Ed. note: This piece was originally published in the Realistic Living Summer 2017 newsletter. You can find out more about the newsletter and the work of Realistic Living here.
Since the 2016 election, the label “white working class” has stuck to the non-degreed hourly wage workers who voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Over half the “white working class” live in rural areas. Journalists and political analysts are divided about the motivations that drove these rural white voters to Trump, with some insisting that they were angry about economic distress and neglect and others arguing that rural xenophobia, racism, and sexism were decisive. But there is another way of getting at what is happening to the politics of rural America, and that is to look at the images that rural people have of themselves and of others. In The Politics of Resentment, Katherine Cramer uses interviews with urban, suburban, and rural voters in Wisconsin to show how rural identity hinges on a sense of the rural dweller as a hard worker “who is systematically ignored and left out of the exercise of power” (p. 66). Thomas Frank’s now-classic What’s the Matter with Kansas? offers a glimpse of the rural dweller’s image of urban dwellers. According to Frank, rural people see powerful and oppressive elites aligned against them. These elites are not wealthy people and corporations motivated by profit or money. They are city people motivated by liberalism. For people who adopt a rural identity, liberalism is an autonomous social force operating independently of economics. The city wins even when rich people side with rural people because of the autonomous dark force of liberalism. “To be a populist conservative is to be a fatalist,” Frank writes, “to believe in a world where your side will never win; indeed, where your side almost by definition cannot win.”
To the degree that rural people have internalized these images of self and other, they have blinded themselves to two important features of their own experience. They have blinded themselves to the role of economic forces in the rural-urban differences they perceive. They have also blinded themselves to their own personal and collective agency. Here in rural north Texas, I have seen this rural fatalism play itself out in a myriad of ways. The destruction of Bois d’Arc creek to feed the Dallas metro area’s demand for water is said to be a “done deal,” long before contracts have been signed or environmental reviews completed. The county can’t spend money on infrastructure to make Bonham a more attractive place to live because “we’re a poor county, and that’s just the way it is.” Even our local progressives speak of rural people as ineffective. A few weeks ago, I heard a north Texas native progressive with a deep love for the area call local participatory planning meetings “pooled ignorance.” Rural political helplessness is accompanied by a background belief that, somewhere out there, someone with the right mix of purity and power must exist to save rural America. Rural people here are looking for a certain kind of hero, someone who is “successful” in a way rural people aren’t but who hasn’t become one of the citified “elites.” North Texas loves the reality TV shows Duck Dynasty and Fast n Loud. Both feature “real” hard-working people who have become “successful” doing things like making hunting decoys or restoring old cars. The first Republican since Richard Nixon to win in our rural county was the folksy, inarticulate, and rich George W. Bush. The inarticulate, rich, and crude Donald Trump garnered 79% of the votes of Fannin County (where I live) and 70% of rural votes throughout the United States.
Joseph Mathews called the imaginary savior the Everyman-Christ. Born of the “experience of the limitations of existence,” the Everyman-Christ relieves everyman “of the necessity of living their given life in the present situation.” According to Mathews, the Christ-event is always an assault on the Everyman-Christ, just as the crucifixion of Jesus was an assault on the Messianic expectations of his followers. Proclaiming the Christ-event is a matter of slicing through the paralyzing false security of Everyman-Christ, leaving the hearer of the proclamation with nothing but the good news of an open future and call to a decision. These dynamics of healing have happened recently right here in Fannin County Texas.
Citizen Organizing in Fannin County
In September 2016, dozens of people in northwest Fannin County met at the home of a local resident to discuss sand mining activity in their community. The Guardian has described sand mining as “the global environmental crisis you’ve probably never heard of.” The global urbanization boom and the use of hydraulic fracturing have so increased the demand for sand that has already depleted water levels along some of the world’s largest rivers, disrupting fishing, agriculture, and wildlife habitat. Since our local environmental education nonprofit Communities Organizing for Resources and Environment (CORE) had previously led a successful fight against a coal-fired power plant, these rural residents asked CORE to lead the effort to force sand and gravel mining firms to mine responsibly. No one, including us activists on the CORE board, had more than a vague idea of what that outcome might mean. But the CORE board saw that these rural people were directly experiencing something that was triggering a willingness to struggle collectively. For the moment, these rural dwellers were neither wallowing in resentment nor seeking saviors. And we saw this as an opportunity to organize.
The aim of organizing is to develop the kind of political power that doesn’t come from deep pockets but from the commitment of large numbers of people. Experienced organizers insist that this can only be built from within a community that has become aware of its situation and its agency. Organizing is not about being a leader. It’s about identifying organic leaders within the community that is directly facing a form of oppression, awakening them to their agency, training them, and equipping them. It is also about refraining from doing anything more than this. As the famous “Iron Rule” of the IAF puts it, “never do for others what they can do for themselves.” Though the craft of organizing includes facilitation methods, one on one dialogue tactics, pedagogical skills, and the like, the art of organizing is the art of not doing. Admittedly, it is a kind of not doing that involves long hours and multiple types of labor and either substandard or no pay, but it’s still a not doing.
Although organizing is a secular craft, it is also a spiritual practice. Organizing involves proclaiming the Christ-event. Organizers shatter the often-implicit false hopes, the Everyman-Christs, that keep people attached to daily routines and forms of compliance, private individualized transgressions, or busy work. It rubs people’s faces in the horror of a situation they already inescapably experience, and helps them relate to this situation as a call to responsibility rather than to imaginary escape. But organizing isn’t about the organizer bringing the truth to the hoi polloi. The only truth that an organizer brings is a truth that people already experience and want to escape but cannot escape. If that truth is proclaimed to organic leaders and those leaders respond, organizers turn decision-making over to these organic leaders. Organizing calls for a difficult refusal to lead, and this refusal is the contemplative practice of being with the neighbor in distress not as one who needs to be rescued but as Christ, and this form of “being with” means that the organizer exposes herself to a Christ event, to being addressed by these organic leaders.
At the next sand mining task force meeting, CORE talked about citizen power. Board members told attendees that, although the board was there to support their actions with the resources at its disposal, CORE was not the cavalry coming over the hill and that there would be no cavalry coming over the hill. “Take a good look at yourselves because right now at this moment you are CORE.” We said that “the sand mining companies have more money than we’ll ever have, more trained experts than we’ll ever have, more lawyers than we’ll ever have, and more lobbyists than we’ll ever have. What we have is people angry enough about what is being done to them that they are ready to share in running their own community. And that is citizen power.” And CORE board members watched people at meetings and between meetings, noticing who brought others to meetings, who seemed to know everyone, who received respect and deference from other residents. We focused on awakening these people to the possibility of acting collectively against unregulated sand mining not only in Fannin County but in Texas. We shared the little we knew about sand mining operations with them, and we answered their questions as best we could. We shared encouraging stories about grassroots resistance with them. But when there was a concrete task to be done related to leadership in the effort, we largely (though not perfectly) resisted the temptation to volunteer. We didn’t know it at the time, but the sand mining challenge was almost tailor-made as an assault on rural consciousness’s image of the outside savior. Few other communities in Texas have successfully fought sand mining and state and national advocacy organizations are not focused on it. Against this threat, local people really are on their own.
Within a month, people who were at these first meetings began talking about sand mining at county commissioner’s court. The rural families who were now CORE’s sand mining task force helped pack a town hall meeting where the county commissioners presented state senator Bob Hall with a proclamation recommending that the legislature mandate that sand mining operations reclaim the land they mine, and dozens of local citizens voiced their support for reclamation legislation. In the next few months, the sand mining task force members completed a three month action plan with facilitation help from ICA board member Randy Williams; hosted a forum wherein the owner of N-Tex, a local sand mining operation, answered questions from residents who live near his active mines; launched a blog featuring stories about and interviews with local residents about sand mining activity; gave interviews on public radio; filed complaints that led to TCEQ citations against local sand mines; toured local sand mining operations; and successfully opposed the widening of a county road that would have solely benefitted the large Fort Worth sand mining company purchasing land along that road. As of last month, residents of the area along the Red River who are directly experiencing the devastation wrought by the sand mining have come to occupy all CORE board officer positions. And most importantly, this group of citizens in a solid red county in a red state are taking on a Herculean effort and have identified large corporations as the enemy.
For these rural residents of Fannin County Texas, the appearance of sand mining operations in their community was a Christ event. The rural residents who have participated in the sand mining task force have seen the images of self, other, and imaginary savior animating rural consciousness shaken. They have experienced the death of their hopes for some ultra-competent and powerful ally, the creative power of their own collective acts, and the true shape and contour of the oppressor’s power. CORE activists like me have seen our own images shaken. We have been humbled by the relative uselessness of our own environmentalist connections to the problem at hand. We have been surprised by the vigor with which these Republican-voting rural folks have rallied to fight against corporate power and to push for regulations. We are a little less inclined to play the rescuer and a little more inclined to step back and give rural people space to exercise their wisdom and power.
The difficult work of organizing builds solidarity based not on some received story that reinforces given identities and friend-enemy distinctions but on shared action that, in taking on oppressive power, forces that power to reveal itself beyond the identities and stories that mask it. An organizing approach to addressing the political rural-urban divide in the United States isn’t as comfortable as reframing mass media messages for a rural constituency or parsing electoral maps to amass majorities without having to mess with rural America at all. It can’t be done from the safety of coastal urban enclaves, but involves sustained face to face interaction with the rural people and places that frighten us. It is a radical and risky option that won’t work without transforming organizers who leave the coastal urban enclaves as well as the rural people they encounter. It is a transformation of politics by way of spiritual practice.
Teaser photo credit: By Wikipedian, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55958727