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13 March 2024

Demonising rural voters invites defeat for the Democrats

Progressive tropes about the “bigoted” and “undemocratic” countryside undermine Joe Biden’s efforts to win over rural America.

By Sohrab Ahmari

The Democratic Party was born in the late 1820s when small-time farmers and urban workers began demanding a greater say in political affairs. These demands horrified conservative elites. To them, “power naturally and necessarily follows property”, as the 19th-century statesman Daniel Webster declared. A sound regime, in this telling, limited decision-making to the wealthy, those who possessed the means and the motivation to uphold republican “liberty”.

Otherwise, government would be overrun by “men with no property to assess and no character to lose”, in the words of the banker Nicholas Biddle. Yet such rhetoric only inflamed the insurgent Democrats who crowded Washington in those days, vowing to smash down the “moneyed aristocracy” and to empower the angry and excluded back country.

All this is a dim memory in today’s Democratic Party. Many leading Democrats echo the likes of Webster and Biddle in addressing the back country: they’re haughty, unsympathetic, fearful of the ruddy-faced yokels with whom they are tragically fated to share a country. It doesn’t bode well for the party’s electoral prospects, never mind national cohesion.

Consider the Washington book du jour, White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, by the political scientist Tom Schaller and the journalist Paul Waldman. The “threat” in the subtitle concerns the outsized influence rural whites supposedly wield over the political process. This, even though they also harbour “undemocratic, sometimes violent impulses”, according to Schaller and Waldman. Rural folk are, they say, bigoted, conspiratorial, anti-democratic – just appalling.

The authors insist they have the “receipts” to substantiate these charges. But their data is shoddy. A typical procedure is to examine polls gauging respondents’ agreement with progressive opinions on various issues that divide reasonable Americans. If rural whites disagree, it proves they are hateful or authoritarian (rather than merely non-progressive).

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Schaller and Waldman note, for example, that rural whites are more likely than urban and suburban Americans to see immigrants as a “burden on our country”. Yet the authors never consider if these respondents might have facts in their favour. According to the latest Survey of Income and Program Participation by the US Census, more than half of immigrant-headed households use at least one public welfare programme, compared with 39 per cent for native-born households. It is true that immigrants fare somewhat better when scholars study individual, rather than household, welfare use. But the point is that fears over immigration’s social burdens are neither obviously wrong nor necessarily hateful.

The authors of White Rural Rage gravely observe that “rural citizens are more likely… to claim that Americans who live in other parts of the country do not understand the problems their communities face”. Well, quite. The 14 per cent of Americans who reside in small towns rarely see themselves portrayed in popular entertainment, let alone portrayed positively; the concerns and values of the agricultural sector remain largely invisible to the mainstream. From this, rural Americans might reasonably conclude that their fellow citizens don’t understand them. How is this bigotry?

As evidence of rural whites’ “undemocratic and anti-democratic beliefs”, Schaller and Waldman cite their support for “aggressive policing”. Maybe that’s an authoritarian attitude, but if so, it transcends race and geography. A Gallup survey conducted in the heat of the 2020 Black Lives Matter reckoning found that four out of five African Americans either wanted to maintain current levels of policing or for cops to appear in their neighbourhoods more often. Yet I doubt the authors are planning a follow-up titled Urban Black Fascism: The Threat to Democracy.

Several of the scholars whose work is cited in the book have already revoked their receipts. The authors, write the political scientists Nicholas F Jacobs and B Kal Munis in Reason magazine, “cite our research showing that there is a modest correlation between rural resentment and racial resentment… What they fail to note is the only statistically and intellectually sound conclusion that could be drawn from our data: while this slight correlation exists, rural resentment is an attitude distinct from racial prejudice.”

In the early republic, America’s conservative elites tried to justify class-based inequality as a way to resist democratic demands from below. They did this by lamenting, in the words of one conservative periodical, the “sensual excess, want of intelligence and moral debasement” that supposedly marked the lower orders. In other words, inequality flows from the moral defects of the poor. Old-line US conservatives recycle the same tropes today, for more or less the same purpose. It makes sense from a conservative point of view. What’s astonishing about our moment is that some Democrats should join the old-school right in trafficking nonsense about the ignorant and uncouth countryside.

The irony is that Joe Biden has invested a great deal in rural development via his industrial policies and other measures. If he fails to do well with these regions come November, not a little of the blame will lie with the progressive pundits and dubious experts who relentlessly demonise rural America, even as they claim the mantle of the original party of rural rage.

[See also: Elon Musk’s fight against workers’ rights]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

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