Rural America Reimagined

Rural America Reimagined

Introducing our Fall 2019 special section, “Left Paths in Rural America.”

Illustration by John Michael Snowden

For many Americans, rural life is an increasingly obscure abstraction. The United States became a majority-urban country in the 1910s, and since then rural places have accounted for an ever-smaller fraction of the nation’s residents. The rising industries of the modern economy, and the wealthy communities that surround them, are disproportionately located in a handful of “winner-take-all” cities. Virtually all of the most influential engines of cultural production, from magazines to film studios, are oriented toward metropolitan markets. Meanwhile, the disappearance of small-town newspapers has left behind what the Columbia Journalism Review recently described as “news deserts”—places like Dodge County, Minnesota, where, as of 2017, there were zero daily newspapers serving a population of more than 20,000. And even as certain relics of the country’s past as an agrarian slavocracy remain embedded in counter-majoritarian institutions like the Senate and Electoral College that weigh the scales toward rural states, the formal mechanisms of political power, for all intents and purposes, remain mostly in the hands of urban elites.

As a consequence, rural America tends to appear in the popular discourse as a largely mythical location. There are the all-too-familiar depictions of rural places as redoubts of conservative Republicanism, traditionalist holdouts against the demographic and cultural transformation of modern America into a more diverse, tolerant, and equitable society. This is a view shared both by those on the liberal-left who lament troglodyte rural meanness as well as those on the right who celebrate rural life as the inheritor of a more cautious social order. To find examples of this conventional unwisdom, one need look no further than the op-ed page of the New York Times. There, David Brooks lauds the singular “moral coherence and social commitment” of rural America, while Charles Blow dismisses “the endless spread of red sauce” that elected Donald Trump. In doing so, both rely on the same one-dimensional depiction of rural America as a simple inversion of urban politics and culture.

Persuaded by neither the reactionary’s nostalgia for rural life as a repository of traditional values nor the cosmopolitan liberal’s blanket disdain for non-urban people and places, some critics reject this binary. Rural America, they rejoin, is hardly some straight, devout, lily-white land that stands in mirror image to the diverse multiculturalism of metropolitan America. Look closer, and you will find it is really a radical, queer, rebellious tapestry of many colors.

We share the optimism of these critics, and their belief that equating rurality with ethno-national revanchism is both inaccurate and politically suicidal. At the same time, we resist the impulse to point to the sparks of nonconformity and protest visible in the American countryside and call them a brushfire. There are reasons, after all, why progressive and left politics have faced such difficult odds in rural communities. Perhaps it is not an endless spread of “red sauce,” but neither does rural America resemble a patchwork quilt of purple and blue, even if you squint. There have been encouraging signs of popular ferment in rural states, like the teacher strikes that swept through places like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona, or the pipeline protests that have united climate activists and American Indian groups, but thus far they are more notable for their intermittence than their constancy. Overall, union density in rural states, from North Carolina to Nebraska, remains abysmally low. Twenty-two states, the vast majority of them rural, are currently led by “trifecta” governments, in which the GOP controls both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office, giving free run to a Republican Party more uniformly arrayed against everything the left stands for—worker rights, corporate regulation, civil rights, affordable medical care for all, humane treatment of refugees and the poor, the integrity of women’s bodies, aggressive measures to avert a global climate disaster—than any party in modern American history.

How, then, should the left engage with rural America? The prevailing attitude is to write it off, to plan for the ascendancy of a political coalition ever more centered in big cities. Others want to blow the category apart altogether—to point out that there are many rural Americas, and that our coalition-building is poorly served by categorizing immigrant farm laborers in the Central Valley, descendants of sharecroppers in the Black Belt, unemployed coal miners in Appalachia, Lakota tribes on the Great Plains, evangelical Christians in the Midwest, and many other types of non-urban communities under the same heading.

We believe that thinking of rural America as a distinct category is still worthwhile. But rather than defining rurality merely as something at odds with the diversifying, dynamic liberalism of big cities, we seek instead to emphasize the real conditions under which rural America has been systematically marginalized, exploited, and distanced from national centers of economic and social power, both historically and, with intensifying severity, in recent years.

As critical scholars have long observed about such phenomena as urban segregation and globalization, material resources and immaterial value are distributed unevenly across different kinds of places. These places—be they international free-trade zones, disinvested city neighborhoods, or gated suburban communities—are created by a variety of social forces. We must identify the forces that have acted, deliberately, to leave rural America behind, if we are to forestall the ugly politics that inevitably result from the resentful feelings associated with being “left behind.” By grounding our definition of rurality in a political economy of injustice differentiated along geographic lines, we can begin to identify the contours of a popular left politics that could unite a truly national movement for progressive goals.

In this special section, we have asked an eclectic group of contributors to remedy the hackneyed portrayal of rural America too often invoked by commentators of all political stripes, and to engage with rural culture and politics in a way that is neither apologetic nor dismissive. Sarah Jones, Garrett Dash Nelson, and RaMell Ross—a journalist, a geographer, and an Oscar-nominated filmmaker—take different approaches to answering a common question: how can we see beyond prepackaged representations of rural America in contemporary culture that hobble our collective political imaginations? Meanwhile, John Major Eason, Lily Geismer, and Levi Van Sant—a sociologist, a historian, and another geographer—draw our attention to a set of issues that underscore the structural disadvantages that have come to shape the political economy of rural America. Private control of land and resources, underdevelopment and disinvestment, and social and racial stigmatization do not represent a comprehensive list of the problems confronting rural areas today. Yet they provide a sense of the scope and scale of the challenge, while suggesting choke points for productive political interventions.

Our final contribution is by Kate Logan and Shay Totten, two community organizers located in northern New England—the regional rural landscape that is also home to Dartmouth College, where our contributors gathered in April for a series of conversations that gave rise to this special section. Drawing on their own experiences as well as those of allied rural organizers around the country, Logan and Totten provide an on-the-ground perspective on the work being done to build a progressive movement infrastructure in rural America. The challenges they describe are sobering, but the breakthroughs that are already being made should be a source of optimism for those who struggle to see beyond the colors on the national political map.

Inspired by the work that all our contributors are doing, our call, then, is to think both realistically and optimistically about rural America. It is true that the Republican Party and the various other organs of conservative political organizing, from Fox News to Focus on the Family, have a dominant hand in many rural communities. And it is true that racial supremacy, religious orthodoxy, and nationalist militarism have become closely associated with a certain cultural framing of rural life. But these conditions do not arise inevitably, like vapors from the rural soil. There have been moments in American history when rural areas have served as key staging grounds for left politics, and there is no reason why they cannot do so again today.

That would require a new engagement not only with rurality, but also with the agenda and rhetoric of progressive politics. Rural voters have turned away from left politics in part because of divisive and fraudulent temptations from the right, but also in part because they frequently have not had any compelling reasons to stand by the left. From the embrace of neoliberalism in the 1990s to the belief in an urban-centered electoral “demographic destiny” in the 2010s, the Democratic Party, an unreliable ally of the left in any case, has too often acted in complicity with the very same forces that are hollowing out rural America. Popular movements, on the other hand, have largely neglected to organize in rural communities, whether because of the very real challenges associated with doing so or the common perception that the costs are too high and the payoffs too limited. The result has been the partisan stalemate that defines our current electoral landscape—and suffocates any current hope for a more transformative politics, at a time when rising social inequality and runaway climate change demand one more than ever.

Claiming rural ground for the left does not mean appealing to a vacuous notion of “one America.” Nor does it mean reanimating an older political order that tiptoed too cautiously around the sometimes genuine, but more often imagined, bigotries of rural voters. Instead, this project should boldly assert that rural Americans deserve the same promises of equality, justice, and economic democracy as those living in any other place in the country—that another rural America is possible.

Max Fraser is an assistant professor of American history at the University of Miami. He is currently a fellow at the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.

Garrett Dash Nelson is a historical geographer based in Boston. He is a former fellow at the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.