Two Different Worlds

What is prejudice?

Liberal folks wring their hands over the all-too-prevalent habit of dismissing “those people” as a monolithic whole. Prejudice, after all, means “pre-judging,” attributing essential, negative characteristics to a population that is actually very diverse. We see these stereotypes everywhere, despite the fact that visible exceptions to them are also everywhere.

It’s true that different cultures tend to accentuate different behaviors, and equally true that many people have a very limited tolerance for difference. One of the aims of the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) movement so scorned by  “conservatives” is to calm the fears of folks who react fearfully and antagonistically to cultural differences.

I consider myself one of those people whose mantra is “let’s build bridges, not walls.” I support DEI efforts, I routinely decry the generalizations used to justify marginalization.

But what if a large body of evidence actually supports a negative view of a particular population?

The Daily Beast recently reviewed a book that documents the threat posed to democracy by rural America.

In the popular imagination of many Americans, particularly those on the left side of the political spectrum, the typical MAGA supporter is a rural resident who hates Black and Brown people, loathes liberals, loves gods and guns, believes in myriad conspiracy theories, has little faith in democracy, and is willing to use violence to achieve their goals, as thousands did on Jan. 6.

According to a new book, White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, these aren’t hurtful, elitist stereotypes by Acela Corridor denizens and bubble-dwelling liberals… they’re facts.

The authors, Tom Schaller, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Paul Waldman, a former columnist at The Washington Post, persuasively argue that most of the negative stereotypes liberals hold about rural Americans are actually true.

Among the reams of data they include to support their arguments, Schaller and Waldman provide evidence to show that rural whites “are the demographic group least likely to accept notions of pluralism and inclusion” and are far less likely to believe that diversity makes America stronger.

In rural America, support for Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban ran 15 points higher than in urban areas. Rural whites are 13 points more likely to view LGBTQ+ Americans in a negative light, and express fear and anger toward immigrants—both legal and undocumented—at much higher rates than other Americans. Less than half, 46 percent, say diversity in their communities is something they value.

They are the largest segment of the population that incorrectly believes Trump won the 2020 election, at 47 percent. By contrast, only 30 percent of suburban residents and 22 percent of urban dwellers feel the same.

Rural whites were far more likely to refuse COVID vaccines. They were (and are) more likely to think President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. The authors report on a 2009 survey from North Carolina and Virginia in which rural Republicans were 20 percentage points more likely to believe in birtherism than non-rural GOP members. Rural Americans are 1.5 times more inclined to embrace the QAnon conspiracy theory than those who live in urban areas.

But the problems in rural America run deeper than hostility toward minorities and facts. Rural residents disproportionately express hostility toward basic democratic principles. They are more likely to favor restrictions on the press, oppose checks on presidential power, endorse white Christian nationalist views, and support efforts to restrict voting access.

Chillingly, more than one out of four rural residents say that Trump should be returned to office by force if necessary.

The authors are careful to note that not all citizens with anti-government views live in rural America, but they provide extensive evidence that “rural Americans are overrepresented among those with insurrectionist tendencies.” (They are also misrepresented in recent polls: Robert Hubbell notes that sampling in the NYT recent poll over-represented rural voters by nearly double their actual share of the 2020 vote.)

In a functioning democracy, White rural Americans–who are only 15 percent of the U.S. population—wouldn’t control the political process. But thanks to systemic issues, rural Whites exert wildly disproportionate power. Think gerrymandering and the excessive influence of our most sparsely populated states.

California and Wyoming each have two Senators even though Los Angeles County—with its 10 million residents—has a population 17 times larger than all Wyoming. Senate Democrats, with 51 seats, represent some 193 million people; Senate Republicans, with 49 seats, represent 140 million people.

And don’t get me started on the Electoral College.

These systemic issues are why the resentments and anti-democratic world-views of White rural America matter. We shouldn’t paint rural America with too broad a brush–but we also shouldn’t ignore the very real threat posed by this faction of rural America.

It’s a delicate balance.


Evidently, The GOP War On Cities Isn’t Limited To Indiana

When the Indiana legislature is in session, residents of urban areas don’t feel safe–and there is ample reason for our angst, as this blog has repeatedly documented.  A sad side effect is currently playing out in the Indianapolis City County Council, where the Democratic majority is trying to quiet one Counselor’s expressions of anger over the arrogance of a legislator who says he knows best what sort of transit city folks are entitled to. The Democratic caucus is evidently worried that open resistance will make the legislature even harder to deal with.

The bottom line, of course, is that Hoosiers–both city dwellers and rural folks–are absolutely helpless to influence our legislative overlords. Thanks to extreme gerrymandering, legislators in Indiana choose their voters, not the other way around, and Indiana lacks the ability to mount referenda or initiatives. We are truly subjects, not citizens.

There’s no mystery about why.

Our Red state legislature makes war on the cities that provide virtually all of the tax dollars they spend–the cities that are demonstrably the economic engine of the state–because cities are where Democrats live and vote.

It turns out that Indiana is not the only retrograde Red state engaging in these tactics. According to a recent article in The American Prospect, Republican-led states have now taken to blocking liberal cities from even thinking about legislating on behalf of their residents.

There’s nothing historically novel about America’s politics dividing along urban vs. rural or cosmopolitan vs. parochial lines. One has to go back a full century, however, to find a time when the nation’s political fault lines ran so clearly along the city/country divide as they do today.

“Those people” tend to live in cities, and they tend to vote Democratic.

 In the 1920s, cities were too Catholic and Jewish and freethinking for the countryside’s Protestant traditionalists, and new urban-based media (radio, movies) brought the taint of the new to rural communities whose susceptible young people were lighting out for the cities. Today, culture wars and economic conflicts also play out largely along urban/rural lines. Of the top 35 cities in America by population, only four have Republican mayors, and one of those, Eric Johnson of Dallas, Texas, was elected as a Democrat and switched parties in 2023.

State level lawmakers may not be the brainiest of people, but a number of them have figured out that–as the saying goes–there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Since Republican legislatures and governors can’t stop city residents from electing Democrats, however, they’ve devised a whopper of a Plan B: negating majority rule in those areas by denying those cities the right to enact any laws or promote any policies that run counter to the preferences of the governor and the legislature.

The article lists a number of examples. North Carolina’s legislature nullified a Charlotte ordinance protecting LGBTQ rights. When the city of Birmingham passed a municipal minimum-wage statute, the Republican state legislature outlawed municipal minimum-wage laws.

More recently, majority-Black and majority-Democratic Jackson, Mississippi, has had a crime problem, so the Republican Mississippi state legislature responded by enacting a law that stripped criminal trials from the jurisdiction of Jackson courts and established a new group of courts, with judges to be appointed by the state’s Republican chief justice. When Democratic Nashville established a civilian review board for its police, the Republican legislature and governor passed a law that banned civilian review boards. The underlying racism in such preemptions is never very far from the surface. The Republican neo-Dixiecrats who dominate Southern legislatures can no longer keep Blacks from voting, but they’ve found a way to keep Blacks, in the cities where they constitute clear majorities, from governing.

And of course, there’s always Texas.

In the past, the state had enacted laws to stop municipalities from creating local ordinances that protect tenants facing eviction and to stop cities and counties from regulating fracking within their boundaries. Last summer, however, the Texas legislature passed and Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law HB 2127, which its sponsors gloatingly called the “Death Star” bill for local governments. The law prohibits municipalities from enacting local ordinances that go beyond any state laws that deal with agriculture, business and commerce, finance, insurance, labor, natural resources, occupations, and property.

The sweeping law negated local statutes like those that Dallas and Austin had enacted to require employers to give water breaks to construction workers in torrid summers. It further forbade cities from enacting any such ordinances that climate change or conscience might require. It’s so broad that it’s not clear just what kind and how many local laws and regulations it would negate.

Knowing that Indiana isn’t alone really doesn’t give me any comfort.


Calling Out The Urban Myth

One of the sites I regularly visit is Juanita Jean’s–The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon. The proprietor of that establishment–a Texan who posts as “Miss Juanita Jean herownself-“-reminds me a lot of the late, great Molly Ivins. Over the past couple of years, she has shared posting tasks with several others, and while most lack her wit–and brevity– the site remains a good source of Texas criticism and occasional snark.

A recent post considered the uproar over Jason Aldean’s song “Try that in a Small Town.” 

I’m not a fan of country music– or for that matter, the contemporary music scene of any genre (actually, nothing much since Dean Martin and/or the Limelighters…) –but I’ve certainly seen reports about the song and the reactions to it. The racism was evidently barely veiled, leading to the deletion of some Black Lives Matter video, but the linked post by Nick Carraway focused on the song’s even more damaging stereotype: the belief that “small town” people are somehow different–and nicer–than the evil “others” who populate the country’s urban hell-holes.

As Carraway writes:

In looking at the lyrics for Jason Aldean’s song “Try that in a Small Town” you can see the subtle nods towards racism. When looking at the video you can’t avoid the subtle nods for racism. Left vs. Right is the main fault line everyone focuses on, but big town vs. small town is another fault line. There are others. Honest vs. Dishonest. Asshole vs, Kind. Narcissist vs. Empathetic. America has always been a collection fault lines and separations. Essentially we have made it through by standing with people we have common cause with even if we have other areas where we disagree. As much as the overt racism and sexism bothers me, there was something else I noticed immediately.

“Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk
Carjack an old lady at a red light
Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store
Ya think it’s cool, well, act a fool if ya like.”
I hate to be the “nobody is talking about” guy, but there is an image inherent here about big city life. I’m sure this is what people in small towns believe. It’s only been shoved down their throats for decades. Hell, the 2017 inaugural address was titled “American Carnage”. It was offensive on any number of levels, but more offensive to me as a writer. It was like a sixth grade thought experiment where the winner got his/her dystopian essay read on national television.

The biggest fault line dividing America today is fact vs. fiction. Aldean is telling a terrific story here. You could probably picture Gotham from all of those Batman movies where everyone was afraid to go outside and crime was just around the corner. SNL had a sketch years ago where they talked about someone in New York getting mugged every thirty seconds. So, they just made it the same guy. Chicago, Portland, New York, and Los Angeles are all billed as hell on earth. Yet, crime statistics per capita would tell you that they are statistically more safe than traditional red areas.

As Carraway says, this mythology has morphed from “left versus right” to fiction versus nonfiction. Songs like this one paint a picture of “big city” life that is–as he correctly notes –about as true as a dystopian novel.

Several commenters to the post offered confirming examples drawn from the small towns they’d grown up in; others offered statistical confirmation of Carraway’s point. As he wrote in response to those comments:

It’s the politics of exaggeration. Do carjackings happen? Sure, of course they do. Do they happen at red lights? I suppose there’s a non-zero chance of that happening. Of course people rob liquor stores. I’ve never heard of anyone being sucker punched on the street but I suppose anything can happen….

I suppose the hysteria over “Democrat run cities” and “groomers” makes perfect sense in that bubble. If the gay/lesbian/bi/trans population were really 20 percent as they believe, then something nefarious is happening. Except it’s not happening at that rate. None of it is.

(Actually, I wouldn’t consider 20% of the population being gay as nefarious. I’d welcome it. What is genuinely “nefarious” is the 20% or 30% who are MAGA….)

I call these fantasies about urban life “alternate realities.” Carraway calls them fiction. Both terms apply far more accurately to the lunatic caucus in Congress, where the GOP is currently “investigating” alien life and looking for little green men…which raises a question:

Since people like Aldean are so frightened of those urban Black folks, I wonder how they’d react to Green ones…


About That Civil War

I’ve been brooding a lot over the fragmentations and hostilities of American life, and the gloomy predictions of a “civil war”. Since America’s divisions tend to fall along lines of urban and rural, a traditional “war” featuring some sort of widespread armed conflict is unlikely and impractical, but the “sides” are pretty clearly arrayed, and we seem incapable of talking to or understanding each other.

I especially thought about the growing differences of Americans’ realities a couple of weeks ago. We were driving home from South Carolina, where for the past forty-plus years our family has enjoyed a summer week at the beach. We used to take the  state’s (relatively) major roads from our place at Litchfield Beach to Columbia, where we accessed the interstate, but since the advent of GPS, we’ve been able to save time by following directions along the lines of “take a right through farmer Brown’s sorghum field, then go 500 feet and turn onto narrow, scary unpaved county line road…(Okay, that may be a bit exaggerated, but it is amazing how desolate some parts of our country remain, and how long you can drive without encountering human habitation…)

What isn’t exaggerated is the isolation through which the GPS took us. We would go miles and miles without passing a gas station or seeing anything remotely resembling a town. We would, however, occasionally pass a trailer that had seen better days, often with an equally-dilapidated truck or van sitting in an un-mowed yard. Other times, we would pass a more substantial small home sitting forlornly in a field, alone and–so far as we could tell– far from neighbors or shops.

I cannot help wondering about the people who live in these homes. Do they have internet access? Television? Where is the nearest school, and do they have children who attend that school? Is there a library anywhere close? Where’s the nearest grocery? (Given the number of churches we pass on these trips–far, far more numerous than gas stations– I do know there’s a church near by, although I have no idea whether it is the “right” church…)

So here’s the thing.

Living in the heart of a mid-sized city, my experience of American life is radically different from the experience of the folks who inhabit these precincts. It isn’t a matter of “better” or “worse” (although we all have our prejudices)–it’s a matter of really dramatic distance. The skill sets of people who must fix their own cars, grow much of their own food, and rely on their immediate families and fellow religious congregants  for the bulk of their human interaction is obviously different from that of city dwellers who live near multiple other people–most of whom don’t go to their church or share their backgrounds or experiences.

Although I’d be the first to admit that I have no way of knowing, I’m pretty sure that the things I fear are not the things these folks fear. It’s also likely that the things I know and am familiar with are very different from the things they know and are familiar with, just as our respective skill-sets are likely to be very different. 

How do we talk to each other as Americans? What does being an American mean to each of us? Are there areas of agreement, of commonality? 

Research confirms that MAGA true believers come disproportionately from these very rural environments, and that many of these inhabitants deeply resent the “elitists” and “woke folks” they think occupy urban America. Urban dwellers can be equally dismissive of rural folks.  

As a 2018 Pew study reported,

Against this backdrop, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that many urban and rural residents feel misunderstood and looked down on by Americans living in other types of communities. About two-thirds or more in urban and rural areas say people in other types of communities don’t understand the problems people face in their communities. And majorities of urban and rural residents say people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do.

A 2020 study by scholars at  Washington University found  that the urban-rural political divide is rooted in geography and not merely differences in the type of people who choose to live in these places. How close people live to a major metropolitan area (defined as cities of at least 100,000) and the population density of that urban environment significantly affect political beliefs and partisan affiliations. The researchers found that “The distance we live away from a metropolitan area shapes what we think about the political world and the partisan labels we adopt.”

There really are two Americas, and they are increasingly at odds. Perhaps it isn’t “civil war”–but it’s uncomfortably close. 


The Election Was, Actually, Rigged

Among the many ironies of the 2016 election was Trump’s insistence that if he were to lose (and evidently only then), it would be evidence that the election was rigged.

The truth, as numerous election officials pointed out, is that tampering with the vote at polling sites–the only sort of “rigging” Trump would understand– is virtually impossible. Vote suppression is far more common.

That said, the actual “rigging” of American elections is quite legal; in fact, it’s baked into the system. I’ve written extensively about some of the more egregious examples, especially gerrymandering. But partisan redistricting isn’t the only structural element frustrating expression of the popular will.

Almost lost in the coverage of the election’s stunning result was the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. She lost in the Electoral College, a structural throwback to a different time that has increasingly distorted national elections and failed to reflect the will of the voters as expressed at the ballot box. This is the second time in 16 years that a candidate has won the popular vote only to lose the Electoral College and the Presidency.

Many of the problems with the Electoral College are widely recognized: the outsized influence it gives swing states, the lack of an incentive to vote if you favor the minority party in a winner-take-all state dominated by the other party, and the over-representation of rural and less populated states.

Whatever the original merits of the Electoral College, it operates today to disadvantage urban voters in favor of rural ones. Hillary Clinton’s voters were women, minorities, and educated Whites, and they were disproportionately urban; Trump supporters were primarily less-educated White Christian males, and they were overwhelmingly rural.

In today’s America, cities are growing and rural areas declining. That decline undoubtedly feeds much of the anger and white nationalism displayed by Trump voters. One can be sympathetic to rural concerns without, however, giving the votes of rural inhabitants (already favored by gerrymandering) greater weight than the votes of urban Americans.

In Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court famously upheld the principle of “one person, one vote.” The operation of the Electoral College violates that fundamental democratic tenet.

The cost of living is higher in cities, and most of us who choose urban life are willing to pay a premium in return for the benefits offered by more cosmopolitan environments. But a reduction in the value of our vote shouldn’t be one of the added costs we incur.

It is time to get rid of the Electoral College.