Who Rules the Rural South?

Who Rules the Rural South?

If we think culture explains voting behavior, we should be talking about a culture of disempowerment and resignation before we talk about a culture of conservatism.

A lumber operation in North Carolina in 1906 (Corbis via Getty Images)

Columbus County, North Carolina, is a great flat reach of farms and homes and timberland where August days get so heavy-hot that, as someone once put it to me, “the birds don’t sing.” By land area, it is one of the biggest counties in the state. It sits on the South Carolina border, stretching west and south of Wilmington. On its northeastern edge, it touches the Cape Fear River, and then the county line dives west until it finds the Lumber River and follows it southwest to the state line. Much of its land is quite literally backwater—wetlands upstream of rivers.

Columbus County is also a backwater in the pejorative sense. It sits in a vast trough of lightly populated rural land running from the Florida panhandle up to the Virginia tidewater. Its towns are small, and its people are poor. Along state roads, old barns and farmhouses are being consumed by undergrowth. In the past ten years, the county has lost nearly 13 percent of its population. It has one of the worst opioid problems in the state.

What ails places like Columbus County? Lately, in North Carolina at least, the question has taken on new urgency: the state has little to show for years of policy intervention, and each year leaves fewer people and emptier towns. Some will tell you that the people of Columbus County are so morally and politically misguided as to have effectively chosen poverty. Others focus on the class of employers and governing officials in such areas, blaming their politics or their local economic development choices. Still others point to what they see as a broad pattern of divestment from rural places, as capital finds higher returns elsewhere. These last two explanations have more truth to them than the first. But neither is complete: start scratching at the local elite in rural North Carolina, and you’ll find most of them have deep connections to the elites in America’s great cities. Start tracing capital flows, and you’ll find plenty of investment flowing into rural North Carolina, not just out of it.

In the end, all three of these explanations have their roots in the old idea that places like Columbus County aren’t really part of the modern economy, and that the people who live in them aren’t really part of modern society. Superficially, the idea has sway. Drive state roads across the county, and you’ll find few tech workers, spotty high-speed broadband, and no explosions of high-rise construction. People in rural areas are more religious and own more guns; local notables tend to be loud about how much they dislike the rich and powerful in America’s larger cities. To locals and outsiders alike, Columbus County can feel a world apart.

But the things that are assumed to be evidence of separation—poverty, local oligarchy, and embittered cultural politics—are in fact the effects of economic and political integration. America’s backwaters have always been tied tightly to capital in America’s great cities. They have provided the cheap commodities that fueled booming American industry. They have provided markets for finished goods and places to invest the excess capital that has accumulated on the coasts. These tethers have given rise to an oligarchy in the backwaters that coastal capital has charged with controlling labor, opening markets, and placing and protecting investments. From time to time, these local fiefs—planters, merchants, bankers, judges and mayors, car-dealership owners and real-estate developers—have made some money for themselves, but they have guaranteed that places like Columbus County remain poor and underdeveloped.

For decades, liberal Democrats (and much of the political left) have assumed that they cannot build political power or win elections in rural places. Some have assumed that the political culture of rural places will change with more outside investment: more jobs, more employers, more education. Given the outsized power our political system affords rural places, it has long been time to challenge these assumptions—to figure out whether the left can win in rural places, and to realize that a strategy of waiting for economic “progress” will never suffice. I don’t mean to pretend the answers are obvious or straightforward. But if we are willing to ask the hard and necessary questions, Columbus County is a good place to start.


Today, Columbus County produces hogs, strawberries, cotton, tobacco, and much else besides—but in the beginning, the county was built on the products of its forests. As far back as the eighteenth century, the area produced naval stores: pitch, tar, and turpentine—all products of pine trees and their resin. For decades, these goods were mostly furnished by small landowners for local use. But when the global market for these products exploded in the 1830s, planters swarmed to the area, backed by great houses of finance in New York, New England, and Great Britain. These planters forced thousands of enslaved people to harvest the forest with such intensity that the industry went from boom to bust in just a few decades. As the industry crested, financial success came to depend on finding the next backwater: untouched forest still close enough to water that its products could be brought to market cheaply.

Backwaters, both literal and figurative, have long provided cheap inputs for industrial production carried out elsewhere. The end users of naval stores, like the end users of cotton, were not in the rural South; they were in Liverpool, Manchester, New York, and Boston, the industrial hubs of the Anglo-American world. Pitch, tar, and turpentine from North Carolina made seaworthy the ships, primarily built in Northern and English shipyards, that supported this trade.

Southern agriculture and timber also offered a new frontier for investment. Cotton and timber production depended on revolving credit to smooth cash flows across the year; much, if not most, of the capital that supported this credit came from outside the South. Companies were built to funnel Northern money into plantation-land speculation. Credit factors worked their way deep into the rural South, lending on behalf of faraway banks and merchants.

Capital’s extraordinary appetite for investment in productive land helped to precipitate the most astonishing brutalities of the early American state. The consolidation of agricultural land near the coasts led directly to the dispossession of indigenous people on the early frontier, as white settlers who had neither land nor credit were unable to carve out farmland of their own without traveling west and into violence. Meanwhile, for decades, Northern and British capital financed the trade in enslaved human beings, above all by underwriting slavers’ voyages. Manhattan was so tied to Southern cotton production that some of its merchants cheered the hanging of John Brown, and the mayor even recommended seceding alongside the South in 1861.

The planter class arose to serve the needs of external capital. Its large estates and enslaved laborers formed a base of assets against which credit could be secured—lowering the risk of lending and facilitating the flow of capital into the hinterlands. Northern and British capital, in turn, counted on planters to perpetuate slavery as a means for producing commodities. As scholars like Sven Beckert have shown, industrialists saw enslaved labor—which lowered the input costs of cotton production—as essential to the growth of their sectors. Without access to these markets and credit, land alone would never have enriched the planters.

The planters depended upon their economic power to win political support. They were creditors, brokers, and employers to poorer whites, able to buy and compel loyalty. The planters reinforced this loyalty by enshrining strict racial hierarchy in Southern law: planters argued that their control of enslaved Black people was necessary for the safety of all white citizens, and they deployed the power of the state to brutally enforce this order. Where capital would not follow them, and where foreign markets did not need them—upcountry and in the mountains—planters never achieved the same wholesale political dominance that they achieved elsewhere; indeed, they experienced open rebellion during the Civil War.

The alliance between foreign capital and local oligarchs did not die with the Confederacy. It has gone on shaping Columbus County, and rural North Carolina more generally, ever since. Again and again, what has made foreign capital productive is not just the county’s natural resources but the cultivation of a local elite that shares capital’s material interests and is willing to pursue those interests at the expense of ordinary people. This was true in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when—as W.E.B. Du Bois argued—Northern industry, concerned that empowered workers might not produce enough cheap cotton, contracted a new alliance with the old planter class to end Reconstruction and promulgate the legal foundations of Jim Crow. It was true in the North Carolina Piedmont region in the early twentieth century, when chambers of commerce sought to attract textile mills by as historian Charles A. Gulick Jr. wrote in 1932, “advertis[ing] the tractability of local labor ad nauseum.” And it is true today.

Hog farming has come to dominate the economy of southeastern North Carolina. The boom has been fueled by the rise of a system known as the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, in which thousands of pigs are crammed together in brutal conditions. CAFOs have produced a new local elite, handpicked by wealthy interests often located out of state. It costs a lot to start a new CAFO operation. So the hog-processing companies got in the business of deciding which farmers they wanted to work with and financing their expansion. Flush with cash and guaranteed contracts, these farmers quickly undermined their neighbors who were producing hogs the old-fashioned way. In 1982, there were about 9,400 farms producing hogs in North Carolina. By 2017, that number had fallen to just 2,100—even as the number of hogs produced grew by a factor of seven, from about 5 to 35 million. In 1982, more than 12 percent of North Carolina’s hog production occurred on farms with fewer than a thousand hogs. Thirty years later, in 2017, such farms less than 0.1 percent of the state’s hogs.

The new CAFO elite has also come to dominate local politics. And more than simply dispossessing their neighbors, the new CAFO farmers ensure their neighbors absorb the costs of hog production. Animal waste poisons soil, waterways, and air. People who live near CAFOs, who are disproportionately Black, suffer asthma and other related health conditions at higher rates than the general population. Residential property values near CAFOs also suffer, and, because CAFO farmers have won preferential tax treatment, local revenues fall, too. Wearing the guise of the family farmer, CAFO owners have ushered bills through the state legislature to remove regulations that would force CAFOs to bear the costs of their pollution and to ensure that the extraordinary capital investments in CAFO farming are not taxed. They have lobbied for lower taxes and government spending in general to further reduce the cost of operating in rural North Carolina.

Just as they have continued to provide low-cost production inputs, places like Columbus County have once again come to serve as a backwater for investment capital. A recent boom in residential construction in rural areas near North Carolina’s major cities has been driven by low taxes and pliant local officials who ensure that developers pay little for land. Meanwhile, fund managers seeking “alternative assets” have plowed piles of capital into timberland across southeastern North Carolina. Gargantuan parcels of forest—tens of thousands of acres—are now owned by out-of-state investors. The annihilation of local shops and the proliferation of big-box stores and fast-food restaurants have allowed local notables to draw on the power of external capital to amass wealth from the ruin of their neighbors’ businesses. (This, in turn, provides national capital with new avenues for growth, as the channeling of more and more local consumption into national businesses means that profits accrue outside the county.) The crumbling barns you see across Columbus County are not crumbling because they exist in their “own little world,” cut off from the modern economy; nor, as the CAFOs show, are they crumbling because productive efficiency has meaningfully increased in their sectors. The barns are crumbling because the economic regime that governs Columbus County is designed for the benefit of capital based elsewhere, built and enforced by a local elite that derives its power from that capital.


This relationship between metropolitan capital and far-flung regions is well-theorized. Marx observed that as it saturated asset markets in the metropolitan center, capital would be forced to look ever further abroad to maintain favorable rates of return. Others, most notably Immanuel Wallerstein, have elaborated this observation into a general theory of the relationship between “center” and “periphery.” According to this theory, the center provides capital and state power to compel the extraction of low-cost production inputs from the periphery, which in turn provides both assets for the deployment of accumulated metropolitan capital and a market for the goods produced at the center. Most of this theory was developed to describe the relationship between European states and their colonies, but in the latter half of the twentieth century scholars like Michael Hechter deployed it to describe the relationship between communities within the modern borders of European states. The economic relationship between London and Wales—and the accompanying racist justifications for subordination—could be analyzed on similar terms as the relationship between London and India.

Some scholars and activists also argued that “internal colonialism” afflicted the United States. In Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton wrote that Northern ghettos were subordinated not just by racism but by “the economic dependency of the colonized.” Scholars like John Gaventa have also described a kind of internal colonialism in white Appalachia, where the coal industry depended on the annihilation of self-sufficient local farming, not just for the use of the land but to secure cheap labor. To help steal the land, and to control the new labor force of dispossessed farmers, capital cultivated a local elite paid with a modest share of the profits. Nonetheless, the net effect of coal development was that wealth flowed out of, rather than into, the region. Wendell Berry pointed out how the dictates of coastal capital sparked both the violent dispossession of indigenous peoples and the subsequent immiseration and subordination of the marginal settlers who took their lands. What these accounts share is an observation that in various communities, the basic questions of political economy—who should own productive assets, who should work where and under what conditions, to whom should surpluses accrue—were resolved outside the communities themselves.

These theories imply that capital in America’s largest cities poses a constant threat to the political agency of ordinary people in places like Columbus County. People in Columbus County today are under no illusions about who’s in charge: large companies and developers in the area have enriched a handful of people who now control the levers of political power. Look at the county commissioners in Columbus. One is a CAFO hog farmer. One is a real-estate investor. Another worked for forty-five years at International Paper, a leading global supplier of timber products that owns land and operates a plant in the county. And as people in Columbus County will tell you, the most important decisions affecting the area are made in Raleigh and Washington, where their interests are altogether unrepresented.

Most of the people I know in rural North Carolina feel a deep affinity for the land and their way of living on it. Some of them can trace family land back to the eighteenth century and have inherited stories about how it sustained their family’s autonomy through lean times. Others have ancestors among the freedpeople who helped build independent, prosperous communities in the wake of emancipation. These traditions are being destroyed across swaths of the rural South, and, where they survive, their continuity is threatened. The rural South is the frontier of what John Gray described as the “Maoism of the Right”—the continual, revolutionary rearrangement of employment, social ties, and the provision of basic goods and services in the interests of far-off markets and investors. The phenomenon afflicts urban places, too, but its effects are felt most strongly where ordinary people have no meaningful political power. In rural America, there is little stability in the basic fabric of economic and social relationships: the built environment, the quality of soil and water, what kind of work is available, and what is produced. It is not just that these questions of political economy are decided elsewhere; it is that the answers are constantly changing. Coastal capital reconfigures rural spaces to suit its needs. This reconfiguration is more than mere divestment: often as not, capital stops supporting a particular form of local production because it starts supporting another form of local production instead. It is not hard to find smallholders’ hog houses wasting away in fallow fields a few hundred yards from new CAFO facilities.

If the local elite is so at odds with the interests of other locals, why isn’t it voted out of political office? This was the main question that prompted John Gaventa’s first book, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, and the answer he arrived at rings true in Columbus County today. The local elite is adept at translating its economic power into barriers against political change. Challengers come up against the handful of powerful gatekeepers who control access to most opportunities for social and professional advancement. Even if someone were prepared to bear that economic hardship, building a campaign requires asking donors, volunteers, staff, family members, and anyone else who vocally supports them to bear that cost as well. Even if these threats did not exist, campaigns require money and know-how. The Democratic Party provides virtually no resources for grassroots organizing and candidate recruitment in deep rural areas.

Indeed, part of the problem is also the Democratic Party’s long-standing alliance with the other, larger American elite. The party’s embrace, under Clinton, of financial deregulation, welfare reform, the demobilization of organized labor, industry consolidation, and the privatization of public services undermined small, regional banks and promoted consolidation in agriculture and consumer goods—effectively expanding the ability of the metropolitan elite to project their power into rural spaces. If the party wants to revive its prospects in the rural South, it needs to break the power of the local elite—which means reconsidering its alliance with the elite in places like New York and San Francisco.

On a deeper level, what is missing is any sense of what an alternative political economy for places like Columbus County might look like, much less how it might be realized. Beyond vague commitments to “foster[ing] the development of regional food systems,” Biden’s campaign platform on rural issues looked like many that have come before it, promising to lure corporations to build manufacturing facilities in rural spaces, draw in broadband and tech jobs, and push ethanol as a way of driving up demand for grain. Were these proposals successful, perhaps they would raise incomes and renew a portion of the tax base, but they offer no real promise of revitalizing small-scale family farming, or of permitting rural people to imagine, build, and own for themselves whatever kind of productive enterprise might replace it. They do not offer to restore ownership of the land to the people who live on and around it. They do not offer meaningful insulation from the power and shocks of global finance. They do not offer relief from a local elite—only its replacement.


In a recent and widely circulated article in the Atlantic, Patrick Wyman took a different view of the local elite. According to Wyman, the wealth of these elites arises primarily from control of the land, and their political outlook arises from their physical and economic separation from their coastal counterparts in places like New York and Malibu. On these points, Wyman’s account misses the mark, but Wyman is right to point out that rural and urban elites tend to adhere to different norms of recreation and cultural opinion. Wyman thinks these differences are meaningful: he argues that the rural elite rules with some degree of popular mandate because its cultural preferences hew closely to those of ordinary local people. In principle, he could be right about this, even if he’s wrong about the source of the local elite’s power and the extent of its economic and political separation.

Whether he is aware of it or not, Wyman’s piece evinces an old metropolitan consensus about rural places: that such places are hives of misogyny, racism, and religiosity, and that people there vote according to these values. This consensus is troubling for a number of reasons. It paints over the remarkable racial and ethnic diversity of the rural South. It echoes a long tradition of othering rural people and claiming that they require the civilizing influence of metropolitan capital. And it ignores the fact that the majority of people in rural places don’t vote at all. If we think culture explains voting behavior, we should be talking about a culture of disempowerment and resignation before we talk about a culture of conservatism.

But the most troubling thing about the old consensus is that it ignores how rural spaces have, in times past, been wellsprings of populist, democratic action. To say that rural politics are preordained by rural culture, without seeking to account for the evolution of culture in rural spaces, is to say that you are not serious about winning political power. There is no clean separation between a community’s culture and its material circumstances. The rise of extremist media was fueled by divestment from rural education, the annihilation of local journalism, and the thinning of local social connection. As the history of the populist movement shows, and as scholars like Du Bois argued, racism becomes most politically viable when whites find their avenues toward material gains foreclosed. Racist and misogynist policies offer white men not merely moral suasion but a real, material—if not absolute—insulation from unemployment and dispossession. It is no accident that the enormous theft of land from Black Americans in the rural South occurred alongside the imposition of new market pressures on smaller-scale white farmers. When solidarity seems to hold little promise, white people have often acted to ensure their Black neighbors are immiserated first. It is a particularly aggravating form of snobbery to think that white residents of Brooklyn would act differently from those of Fayetteville in similar circumstances.

If we want to talk about the relationship between culture and politics in rural America, we should also discuss another kind of cultural connection. America’s two elites have much more in common than material interests. They share the tastes of the upper class, such as an affinity for private education and a taste for leisure sports. They also share something darker: a vision of America’s land and people fundamentally at odds with the vision that ordinary Americans cherish.

As Aziz Rana has written, there have long been two ways of viewing American land and labor. In one tradition, the land is a place where laboring people—individuals, families, communities—can inscribe a self-authored freedom, without fear that they will be subjected to foreign political or economic dominion. Despite its contradictions, despite its history as part of the justification for the genocide and dispossession of indigenous people, this tradition has nonetheless provided the common vision of most of the country’s democratic movements. By another tradition, the land is mere capital, and laboring people are simply another input to be tailored toward the maximization of that capital’s productivity. In this view, the people who inhabit the land are less citizens than colonial subjects: bodies to be protected when they produce and disciplined when they do not.

The deep cultural affinity between the American elites, whether they own fast-food franchises in Whiteville or hedge funds in Southport, is in the shared embrace of this latter vision for American land and American people. (Du Bois saw this tendency affecting the nation’s nascent Black elite, too, and later in life he reconsidered his earlier suggestion that a “talented tenth” would do much for Black Americans.) If we want to talk about culture as a precursor to politics, perhaps this is the place to start. After all, neither elite has showed much interest in stopping the rising of the oceans, the desertification of the American West, or the whole planet’s course toward a catastrophic new climate. Neither elite has thought it worth much sacrifice to make sure millions of Americans, urban and rural, are fed and housed and cared for. History teaches us that Columbus County’s CAFOs and real-estate developments are headed for desolation just as surely as the barns and outbuildings crumbling along state roads today. But, as things stand, the skyscrapers of New York and the glittering cities of the San Francisco Bay will not be far behind them. Those crumbling barns are not just tokens of isolated suffering; they are omens of our shared fate. What we do with such omens is up to us.

Jesse Williams is an attorney for low-income people and community organizations in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Scalawag Magazine.