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Getting White, Rural Rage Right

If your information antenna is tuned for rural news, you’ve probably heard about the recent controversial bestseller, White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy. Its publisher describes the book as “a searing portrait and damning takedown of America’s proudest citizens—who are also the least likely to defend its core principles.”

The book’s authors, Tom Schaller (a political science professor) and Paul Waldman (a journalist), argue that, given their outsized representation in the Senate and the Electoral College, rural voters have disproportionate power in our democracy—and are the least committed to preserving it. During a recent interview on MSNBC, Schaller threw a lot of insults at rural whites, calling them “the most racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-gay geo-demographic group in the country,” “the most conspiracist group,” “anti-democratic,” “white nationalist and white Christian nationalist” and the “most likely to excuse or justify violence as an acceptable alternative to peaceful public discourse.”

A depressing, even frightening picture. But is it true?

One of the researchers whose work was cited in the book claims its authors are almost entirely mistaken. In “What Liberals Get Wrong About ‘White Rural Rage’”, Colby College political scientist Nicholas Jacobs warns that the book (and its enthusiastic reception by many progressives) is “not an attempt to understand the needs and concerns of rural America (but) an outpouring of frustration…(that) will only serve to further marginalize and demonize a segment of the American population that already feels forgotten and dismissed by the experts and elites.”

Rather than motivated by rage, Jacobs argues, rural voters are “driven by a sense of place, community and often, a desire for recognition and respect” as well as by “what academics call a ‘politics of place’ that is expressed as a belief in self-reliance, rooted in local community, and concerned that rural ways of living will soon be forced to disappear.”

In “It’s Too Easy to Get the Wrong Idea About Rural Rage,” another commentator, Democratic member of the Iowa legislature J.D. Scholten, pointed out another reason Democrats do so poorly in rural areas: For every dollar Democrats invest in federal campaigns in rural areas, Republicans spend $14. Combine that disinvestment with the changes in the media landscape (large corporations taking over local radio stations, exposing rural voters largely only to hours of right-wing propaganda), and with the role large corporations have played in driving out family farms and small businesses, and its little surprise that rural voters resent liberals and the establishment institutions they are seen to represent.

If the left wants to win, or at the very least gain ground,” Scholten argues, “we need to invest in rural Americans—and make sure our common interests benefiting rural regions are heard.”

Such challenges to Schaller and Waldman’s arguments correspond to what we at MAFlipPA hear from our rural friends in Pennsylvania. Instead of demonizing rural voters, we try to:  


  • Avoid making rural resentment worse by “othering” rural conservatives. Don’t group them all as stupid, racist, or homophobic. Don’t assume that they’re “voting against their own interests.” Instead, whenever possible, approach them as individuals with their own stories and reasons for holding the political views they do.

  • In conversations with rural voters, listen not only to their words, but also to the emotions behind them. This does not mean agreeing with outrageous conspiracy theories or untruths. But look for common underlying values, which can lead to possible common ground about who is really accountable for rural problems (such as large corporations.)

  • Educate rural voters about how Democratic policies, and Democratic lawmakers, are helping their local communities in tangible, concrete ways, from funding much-needed infrastructure to fighting the opioid epidemic. *

What do you think of white rural rage (the book or the concept)? What can we as liberals and progressives do to lift up—and win the votes of—rural Americans?

*If you’re interested in receiving updates about how Democratic policies are helping rural areas, email me and tell me which issues (such as health care or jobs) are most critical to you and your neighbors.

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The money spent on campaigns in rural areas doesn't really correlate with the actual federal benefits the rural red states receive. J.D. Sholten says we need to invest in rural Americans, but the U.S surely IS investing. The data and facts will demonstrate that low-tax red states fare better when you take into account federal spending. Dems attempt to educate and provide those facts, but there is a resistance to accepting these facts and sadly it increases the anger and frustration. The right-wing news media has nailed their stories and programming to instill perspectives that are difficult to overcome and it's difficult to counter that. I am using the MAFlipPA messaging tools provided on the website. It won't …

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