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The white rural rage question II


I mentioned yesterday the controversy around Schaller and Waldman’s new book on white rural rage. Having not read the book yet, I cannot adjudicate every dispute about it. But it is worth pointing out some of the obvious analytical problems with the very defensive attacks on the book. For this post, let’s look at Tyler Austin Harper’s rant about the book in the Atlantic, which near the beginning has this very telling argument:

White Rural Rage illustrates how willing many members of the U.S. media and the public are to believe, and ultimately launder, abusive accusations against an economically disadvantaged group of people that would provoke sympathy if its members had different skin color and voting habits. 

First of all “voting habits” is a hell of a thing to just yadda-yadda. Whether people vote for reactionary politicians strikes me as quite material to the question of whether they, in general, are more likely to have reactionary political views. (Also note the use of the word “habit,” both typically agency-denying and papering over the critical point, raised by Schaller yesterday, that Trump’s support among rural whites increased as his support among the electorate as a whole declined between 2016 and 2020.) The language about “abusive accusations” and a lack of “sympathy,” meanwhile, is an example of exactly the double standard Schaller and Waldman are addressing. You can have sympathy for people and try to materially help them, while accurately describing their greater likelihood of having objectionable political views. This defense is just “Borking” applied to another context — the idea that it’s uncivil to accurately describe the typical views of a member of a group if some of these views are considered unattractive or pernicious. The “skin color” point should also remind us of another critical point Schaller and Waldman’s critics ignore — rural people of color have face challenges as or more duanting than those of rural whites but haven’t had the same turn to authoritarian politics.

Of course, the charges are unfair if Schaller and Waldman are wrong, but here Harper just doesn’t have the goods. The centerpiece of his argument — which I’ve seen quoted elsewhere — is an obvious logical error:

He directed me to the slide in his report cited by Schaller and Waldman to back up their claims. Schaller and Waldman rely on the slide to point out, correctly, that 27 percent of Americans with insurrectionist views are rural and that these views are slightly overrepresented among rural people. However, they ignore what Pape explicitly described, in big bold letters, as the report’s “#1 key finding”: that there are approximately 21 million potential insurrectionists in the United States—people who believe both that the 2020 election was stolen and that restoring Trump to the presidency by force is justified—and they are “mainly urban.” The authors fail to explain why we should be more worried about the 5.67 million hypothetical rural insurrectionists than the 15.33 million who live in urban and suburban areas, have more resources, made up the bulk of January 6 participants, and are the primary danger, according to Pape’s report.

This isn’t a disagreement or contradiction; it’s a difference of emphasis. A few points:

  • The fact that there are more suburbanites with authoritarian reactionary political views and the fact that rural whites are disproportionately likely to hold these views are two things that are true at once — this just tells us that many more people live in urban and suburban areas than rural areas. Harper and Pape’s way of looking at it is no more of less inherently correct than Schaller/Waldman’s.
  • If the United States held democratic federal elections and Rucho had come out the other way, I would be inclined to agree with Harper and Pape that the greater sheer number of urban/suburban white reactionaries would be a much more important focus than disproportionately reactionary rural whites. But we don’t and it didn’t. Rural whites are greatly overrepresented in national political institutions as well as some statehouses, which means that pure numbers don’t tell the whole story here. If white rural America continues to overwhelmingly MAGA, the composition of the Senate makes this tendency a major threat to American democracy even if there are more right-wing authoritarians in metropolitan areas. The increasing authoritarianism of the American right is a broad phenomenon — focus should be no means exclusively on rural whites, but they are also a very important component.
  • It is not comparably taboo to accurately describe the views of urban and suburban reactionaries. Pape’s point about 1/6 being more Brooks Brothers than Yankee Dollar is correct and important. But it’s also telling that apologists for 1/6 made the insurrectionists out to be more economically downscale than they were for a reason — contrary to the thrust of Harper’s argument the grievances of rural whites are treated with much more media sympathy.

Finally, he quotes a couple of scholars for the purposes of hand-waving:

Arlie Hochschild, a celebrated sociologist and the author of Strangers in Their Own Land and a forthcoming book on Appalachia, struck a plaintive note in an email to me about White Rural Rage: “When I think of those I’ve come to know in Pike County, Kentucky—part of the nation’s whitest and second poorest congressional district—I imagine that many would not see themselves in this portrait.” She added that these Kentuckians would no doubt “feel stereotyped by books that talk of ‘rural white rage,’ by people who otherwise claim to honor ‘diversity.’”

Kathy Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, a key work in the field that is cited by Schaller and Waldman, told me simply: “The question of our time is not who are the bad Americans, but what is wrong with our systems—our government, our economy, our modes of communication—that means that so many people feel unseen, unheard, and disrespected by the people in charge? And what can we do, constructively, about that?” It is a good question. The authors of White Rural Rage might have written a fine book had they taken it seriously.

The first graph amounts to “even if it’s true, you shouldn’t say it” — precisely the kind of condescension and denial of agency Schaller and Waldman are talking about. I agree with Cramer that this is not about “bad Americans” per se and that rural people face many structural problems, and “what can we do, constructively, about that?” is a good question. The problem is that AFICT none of Schaller and Waldman’s critics have a serious answer to that question either. We’ll return to this point in the next post, but you don’t need to have identified a solution to be able to describe a problem, particularly when the problem obviously defies any easy solution.

…I liked Murc’s response to the “feel unseen” formulation:

Are you actually unseen, unheard, and disrespected by the people in charge?

Because rural Americans are the most pandered to demographic in the entire fuckin’ country, and they wield massive, disproportionate political power.

Sure, they’re disrespected and denigrated in elite liberal popular culture. So fucking what? I will trade you Last Week Tonight and the New York Review of Books for two Supreme Court justices and three Senate seats, please and thank you.

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