One evening a few summers ago, I walked from my house to the county fairgrounds. It was a long July day, and the sun still hung above the hills that surround the small western Colorado town where I live. People packed the bleachers of an outdoor arena to watch a rodeo. Shortly before the bullriding began, a rodeo clown strolled to the center of the dirt field and began his night with a joke. It went something like this:
There was a man who died after a good life on earth, and St. Peter met him at the pearly gates and welcomed him to Heaven. When he got inside, the man noticed that there were clocks all over the place, each set to a different time.
“What’s with all the clocks?” he asked.
“Those are liars’ clocks,” St. Peter answered. “They keep track of the lies that people tell on earth.”
“Whose is that?” the man asked, pointing at a clock set to two.
“That’s Noah’s clock,” St. Peter said, “he lived 800 years and only lied twice.”
“How about that one?” the man asked, looking at a clock that showed noon.
“That’s Mary’s clock,” St. Peter said. “The Mother of God didn’t tell a lie her whole life.”
The man thought for a minute. “How about Hillary Clinton’s clock?” he asked.
“Oh, that’s in Jesus’s office, he uses it as a ceiling fan.”
This is not a new bit. The same story was told in similar settings about Barack Obama, and a friend who grew up in the area noted that his father’s 1990s version had Bill Clinton as the punchline. At the rodeo, there was an assumption shared by clown and crowd: a Democrat, take your pick, would be the butt of the joke.
When it comes to rural America, the Democrats are not doing well. They have lost Arkansas, which had two Democratic senators as recently as 2010. They’ve lost Minnesota’s farm country and its Iron Range in the north — once strongholds of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. As of 2020, they’re on the verge of losing South Texas. And they’ve lost Colorado’s Western Slope. In 2010, the region was held by a Democrat, but it’s now represented in Congress by Lauren Boebert, best known for tweeting about the locations of lawmakers during the January 6 riot, pledging to carry her handgun into Congress, and going on a racist tirade against Representative Ilhan Omar.
Unlike some of her fellow far-right House members, Boebert does not represent a deep-red seat. In 2020, she won with only 51.4 percent of the vote. Colorado’s 3rd district is large and varied, covering the state’s entire western half. Federal public lands comprise much of the area, which also includes ski towns high in the Rockies, large chunks of farmland, and a couple of midsize cities. The areas near the New Mexico border have substantial Latino populations. This has not inspired Boebert to moderate her positions or reach out to those who didn’t vote for her in 2020. On the contrary, she continues to dial up a persona that seems designed to inflame the culture wars and offend many of her own constituents. Add to her political theatrics the fact that she hid a $1 million connection between her husband and an oil and gas firm, and it’s hard to think of a better opportunity for Democrats to shake their losing streak and regain a rural seat.
The party seemed to agree, and it adopted a well-worn approach. A frontrunner for the Democratic nomination emerged early on in Kerry Donovan, a popular state senator widely viewed as a rising star in Colorado. Her entry into the race received attention from Politico and The Associated Press, and she was boosted by national Democratic fundraising groups, bringing in nearly $2 million by the end of September 2021. Her first campaign ad depicted her on horseback, sporting a cowboy hat. A few seconds later, she lugged hay bales in slow motion, as if to secure her credentials as a “rancher,” a label also affixed to her campaign Twitter account. Donovan does indeed own a ranch, but there’s more to the picture. She also lives in the swank ski town of Vail, which was never part of the 3rd district. On the ranch, which sits some miles west of the town and was included in the 3rd district’s old boundaries, her family raises fuzzy Scottish highland cows. As a local Democratic official told me when Donovan entered the race: “That’s not ranching in western Colorado. That’s a hobby.” In November, Donovan suspended her bid after Colorado’s redistricting commission just barely sliced the ranch out of Boebert’s district. (Seven other Democrats remain in the primary.)
In recent election cycles, a number of Democratic candidates have adopted tropes of rural authenticity in similar fashion. They appear in campaign ads with rustic farm imagery, a well-placed truck to lean an elbow on, and, of course, cowboy hats. There are often guns involved. Former Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly chopped wood in one campaign ad — he “split” from the national party, you see. In 2017, there was Rob Quist, a “singing cowboy” with no prior political experience whom Montana Democrats picked to run for an open House seat. Quist never appeared in public without a hat, and it was a great hat, but he still lost. Last fall, longtime New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announced that he was running for governor of Oregon. His Twitter account describes him as an “Oregon farmer.” (In January, state election officials determined that Kristof is ineligible to run for governor, because he does not meet Oregon’s residency requirements.)
These put-on personas — cowboy, rancher, farmer — are meant to signal not just authenticity, but also an independence and toughness tied to the mythos of the frontier. Of course, Republicans use these tactics as well, in a tradition that goes all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan transformed his Hollywood cowboy roles into a political persona. He was often photographed in a broad-brimmed hat or on a horse on his California estate. Both Bushes, especially the younger one, cultivated Texan identities with boots, buckles, and pearl snap shirts, symbolism that became essential to selling their wars overseas. More recent examples become almost too numerous to count. Consider Donald Trump Jr.’s habit of dressing in camouflage and blaze orange. On Tucker Carlson’s new interview-based show, the anchor appears to broadcast from a log cabin, having traded in his signature preppy, bow-tied look for a flannel shirt. Some politicians seem not to understand the costumes they wear: Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first Interior Secretary, once wore his cowboy hat backwards in a photo op with Mike Pence. He also rigged his fly-rod the wrong way around while fishing with a reporter from Outside Magazine. Today, Zinke is favored to win Montana’s new House seat, though according to a deeply reported Politico story, he appears to spend most of his time in Santa Barbara, California.
Americans of all kinds, urban and rural alike, rightfully feel excluded from the centers of political decision-making and ignored by a giant, faceless bureaucratic state. For a politician, exuding a sense of familiarity, of shared concern and experience with the citizens you hope to represent, can be a valuable thing, if you can pull it off. And some can — take Senator Jon Tester, Montana’s sole Democrat holding statewide office. Tester still works the dryland wheat farm in the rural Montana county where he was raised. When he was nine years old, he was feeding raw beef into a meat grinder in his family’s butcher shop when his left hand slipped into the machine. He lost three fingers. A 2017 Washington Post profile notes that he still uses the same meat grinder. Tester can campaign as a farmer without fearing accusations of hypocrisy, and in a state that has gone from purple to deep red in recent elections, he wins consistently. But Tester is the exception that proves the rule. Finding seven-fingered farmers is not a political strategy, and appearing authentic, whatever that may mean, is no guarantee of smart policy or political courage. Tester, who has spent the past few years criticizing Democrats for abandoning rural voters, voted to deregulate the financial sector in 2018, claiming that the Dodd-Frank legislation passed after the financial crisis had hurt small community banks. (An Associated Press fact-check found that the laws were not the primary cause of consolidations and closures.)
Some on the left have an explanation for this state of affairs. Laid out most famously in Thomas Frank’s influential What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and most recently invoked by Bernie Sanders backers who note his popularity in rural areas, the argument goes like this: like the rest of the country, rural communities have been and remain dominated and exploited by the economic forces that transcend local control — deregulation, unrestrained financial markets, and deindustrialization. If Democrats would simply run on bold economic populism, it goes on, rural voters would overlook the cultural issues where they align with Republicans and vote in accordance with their economic interests.
Frank’s account of the trouble with Kansas has troubles of its own. His diagnosis of the Democratic Party’s shortcomings is not wrong, but his remedy is simplistic. It misunderstands how political motivations work at an individual level. Yes, the economic forces that tear apart rural communities and lives are material — most things are. These forces that remade and degraded rural economies also deepened class divides, and consolidated wealth in the hands of a few. But the rural identities and cultural norms that formed in response to these forces are deeply held, not easily discarded, and, crucially, not always functionally related to economic conditions in ways that leftists would prefer. Right now, rural America’s dominant political culture is conservative. Any serious attempt to build political power here must begin by conceding this fact.
This is a tangle. Republicans pander to rural voters with fabricated authenticity, with false displays of rural cred — and win. Democratic attempts at replicating this strategy predictably fall flat. A watered-down version of GOP cultural politics, taken in the context of the party’s electoral slide in rural areas, smacks of desperation. Some leftists treat rural Americans as possessed by an enchanting ideology, sure to fall into line once the spell is broken. Untying this knot requires an understanding of what’s happened to rural America and why the caricatures that both parties rely on float far from the truth, failing to acknowledge its political complexity and demographic diversity. About a quarter of rural residents are not white, an accelerating trend according to the 2020 census. That a majority of Native Americans live in rural areas — and most sovereign tribal land is rural — is often ignored. And political impressions of rural areas can be skewed by the sort of people who hold local power and determine the political landscape. Lower-income people and the poorest rural Americans tend not to vote at all. And with both parties, each in its own way, taking rural areas for granted, can you blame them?
A century ago, there were more than six million farmers; today, fewer than 750,000 remain. Yet the U.S.’s agricultural output has increased fourfold since then, while total acres farmed have declined only slightly. Same set of resources, more capital, fewer owners: this is an instructive way of understanding the economic stratification that has occurred in many rural communities. A class of local elites owns the valuable land that surrounds a typical small town, which is home to a post office, public schools, a grocery store, and sometimes a hospital. According to a recent Atlantic article by Patrick Wyman, the owners of physical assets — fast food franchises, apartment complexes, car dealerships — make up the rest of this scaled-down hierarchy. They sit on local nonprofit boards, run the chamber of commerce, and are influential members of their churches. They often hold elected office. And, they frequently vote. Wyman called this class of people the American gentry: local oligarchs, with wealth more often tied up in material assets than hedge funds.
As Wyman explains, the rural gentry lack the familiar emblems of extreme wealth; these are not people with luxury penthouses, Wall Street offices, wealth accumulated in global finance, and offshore bank accounts. But on the ground at the town or regional level, they hold substantial economic power and are disproportionately responsible for the political constitution of rural areas. Excluded from the gentry are the vast majority of rural Americans. The political messaging of both major parties tends to glorify rural America as full of small farms and yeoman farmers. In reality, American agriculture is enormously reliant on government subsidies and tax breaks, while education, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail employ more rural Americans than agriculture, as of the 2015 census. As for all that farmland — hundreds of millions of acres nationwide — it is increasingly held by the wealthy and powerful. In early November, a 127-acre Iowa farm sold at auction for $18,500 per acre. As Mother Jones reported, institutional investors like Prudential, Hancock, and TIAA have purchased huge amounts of farmland in recent years. The single largest owner of American farmland, though, is Bill Gates, with holdings spread across the country. His plans for the land are not clear, but the financial incentives are obvious. With climate change set to dramatically reduce the amount of arable land, Gates likely sees this oncoming scarcity as a smart investment. He’s probably right.
Fear of resource consolidation in the hands of the powerful few has been a constant in rural areas since America’s founding. In the mid-1830s, the English sociologist Harriet Martineau spent several years traveling around the U.S. and recording her observations of the new country, a popular activity among European intellectuals of the time. A characteristic of Americans, in Martineau’s view, was pride in the land, in its vast stretches and easy availability. (Though a perceptive observer of the U.S.’s slaveholding economy and a supporter of the early abolitionist movement, Martineau failed to mention the removal of Indigenous nations, the genocide that made the land available in the first place.) In her book, Society in America, Martineau described a “great danger” that Americans seemed on guard against. “They have always had in view the disadvantage of rich men purchasing tracts larger than they could cultivate,” she wrote. “They saw… that it is inconsistent with republican modes that overgrown fortunes should arise by means of an early grasping of large quantities of a cheap kind of property.”
That attitude did not last. In 1862, the Homestead Act opened hundreds of millions of acres of land to settlement, most of it in the western U.S. and taken from Native American tribes by force. The law stipulated that the land be doled out in parcels of up to 160 acres, but thanks to loopholes, fraud, and poor enforcement, land speculators and companies were able to obtain much larger tracts on the cheap. Cattle barons acquired huge land holdings. Their herds overgrazed the range, and in the course of just a few decades, desert began to replace grassland and enabled the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species that now fuel the wildfires that flare each summer.
By the late nineteenth century, erratic commodity markets were afflicting Midwestern grain farmers, while in the South, black and poor white tenant farmers were trapped in extortionist credit systems, working land they did not own. Agrarian anger fed the Populist movements of time, which formed, in part, as a response to emerging monopolies in the meatpacking and milk industries. Successive waves of consolidation followed in the 1920s and 1930s, caused by low crop prices and the Great Plains drought that led to the Dust Bowl. All of these issues — market consolidation, farm prices, the cost of food for an increasingly urban and unionized workforce — converged in the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Great Depression. In crafting the New Deal, the administration ultimately prioritized the interests of commercial farmers, subsidizing their incomes while implementing production caps. In the South, communist and socialist organizers had some success building coalitions between poor white and black farmers, bonded in their resistance to the cotton and tobacco companies that dominated the land. But in the end big business won out. Agricultural corporate empires — including some, like Tyson Foods, that persist today — formed, while federal policy bankrupted thousands of small and tenant farmers. Though today the New Deal is seen as a pinnacle of progressive policymaking, its impact on rural America is mostly ignored. In many ways it was the dawn of modern agribusiness, historian Shane Hamilton writes, which brought with it “the acceptance of a certain degree of monopoly power within the farm and food economy.”
These trends accelerated after World War II, with the advent of industrial farming and its new pesticides, combine harvesters, fertilizers, and seed technologies. Federal agriculture policy facilitated these changes in the form of large subsidies and enormous, publicly-funded water infrastructure projects, which made large-scale irrigation possible in arid regions. In 1973, as global grain prices soared, Richard Nixon’s USDA Secretary Earl Butz famously told farmers to “get big or get out.” By the 1980s, commodity prices had declined, endangering the farmers who had taken on debt in order to get big, as instructed. Drought compounded these difficulties. At the height of the farm crisis, more than 500 farm properties were selling every month at foreclosure auctions. In 1985, a larger number of agricultural banks failed than in any year since the Great Depression, and by the end of the decade, hundreds of thousands of farmers had defaulted on their loans. During at least one protest, they wore paper bags over their heads to hide their faces from creditors.
Neither major party did much to halt the crisis. Perhaps the most prominent voice defending the interests of small farmers was Jesse Jackson, who ran for President in 1984 and again in 1988, when he won eleven states in the Democratic primary. His success shocked the party establishment. With Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign as direct inspiration, Jackson tried to build a broad-based movement that emphasized the specific obstacles facing black Americans, while drawing in struggling farmers under the banner of shared economic interest. At a 1985 rally in rural Missouri, Jackson gathered angry white farmers, black supporters from Kansas City, and union locals to attempt to stop the foreclosure and sale of an 120-acre family farm. “This is a rainbow coalition for economic justice,” Jackson told the crowd. In the end, the farm sold, Jackson lost the primaries, and Ronald Reagan vetoed a relief package for farmers, though he would ultimately sign a farm bill that included aid money.
In Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class, Mike Davis connects the “consolidation of local citadels of capitalist power on a state or municipal basis” in this period to Reagan’s rise. In the 1970s, voter participation plummeted abruptly, a pattern that mostly broke down along class lines. The lowest income earners were substantially more likely to be non-voters, which holds true today, according to Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, middle and upper strata earners became, if anything, more politically involved, throwing themselves into single-issue campaigns like busing and abortion, and financing the emergence of business PACs. Put another way, as economic forces broke down rural communities, those left behind became less inclined to participate in a system that did not help them. Those who benefited, naturally, continued to find electoral politics worthwhile. Members of the gentry became the so-called “median voters” and frequent donors, shaping a system that enriched them while punishing their neighbors.
The next major Democratic attempt to take on consolidation in rural America would not come for another two decades. It can be hard to remember now, but during his first campaign, Barack Obama combined talk of hope and change with sharp criticisms of monopoly and trade deals like NAFTA. Democrats hadn’t talked like this since before the Clinton administration. He promised to “strengthen anti-monopoly laws” and fight market consolidation in agriculture industries, and the political payoff was substantial. Not only did Obama sweep the Rust Belt, but he also took Iowa and North Carolina. He lost Missouri by a mere 0.13 percent — a margin unthinkable for a Democrat today.
It’s easy to see why Obama’s anti-monopoly message caught on. To take one example, by 2010, a few large corporations like Tyson and Perdue controlled more than 90 percent of the poultry industry. Nominally independent farmers were subject to the whims of the large chicken packers, who offered barebones contracts that locked in low prices, required farmers to constantly purchase new technology, and denied them the right to negotiate with other buyers. Oftentimes, farmers didn’t even own the chickens they raised. All of this remains true today.
Obama’s administration tried to prevent similar consolidation in beef production. The industry was trending the wrong way, with a few large corporate meatpackers steadily expanding their hold on hundreds of thousands of small, independent cattle producers. There was a sense of hope that here, finally, was an administration that would take on the industry, according to Bill Bullard, whom I caught on the phone in between service dead zones as he drove across Montana. Bullard used to operate a cow-calf operation in South Dakota and today runs R-CALF USA, the largest advocacy group representing independent ranchers and slaughterhouses. Obama’s Department of Agriculture held public meetings across the country to hear from ranchers and farmers. Bullard recalled one event in 2011 in Fort Collins, Colorado, for which he estimated that more than 2,500 people showed up, with the crowd spilling out of the event center.
Under Obama, the USDA proposed rules that would protect farmers who spoke out against unfair contracts and tried to negotiate better prices for their products, as well as stronger enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, a bill that cracked down on Gilded Age meat monopolies. This would have been the pinnacle of Obama’s agricultural reform, giving the USDA real teeth in preventing mergers and holding corporations accountable for anti-competitive behavior. But little came of the effort. Industry groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association ratcheted up lobbying pressure, and Congress repeatedly blocked stronger USDA corporate enforcement — often led by rural state Republicans. In the end, Bullard said, Obama “left the farmers and ranchers out to dry.”
Today, the “Big Four” — Tyson, Cargill, National Beef, and JBS — control an estimated 85 percent of the beef industry. As R-CALF alleges in an ongoing lawsuit, the companies have illegally colluded to fix artificially low prices, driving independent producers to bankruptcy even as beef prices soared. “We took a private action,” Bullard said, “because we couldn’t rely on the Congress or the administration.” In Obama’s last year in office, Congress finally passed legislation strengthening the USDA’s antitrust powers. Then Donald Trump took office. Allies of corporate agriculture were put in charge of the USDA, which promptly threw out a rule that made it easier for small farmers to sue large meatpackers and demoted the agency’s independent antitrust office to a subdivision of the Agricultural Marketing Service. (President Biden is proposing to revive some of the Obama-era rules.)
These issues of corporate domination and consolidation persist, impacting every facet of rural America, while both parties have stood by. Eased by weak antitrust enforcement, corporate retailers like Walmart muscled out independent businesses in small towns. Now, dollar stores proliferate in rural communities, sometimes forcing the big box stores to close. There are more dollar stores in the U.S. than Walmarts and McDonald’s locations. In many large geographic areas with low populations, people live with reasonable access to only one hospital, or even a single healthcare provider. Lack of competition in rural areas is a crucial reason why Obamacare exchanges have failed to keep down healthcare costs, as The Intercept reported. And that was before the pandemic, which has caused a record number of rural hospitals to shut down for good.
It’s no coincidence that this trend toward consolidation tracks a sustained stretch of economic stagnation in the rural United States. Forty years ago, just over twenty percent of new businesses came from outside metro areas. By the 2010s, that number had declined to twelve percent. According to one recent study, 97 percent of net job growth between 2001 and 2016 went to cities. And it’s a plain fact that rural areas never recovered from the Great Recession. From 2010 to 2014, counties with fewer than 100,000 people had a zero percent net rate of new business creation. While many cities bounced back, jobs and businesses didn’t return to rural areas, especially those with predominantly non-white communities. Unemployment levels were still trailing pre-recession levels when the Covid-19 economic fallout arrived to hammer rural areas yet again. Deindustrialized towns continue to bleed population and jobs. Broadband access lags, preventing established industries from keeping up and new ones from breaking ground, while gaps in secondary educational attainment between rural and metro areas yawn wide.
At the same time, the rural gentry has only expanded its wealth. According to a central Kansas dairy farmer I called, just a few families own most of the farmland that surrounds his town, with holdings that swell to tens of thousands of acres. These families, he said, get the sweetest federal contracts, call the shots on Covid protocols in the church, and tend to rotate in and out of local positions of power in government. This isn’t limited to Kansas. Using county data from 1980-2016, a 2020 peer-reviewed study published in Population Research and Policy Review found an association between the chronic population decline in rural areas and an increase in income inequality. In other words, the economic forces that have meant immiseration and population decline for rural economies have benefited a small class of capitalists. This relationship, write the study’s authors, “suggests that income and other forms of wealth (by extension) are becoming increasingly concentrated into the hands of a select few.”
After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, these compounding rural crises became something of a preoccupation for national media and mainstream liberals. Rural America suddenly seemed to them a distant shore, home to strange customs, backward people, and jokes that aren’t funny. National reporters dropped in to diners and filed dispatches from Trump rallies. Pundits wrote countless columns with titles like “Why Rural America Voted for Trump,” “Penthouse Populist: Why the rural poor love Donald Trump,” and “Explaining the Urban-Rural Political Divide.” Democratic politicians like Tester and former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill critiqued the party for abandoning moderates and recommended that it run candidates who could relate to rural voters — there’s a throughline between these suggestions and the cowboy hats. And Trump’s success in rural areas and among non-college educated whites spawned a market for books that sought to explain non-coastal areas. The condescending infatuation with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was the most obvious example, but more sophisticated works — like Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, and Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia — also became prominent.
Four years later, Trump may not have won, but he took an even greater share of the rural vote. In 2020, he won roughly 90 percent of rural counties. Whatever lessons Democratic strategists have absorbed do not seem to be working.
There’s a certain sort of liberal who looks at all this and writes off rural areas as deserving of whatever policies the GOP inflicts on them. As a New York magazine headline blared after the 2016 election, “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” For a more recent example, consider this (since-deleted) tweet from Nell Scovell, a television writer who co-wrote Lean In with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, in response to the tornadoes in Kentucky that killed more than 70 people in December: “Sorry Kentucky. Maybe if your 2 senators hadn’t spent decades blocking climate legislation to reduce climate change, you wouldn’t be suffering from climate disasters. If it’s any consolation, McConnell and Rand have f’ed over all of us, too.” This sentiment reared its head online after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin blocked the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act. Trading in some of the most reprehensible stereotypes about Appalachia, actress Bette Midler wrote on Twitter: “What #JoeManchin, who represents a population smaller than Brooklyn, has done to the rest of America, who wants to move forward, not backward, like his state, is horrible. He sold us out. He wants us all to be just like his state, West Virginia. Poor, illiterate and strung out.”
Lazy thinking of this sort is what happens when you don’t make class distinctions. The existence of the rural gentry class — and increasing income inequality that coincided with economic decline in rural areas — ought to make clear that not all rural Americans are voting against their class interests when they side with Republicans. The wealthy voted for Trump, and Trump rewarded them with tax cuts. But rural political conservatism relates to rural economic conditions in other, more complicated ways. During the Great Recession, Katherine Cramer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, spent several years conducting ethnographic studies on rural, often white, Wisconsinites. She found a persistent sense that rural areas and the people who live there are mistreated, creating a recognizable “rural consciousness.” People felt not only that they had been abandoned by the government, but that cities and cultural elites hoard power and prestige at the expense of rural areas.
Some of the rural discontent is unquestionably racial. The GOP appeals to people who want to preserve the social and economic benefits that whiteness confers, or to restore the loss of privileges brought by an increasingly diverse populace. A recent analysis of 2020 voting patterns by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics found that among non-college educated white voters, “racial resentment” was one of the highest predictors of conservative political views. But all this applies to plenty of suburban Trump voters, too. To the extent that a rural consciousness exists, it’s entangled with a sense of having lost something while the rest of the country moves ahead. This, Cramer found, creates a persistent “us vs. them” view of the world. In Wisconsin, this rivalry manifests as anger at cities — where, it should be said, most of the state’s non-white population lives — but also at white-collar professionals and public employees of all kinds. These attitudes can also be found in western Colorado, with the frustration directed at the Denver and Boulder population centers. Western Slope economies depend on tourist dollars from these metro areas, yet there’s a strong sense of resentment toward the cultural and economic power concentrated on the other side of the Rockies.
I encountered this sentiment in the fall of 2020, when I interviewed an unaffiliated, first-time candidate for local office named Trudy Vader. Vader’s family had been forced to sell its ranch during the farm crisis of the 1980s. Today, what’s left of the ranch holds a mobile home, a horse pen, and little else. A few wealthy families own most of the county’s private ranchland. The property’s sale was one of her formative experiences. Her sense of having once held and now lost something dear could not be separated from other, less concrete losses: her ranching town overrun with tourists during the summer, agriculture’s decline as a cultural force, a hunch that people worked harder back in the day. Vader’s default conservatism —– her nostalgia for an era that might not have been as great as she remembers —– makes some sense in this context. But she remains a landowner, a status that millions of Americans cannot hope to achieve. If economic change can help create distinct rural identities, those identities can also become relatively uncoupled from material realities, spiraling out in unpredictable ways that may not easily trace back to economic conditions.
In his book The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin summarizes the mindset of conservatives like Vader:
People who aren’t conservative often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess.
The conservative mindset that Robin describes is widespread, but it is not absolute, even on an individual level. Vader’s primary issue during the race, one that she stressed throughout the campaign, was a local affordable housing crisis, which she supported radical measures to address. (Politics may be national, but major party categories are still scrambled at the local level.) There’s evidence that the political makeup of rural America is neither as simplistic, nor as homogenous, as either major party’s treatment of it would lead us to believe. The past six months have seen one of the most sustained periods of labor activity in decades. More than a dozen strikes and unionization efforts are happening around the country right now, many of them in small towns and midsize industrial cities in rural areas. Every day, reports appear of workers walking off jobs that demand too much for too little pay. For months this past fall, John Deere workers stood on picket lines in towns in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas, and came away with pay increases and a strong bargaining agreement. In late 2021, after strikes across the Midwest and Rust Belt that lasted more than two months, Kellogg workers won an agreement that removed a two-tier benefit system and ensured no factory closures until 2026. In Topeka, Kansas, last summer, several hundred Frito-Lay workers stopped working, alleging low pay, long hours, and unsafe conditions. Since April, Alabama coal miners have been striking — in November, hundreds protested outside the New York City headquarters of the financial giant BlackRock, the largest shareholder in the mining corporation they work for. In early November, simultaneous strikes in hospital maintenance and steelwork meant that three percent of the entire town of Huntington, West Virginia had walked off the job. Last year’s strike wave was preceded in 2018 by gigantic teacher strikes that began in West Virginia and spread to ten other states.
And in response, the Democratic Party has done nothing, as far as I can tell. Whether it’s a strategic lapse or an indication of the special interests Democratic politicians are beholden to is unclear. Either way, there’s no increased urgency to pass the PRO Act, no organized attempt to aid workers, to tap into this energy, to show which side they are on. At a broader level, it’s more evidence that Democrats neglect the internal class structure of rural America at their own peril. The rural gentry has real stakes in the status quo. There are also, if you set aside received stereotypes and pay attention, people working to change the way things are today. The inhabitants of rural America are as complex and diverse as people anywhere, and no less important. Forget the electoral map. There is opportunity here for people who are up for doing the work of politics: meeting people where they are, finding common interests, building institutional strength, and trying to persuade others to join in, while being guided by local issues and concerns. When change occurs, this is how it happens. And as for Democrats who think that this work isn’t worth it, or that rural America is somehow unworthy of their efforts, well, the joke is still on them.
Nick Bowlin is a freelance journalist and correspondent for High Country News.