and they feel threatened if they perceive Washington’s interest being directed more toward urban areas than rural areas, or toward immigrants more than non-immigrants, or toward minority populations instead of the traditional white Anglo population.
These attitudes have hardened as small-town America has continued to empty out. These smaller communities have lost population steadily over the last few decades, and Wuthnow’s interviews and the book’s title reflected that reality. As he points out,
It’s not as though these people are desperate to leave but can’t. They value their local community. They understand its problems, but they like knowing their neighbors and they like the slow pace of life and they like living in a community that feels small and closed. Maybe they’re making the best of a bad situation, but they choose to stay.
They recognize themselves as being left behind because, in fact, they are the ones in their family and in their social networks who did stay where they were. Most of the people I spoke to grew up in the small town they currently live in, or some other small town nearby. Often their children have already left, either to college or in search of a better job somewhere else.
In that sense, they believe, quite correctly, that they’re the ones who stayed in these small towns while young people — and really the country as a whole — moved on.
That feeling of being left behind generates resentment–and that resentment is directed toward politicians they don’t like and especially toward people who don’t look or pray the way they do.
Wuthnow also found significant fear of change– expressed as a fear that traditional moral rules were “being wiped out by a government and a culture that doesn’t understand the people who still believe in these things.”
I think the concerns about moral decline often miss the mark. I think a lot of white Americans in these small towns are simply reacting against a country that is becoming more diverse — racially, religiously, and culturally. They just don’t how to deal with it. And that’s why you’re seeing this spike in white nationalism.
Wuthnow cautions against painting rural America with too broad a brush, and of course he’s right. Not all small towns are filled with seething reactionaries, just as not all urban neighborhoods are enclaves of brotherly love. Still, the data about opioid addiction and suicide rates should give pause to the notion that every small town is Mayberry or Green Acres or even Schitt’s Creek.
I missed Wuthnow’s book when it came out. I need to find it, because in the three years since its publication, the anger he studied has gotten more delusional and considerably more dangerous. It’s as if the people Wuthnow interviewed were fireplace tinder, and Trump and his sycophants were the arsonists who lit the match…