Investigating Rural Rage

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…


  1. This. Right. Here. —> “Wuthnow also found significant fear of change…”

    Fear manifests into anger, but it doesn’t require igniting because it’s already there. What it’s looking for is a TARGET.

    Also, I think this fear causes people to hold onto very traditional values. They still believe the same way as their great-grandparents. I have family in rural Indiana who thinks I’m just scandalous! LOL

    They believe “liberal thinking” has destroyed America. They equate progress with liberals who they believe are all Democrats. That’s as far as they want to explore the beliefs they have had for years. They don’t even want to hear about the LGBTQXYZ activities that take place in the city. It’s also scandalous. They clutch their bibles when you bring them up. And all these fatherless babies!

    When Mike Pence talks, they all croon. “He’s a good man. He has Hoosier values. He’s a humble man.”

    Well, you get the idea. And because of their fear and closed minds, there is nothing you will say that will reach them. They do believe what their ministers tell them. 😉

    Here’s what’s interesting…the free markets or markets of capitalism have displaced most rural America for urban centers and hubs of economic activity. The high-tech sectors have been even more pronounced with their specific hubs.

    Well, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there is legislation just passed by the Senate to address the high-tech sector. It’s a multi-billion bill aimed at creating high-tech hubs in Middle America, which have been passed over. Senator Todd Young could put his name on it because Indiana will get funding for one of these hubs. It actually came from two MIT professors who wrote a book called, Jump Starting America.

    The funniest part is it is extremely progressive and doesn’t resemble anything that Todd Young would ever vote for in a million years. The governor is even heaping praise on Todd. I can’t wait to see how the final bill looks and how Todd presents progressive talking points. I also can’t wait to see how the media handles progressive talking points in rural Indiana. LOL

  2. The undertone of this article is one of condescension towards “these people.” Don’t get me wrong: My rural brethren are equally capable of such disdain toward the likes of us. However, I cannot help but think it is not rage, but the need to feel superior to others that is the primary cause of the divide about which Kennedy and Wuthrow write. I fear we as a nation are doomed.

  3. And for those who read such things, another similar work is
    The Politics of Resentment : Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker
    (Part of the Chicago Studies in American Politics Series)
    by Katherine J. Cramer
    Book Overview
    Since the election of Scott Walker, Wisconsin has been seen as ground zero for debates about the appropriate role of government in the wake of the Great Recession. In a time of rising inequality, Walker not only survived a bitterly contested recall that brought thousands of protesters to Capitol Square, he was subsequently reelected. How could this happen? How is it that the very people who stand to benefit from strong government services not only vote against the candidates who support those services but are vehemently against the very idea of big government? With The Politics of Resentment, Katherine J. Cramer uncovers an oft-overlooked piece of the puzzle: rural political consciousness and the resentment of the “liberal elite.” Rural voters are distrustful that politicians will respect the distinct values of their communities and allocate a fair share of resources. What can look like disagreements about basic political principles are therefore actually rooted in something even more fundamental: who we are as people and how closely a candidate’s social identity matches our own. Using Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s prominent and protracted debate about the appropriate role of government, Cramer illuminates the contours of rural consciousness, showing how place-based identities profoundly influence how people understand politics, regardless of whether urban politicians and their supporters really do shortchange or look down on those living in the country. The Politics of Resentment shows that rural resentment–no less than partisanship, race, or class–plays a major role in dividing America against itself

  4. What exactly do “they” want?

    “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.”

    Washington’s powers are indirect; local and state governments have the final say over resources and where interest is being directed. They vote in the same state elections sending Representatives and Senators to Washington and, as they seem to do regarding local candidates, vote for the same one-party candidates repeatedly at both levels. They do not seek change or progress; nor do they welcome the changing population of minorities and immigrants. They appear to be in a self-imposed condition of stagnation and seek to place the blame on Washington where they sent Representatives and Senators with their votes.

    “It’s as if the people Wuthnow interviewed were fireplace tinder, and Trump and his sycophants were the arsonists who lit the match…”

  5. As A Purdue University grad I can say that the economic hit by the US government funding large farms upended the small farmer by supporting large farms thst competeivly forced many to sell due to bankruptcy. Jimmy carters administration wanted feed the world and effectively over the next fifteen years put the small farmer out of business. A friend of mine ran a beef farm and in an effort to compete with the large veal subsidized farm lost 10-15% in the 90s annually and eventually ended up in bankruptcy and now works in ag finance.
    Latinos are migrant farm workers? Cheap labor and well adapted and desiring to expand their horizons. The US citizen is getting subsidies and wnt eork on yhe farm and Washington effectively is competing with the farmrr on several levels through subsidies.

  6. I was unaware the Carter Administration lasted fifteen years and in those fifteen years essentially destroyed American agriculture. Interesting how history begins with personal grievance. Ya learn somethin’ new every day.

  7. Counter point from an old man who grew up rural on a small farm in the 30s/40s/50s. Small towns supported the farms surrounding those farms as well as completing the local social groups of churches(in NW Ind both Protestant and Catholic), the Grange, the local schools). By 1960, the economy/technology was rapidly transforming from the small farm (livestock, corn, soy beans) to the modern present corporate specialty livestock farms and thousand acre grain farms. Not either political party, just economics. Much as our male ancestors left the various northern European countries as they were the 2nd or 3rd son without a farm and came to the USA for 320 or 640 acres, we left the modern farms as the modern ‘tractor’ ‘combine’ ‘assembly line milker’ ‘conveyor feeder’ requires little labor but lots of capital. Those still left are primarily older and sadly dependent of government for financial/medical reasons. The small towns dwindled due to fewer farm families and easy motor travel to a small city, the county seats with a town square surrounded by small shops and local traffic are gone as are the medium size factories that provided employment for 1000/2000 with decent pay and benefits.
    Farmers were independent but sharing if a fellow farmer hit ‘hard times’. Riding on a tractor all day w/o any convenience allows one to think as well as be independent. Still have a close friend who lives in the old family farm house, and has a modern share cropping arrangement with an old classmate’s sons who share crop farms about 2000 acres from what were 6 or 7 farms. These proud men and women have little to do and dislike the future as it holds little of interest for them. AIN’T EASY GROWING OLD AND LOSING ONE’S IDENTITY

  8. I am a child of the city, was raised in The Bronx, and Queens, N.Y.C. I have not studied urbanization, and the drift out of rural America, but can see that everything is “hitched to everything else,” in the words of John Muir. I was not aware, until just reading it, that it was Pres. Carter’s support of Big Farming that built massive farming, if I have it right, but can understand the small farmer’s resentment of that trend.
    I also understand how rural folks might be prone to hanging onto the culture, including “that good old religion” that nurtured them, and felt like it defined them.
    The combination of these two situations, and adding Reagan’s version of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” Trump’s bigoted manipulations, and the recent expressions of that “Rural Rage” are understandable.
    Nonetheless, it does appear that the folks who came for the insurrection party itself were/are not of the rural population.

  9. BTW:
    Did Scott Walker get re-electedby a legitimate vote, or slide in sideways, like Kemp and DeSantis, by way of slight-of-hand, as in disqualifying tens of thousands of votes?

  10. Let’s examine the logic for just one minute. Those who chose to stay behind are now angry because they have been left behind. I often say this to young people, now I’ll say it to the angry people, “Make better choices!” I know it’s not that simple, but if you look at life as I do, as a series of choices, you know some choices you make will be wrong, but if you use those wrong choices as opportunities to learn, you can make better choices going forward.

  11. In 1853, the Daily Alta published an editorial on the question of whether the Chinese should be permitted to become citizens. It conceded that “many of them it is true are nearly as white as Europeans.” But, it claimed, “they are not white persons in the sense of the law.” The article characterized Chinese Americans as “morally a far worse class to have among us than the negro” and described their disposition as “cunning and deceitful.”

    Todd is absolutely correct!

    The Chinese exclusion act, the 3/5 human rule for Chinese and Africans, the wholesale genocide of Native Americans!

    The use of religion to ease the conscience of those who wanted to discriminate and decimate all nonwhite ethnicities in this country. Claiming that the black race was cursed because they were descendents of Canaan, which scripturally is not true, and it shows the cursed descendents of Canaan were actually the white race! But hey, a good lie was good then and is good now!

    The revisionist history going into textbooks, teaching the next generation concerning the treatment of ethnic groups in the United States, claiming the United States is a Christian country which it is not, it never was! There were Abrahamists (Muslims) and Jews here way before there were Baptists! And the Native American religions were here before any of the others.

    After all, Rudyard Kipling spelled it out in his little ditty “The White Man’s Burden” the white man was at the pinnacle of everything, the white man made the world go round, the white man was supposed to prevent the world from descending into chaos! But history shows the white man actually drove the world into chaos! So, the lying and the deceit has been going on thousands of years!

  12. Sorry, but I think Wuthnow betrays his Ivy League cluelessness from the start when he says, “I’m not sure Washington is doing anything to harm”. He had no systemic analysis, and really needs to read Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America.” National policy, allied with big business since WWII (Eleanor Roosevelt fought with her husband over this), has systematically shifted the country from widely dispersed small businesses and farms (whereby small towns thrived) to giant chains and agribusiness, which suck profits out of communities instead of recirculating them locally. Rural America and the Jeffersonian value of relative self-sufficiency have been destroyed. Worst of all, rural people are losing their own children. Of course they resent it! And the forces that favor the One %, masters at deflection, have been able to displace the resentment from themselves and the real causes to people of color and immigrants. The rest of us, who benefit from working for the 1%, are also deflected from seeing this to focus on resentful rural whites instead of the policies that have shaped this situation.

  13. I chose to live in a rural area. I know that economic opportunities are more limited than in urban areas. Cultural amenities like museums, 4 star restaurants, theaters and so much more are lacking. But I prefer not having the crush of neighbors, traffic, noise and the other pressures that come from urban living. I chose that life and I’m happy with it but many of my neighbors feel that they did not have a choice. That feeling of not having a choice or fear of the challenges that urban environments present definitely generate resentment. Improving educational and economic opportunities in rural areas would go a long way toward changing resentment to approval.

  14. One of the ways of helping these small towns die is the Republican blocking of infrastructure. Infrastructure as in high speed internet. These rural areas can’t attract people who want to live a slower pace of life but still work and participate in the fast lane without high speed internet. High speed internet allows people to participate in both worlds. Live physical life at a slower more laid-back pace but work in the faster pace of the city.

  15. Todd I laughed when you added XYZ to the LGBTQ community. But hmm. What would those letters stand for?

    As I’ve said before, I grew up in small communities. Union county has 2 towns, Liberty and Cottage Grove. Rush County has a few more. I recall how no one had to lock their doors, and kids were not afraid of being kidnapped. These towns were supported by family farms and manufacturing. Agribusiness, corporations, and kids with college educations have all left these communities behind including yours truly. These towns like much of Indiana are suffering from a brain drain.

    Many of these communities have men and women who went to the armed services to protect our country. They take pride in their service to our country and honor our veterans on Memorial day without fail.

    Most of the people in these communities don’t have a college education. They have a high school education or less. Instead they have mechanical, carpentry, and farming skills. Walmart and CVS have displaced small businesses that helped these communities thrive. Doctors and dentists have relocated to larger towns and visit these towns infrequently to serve the people there. Public health nurses in these communities have a dismal salary. The actors from Broadway never give a show there. Pharmaceutical companies have destroyed families and created an opioid epidemic in many of these communities depriving them of good people who could help them thrive.

    It is true. The people who live in small towns don’t like change, are threatened by diversity. They dislike moral ambiguity though even they have to struggle with it. They believe that “good fences make good neighbors.”

    Part of me feels sad by their potential demise. I was given a solid foundation in democratic principles, in courtesy and respect, a solid work ethic, the joy of simple pleasures, love and respect for the earth and the land that fed us, a sense of community, of the importance of service to others and caring for those who had fallen on hard times. I keep these values even though I live in Indianapolis. I left behind the bigotry ,the religious ignorance and the unwillingness to learn from scientific discoveries and innovation.

    I lived there when people at gas stations washed our car windows, pumped the gas, and checked the oil level for my family. I lived there when people checked us out at the grocery store, packed our food in paper bags, and carried and loaded them in the car for us. Now I have to do all that work in Indy.

    Actually these people remind me of Tolkien’s hobbits who want nothing to do with the “big people” and have no knowledge whatsoever of how the big people have kept them safe from Sauron and his minions. And yet it is 2 small, ordinary hobbits who are able to carry the ring to Mt. Doom because they have little to no lust for power. These people , just like Samwise andFrodo, are often the ones who will enlist in the military to defend us from external threats.

    We could learn some things from people in these communities if we would just listen. If nothing else we might learn how to grow huge tomatoes, make strawberry jam, and win at checkers fair and square. And maybe, just maybe, we could teach them some things as well.

    We need to unite and heal the divide. We need to learn to listen with respect to each other.

  16. And then there’s the natural tendency in many people simply to resent change. They are uncomfortable coping with it and know they don’t do well, so they struggle to make the world stand still. I see this as natural because my own brother, a graduate in mathematics from Johns Hopkins, has never understood why anyone would leave Maryland and lives in the same town we grew up in in the 50s. I went to college in North Carolina and throughout life have savored every moment of travelling and living abroad. His attitudes are those of Trump and mine more closely resemble those of Obama. While he hasn’t prospered materially, if he has a sense of being left behind he doesn’t express it. But neither of us has an understanding of why we differ so vastly in this regard. Like our mother, he has a Manichean view of the world while I see shades of gray everywhere I look. So even among people from similar circumstances, some see change as the enemy of the good life while others see it as a series of endlessly fascinating opportunities. I believe what I’ve said here applies – on both sides of the dividing line – to many members of our high school graduating class.

  17. Busy weekend, so I haven’t had time to read that – I will put it on my list.
    I will just throw out two ideas –
    FDR, activist President, brought some sense of relief throughout the country and his Fireside Chats brought some sense of being in it together. People looked to government and loved FDR, naming children Roosevelt and naming a zillion things after him, much to the envy of Republicans.

    Reagan came in and he told everyone the government was the problem, and instituted policies to prove just that. He didn’t actually help the rural Republicans that voted for him, nor the union Democrats that voted for him, just the rich. His supporters named a zillion things after him for equal time, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t out of love, but out of jealousy.

    Just a thought on why rural America might think that government isn’t out for them. Small towns do get ignored and for farmers, it’s the large corporate farms that tend to get the aid.

    Second, I am also reminded of that old, 1919 song –
    “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”
    People have been leaving rural areas for generations –

  18. Robin – kudos – pure poetic patriotism….I keep waiting for pragmatic things to make rural life better – broadband, “build back” family farms/not corporate ones, incentivize rural development around nature/tourism (instead of jails, distribution centers), incentivize rural healthcare, etc.

  19. It was Earl Butz of Purdue who advocating large farms, not peanut farmer Carter recalls this Purdue grad!

  20. My wife came from small town rural America in fact she was a farmer’s daughter. The town was rather insulated, culturally and socially. There was also a divide among religions, bible thumper’s more liberal churches and Catholics. Much of the social life was religion centered.

    I do socialize, with people here in central Indiana. I am astounded at the number of people who buy into the conspiracy theories floating around, i.e., massive fraud is the only way Biden could have won, Covid deaths are vastly over stated.

    I struggle to find any of the Trumper’s who can actually articulate a political philosophy based on issues or facts. Although they resent some aspects secular authority, they happily believe in The Trumpet as some messiah like figure who is unrestrained by “political correctness”.

  21. This is a very relevant, important discussion. I read Wuthnow’s study of rural communities throughout the country and found it fascinating. My extended family roots are bifurcated between agriculture and industrial trades. I learned early on to respect differing points of view that distinguish different branches of the family tree and grateful for this. This is why I join Robin and Lester in this stream that advocate positive and constructive platforms to mitigate the divide between rural and urban America. Lest we forget who harvests the food on our table; the raw material for the clothes we wear; and extracates the fuel we use for transportation and heating our homes.

  22. Robin for the win in today’s comments, and ESPECIALLY for the Tolkien analogy! Honorable mention to Randy for his mention of Earl Butz, who got fired for telling a horribly racist joke at a social event and which cannot be repeated here. And yes, his policies and those of Ag Secretaries before and after that led to massive consolidation in the Ag industry.

    I could write a tome about our experience living on a beautiful lake in Northeastern Indiana (but I’ll spare you) and deep in one of the most rural counties in Indiana, and one with only 25% of its 18+ population vaccinated against Covid, dead last among all Indiana counties. All I can say is that choices matter.

  23. Any administration has long lasting effects when the government changes. The lack of crtical yjinking Mr Street only adds arrogance to your name

  24. What Randy Haymaker said. Butz’s mantra, repeated continuously was “Get bigger or get out”. And he promoted policies to implement it.

  25. Rural residents who resisted federal aid and dependence conveniently blamed the federal government for deserting and even threatening their interests. They were right about that, though often not for the reasons they thought. Minorities and immigrant labor didn’t threaten the lifeblood of financial solvency from these communities as much as government protection of corporate America.

    Huge corporate interests – especially manufacturers – leeched jobs from manufacturing towns and the rural communities surrounding them throughout the state, moving jobs to Mexico and off-shore. Government failed to marshall its resources to maintain and enforce high standards for goods coming here. Elsewhere, manufacturers could pollute with abandon, exploit and endanger workers where there were no labor unions or protective laws, and out-compete competitors who paid for higher standards and remained in the USA. Agreements like NAFTA were supposed to protect against those exploitive, dangerous practices, but it didn’t happen. Corporate savings on labor and raw materials and non-existent environmental protections were not invested in research and higher quality products for decades.

    We got what we paid (or didn’t pay) for – cheaper products, lost job opportunities, and dying communities.

    The Koch brothers, manufacturers’ lobbyists, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce (among other corporate interests) invested and invest millions to divert attention and to elect politicians who scapegoat minorities, LGBT issues, immigrants, labor unions, our local public schools, etc. while laughing all the way to the bank about the trick they’ve played on all of us. When will we ever learn?

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