Thursday, January 26, 2023

Red Politics in Rural America

Thomas Edsall in the NY Times, in a piece titled "The Resentment Fueling the Republican Party is Not Coming from the Suburbs":

As recently as 17 years ago, rural Wisconsin was a battleground. In 2006, Jim Doyle, the Democratic candidate for governor, won rural Wisconsin, about 30 percent of the electorate, by 5.5 points. “Then came the rural red wave,” Gilbert writes. “[Republican governor Scott] Walker carried Wisconsin’s towns by 23 points in 2010 and by 25 points in 2014.” In 2016, [Republican Sen. Ron] Johnson won the rural vote by 25 points, but in 2022, he pushed his margin there to 29 points.

In her groundbreaking study of Wisconsin voters, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, prompted a surge of interest in this declining segment of the electorate. She summed up the basis for the discontent among these voters, saying, “It had three elements: (1) a belief that rural areas are ignored by decision makers, including policymakers, (2) a perception that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources and (3) a sense that rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles, which are misunderstood and disrespected by city folks.” 

I would say it is absolutely true that most Americans don't pay much attention to rural areas and rural people. There are also real cultural differences between rural and urban people. The things is, there have been cultural differences between rural and urban people for as long as there have been cities, so I don't see how that is driving the changes of recent decades. It is also true that rural areas are declining economically and the government has no new ideas about how to stop this. But it is absolutely false that rural areas don't get their share of government resources; since rural areas are older, they get more Social Security spending, and many military bases are in rural areas, plus there is all the money we pay in farm subsidies, although these days that mostly goes to agribusiness rather than small farmers.

So why are rural areas getting more Republican? I was interested in this point, from political scientist, who wrote that the rising salience of cultural conflicts 

was accelerated when the Clinton administration embraced corporate neoliberalism, free trade and moved Democrats toward the economic center. Many differences persisted, but the so-called third way made it harder to distinguish between the economic approaches of Democrats and Republicans.

Since nobody is economically on the side of rural folks, as they see it, they might as well vote their conservative cultural views. Some people contacted by Edsall also emphasized the rural brain drain, the way college educated people almost all leave to move to cities.

I think it comes down to sense among rural people that they are losing; their population is falling, their economy is not growing, and nobody pays much attention to them; farmers are less culturally relevant than ever before. Of course Trump and his allies don't know what to do for rural folks, either, but by railing against city-slicker values I guess they make people feel a little better.

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