Robert Wuthnow’s new book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, is the best book I’ve read on the rural-urban divide in the United States in years. It may, in fact, be the best book I’ve ever read on the topic, and I’ve read a lot of them. That’s not to say that Wuthnow’s analysis of the socio-economic or demographic or cultural situation which faces that 20% (or less) of the American population which lives, broadly speaking, in “the country” as opposed to “the city” (or its suburbs, or its exurbs) is groundbreaking; on the contrary, most of his conclusions are simply careful elaborations of sociological data that he and others have addressed before. But in this short book, Wuthnow, a much-published sociologist who has long taught at Princeton University, demonstrates his strength as a listener and as a synthesizer of those things he and his many researchers have heard and learned over the years. It is 164 quick pages that every would-be pundit, or really anyone at all interested in the social divides which the election of Donald Trump made clear, ought to read.
Of course, reading it doesn’t guarantee comprehension. This was clearly demonstrated in a recent Vox interview with Wuthnow by Sean Illing, who again and again showed his inability to comprehend the possibility that the views of the people he’d just finished reading about, the people Wuthnow and others had interviewed at length, deserve to be taken seriously or at least on their own terms. (Wuthnow’s best response to Illing, one no doubt quietly expressed, came in reply to Illing’s incredulity that he should be expected to treat with respect some farm woman complaining–without, it must be said, any supportive evidence or context–that “the government” is going to prevent her from spanking her children when they misbehave. “It’s an interesting question,” Wuthnow is recorded as saying. “What does it mean for us to take that seriously? I guess my point is that she takes it seriously, even if we don’t or shouldn’t” [italics added].)
Illing’s reaction is similar to that which has all-too-frequently emerge from the overwhelmingly urban scholars and activists which have found the urban-rural divide a cause for concern in America over the decades. It was on display in Thomas Frank’s celebrated but blinkered What’s the Matter with Kansas?–a book that Wuthnow gives qualified praise to, but also criticizes as having been guided by a thesis more relevant to blue-collar urban workers in conservative states rather than actual country people, a criticism that he extends to Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land as well (pp. 2-5, 137), and other displays of that same attitude can be found all the way back through the 20th century, to H.L. Mencken and others. The fact is, being able to speak sympathetically (but not defensively!) about those whose lives have been mostly excluded from the global urbanization which industrialization and finance capitalism has increasingly made the social baseline of the whole human race–in the American case, the 30 million people who live in towns with a population of 25,000 or less–is just plain difficult. I think Wuthnow pulls it off, though, and that alone, completely aside from what can be learned from those whose voices he captures and interprets, makes The Left Behind a book worth reading with an open mind.
Why is Wuthnow’s ear so open to and respectful of what the hundreds of people that he and his graduate assistants have interviewed over the past ten years (an ongoing project that has resulted in a series of sometimes dense but always rewarding sociological and historical studies, including Remaking the Heartland, Red State Religion, and Small-Town America)? The easy answer, and probably the most accurate, is that he, unlike so many other of these commenters, has both personal memories of and an abiding, rueful fondness for the rural small-town world, particularly that version of it which emerged on the Great Plains, where he is originally from. A native Kansan, born in the 1940s, he has no illusions about the poverty and struggles which characterize those who inherited, like Laura Ingalls Wilder (whom he credits in Remaking the Heartland with having played a central role in updating the Jeffersonian vision of finding authenticity through “living in a region of farms and small towns”–Remaking, p. 69), the usually hopeless dream of achieving some kind of republican independence and self-sufficient agrarian virtue in such an unforgiving rural environment. Scattered through his books, you will find references to farmers he has known who have committed suicide, to young men who were desperate to hide the fact that they lived in dugouts without electricity or running water, to families who have fallen into division and anger–or fallen apart entirely–in the face of the pressures of working on a farm. Wuthnow does not sugar-coat the often circumscribed lives of those he has listened to so closely, nor has he listened to them uncritically. But neither has he dismissed out of hand the paradoxical complement to all of the above: that much, perhaps most, of America’s rural population feels pride and even a degree of confidence in their choice of a farming vocation, in their embrace of small-town life, their connection to the land. And that paradox, that ambivalence, is one he is both fascinated by and, obviously, attracted to.
That the present moment is internalized and responded to in paradoxical ways is one of the most important lessons one can learn from those whose lives are presented in The Left Behind. While Wuthnow uses the popular language of “rage” to talk about the Tea Party and rural America’s support for the manifestly unqualified Donald Trump, the truth, he frequently insists, is more nuanced, inconsistent, and complex–it is something which, according to Wuthnow, “even the people we talked to found it hard to understand” (p. 56). It is “a mixture of fear and anger,” a frustration at what they feel to be a fracturing of “the social expectations, relationships, and obligations that constitute the moral communities they take for granted” (p. 6). It is a “sense of loss, a feeling of grief,” one made more perplexing by the fact that for the most part the residents of rural America, far from existing in a media bubble of denial, recognize that they are “complicit….in many of these changes” (p. 56). After discussing declining and aging populations, the departure of job-providing businesses, demographic change, the global economy, environmental limitations, making do with declining standards of living, opioid addiction and meth labs and more, Wuthnow observes:
These are the difficulties that add to the sense of small towns being beleaguered. The problems are too big to handle alone, even though communities would like to be self-sufficient. Citizens want more and often contribute less in terms of volunteer time. Getting things done is less a function of local control. Rural communities have never been fully in charge of their own destinies, but the people who live there now have reason to feel they are even less in control than in the past….A farmer in Gulfdale offered an apt summary of the situation. “I just want to have more freedom,” he said, “but I don’t know how to get that.” (pp. 91, 105)
What kind of freedom do these rural people mean? This is Wuthnow at his most insightful: rural America, he asserts, has constructed over the decades a communitarian attitude through which “a sense of boundedness,” of actual spatial as well as conceptual identitarian and moral limits, affects how they view and find value in everything else (p. 43). This is not to say, in his view, that rural people are necessarily mired in racist nostalgia (though over 90% of rural Americans identify themselves as white Caucasians) or are psychological throwbacks to some independent, agrarian world (one of the most common laments which Wuthnow documents in The Left Behind is the absence in most small towns of the expertise needed to write successful federal grant applications, and in Remaking the Heartland, he shows in great detail how the people of western Kansas, far from being yeomen farmers on whom industrial agriculture was imposed against their will, had instead aggressively sought government contracts from the beginning, and had built corporations and co-ops to import Mexican workers to maximize profits from the sugar beet harvest long before IBP and its environmentally destructive meatpacking plants arrived). On the contrary, Wuthnow, on my reading at least, thinks there is no obvious reason to see the farmers and small-townspeople of the American countryside as any less subject to the individualizing impulses of modern life than anyone else. If we are to trust in his interviewing and research, it would seem that most rural schoolteachers want their students to pursue personal excellence and transcend their local environments (p. 61), and most rural residents seem to like big cities, appreciating their existence as the places their children and grandchildren find work and where they can travel to enjoy amenities which they don’t have in their financially strapped and culturally isolated small towns (p. 100). So it is probably not the case that the American countryside–obvious exceptions like Amish and Mennonite communities aside–harbors some non-liberal, non-individualistic, frugal and communal and pious perspective on freedom which the rest of America has lost. For the most part, it doesn’t.
But what it does have, instead, is actual, tangible, limits. In a small town (and for Wuthnow, and the people he interviewed, everything comes back to the small town; genuinely isolated country living, conducted without any regular contact with or participation in some town or county seat or some other central place, is rare to the point of non-existent), there a boundedness to where one shops, where one works, where one sends one’s children to school, and who one sees in all of those places. While the history of rural places, particularly on the Great Plains, is actually filled with upheavals and frequent relocations, the small size of these places, and their distance from other, larger places, has inculcated a strong emphasis on the familiar among those who live there. (Elsewhere, Wuthnow had observed that since “a small town seldom covers more than a few square miles….residents not only live in close proximity to one another but also share a common visual horizon….It is a circumscribed space with a name and an identity”–Small-Town America, pp. 52-53.) Again and again, in these interviews, the attachment rural and small-town people have to their places is expressed in terms of their attachment to this church, this festival, this cohort of friends (and enemies), this stretch of road, this celebrated event, this historical grievance, this smell, this pastoral scene. Their fear, Wuthnow thinks, is primarily one of losing connection to that particularity, that almost literally spatial positioning within a universe bounded by fields and forests and roads that lead into the distance and the people who farm and lumber and drive upon them.
This collective emphasis upon routines, repetitiveness, and “co-presence” (Wuthnow quotes sociologist Randall Collins on this point–p. 39), is, of course, a famous source of angst and rebellion, one which has provided a narrative for artistic escape for hundreds of years. Generally speaking, those people who want to leave, and can leave, do. After all, being in one’s own place, owning one’s own particularity and one’s own network of relationships and stable references, is exactly what those who long to breathe city air (remember: “die Stadtluft macht frei“!) often want to get away from, and the tension which that repetitiveness, that familial weight, brings into the lives of otherwise mostly modernized, mostly connected American individuals is a perfect recipe for an inferiority complex (one that, please note, Wuthnow observes rural people regularly acknowledging). But for all those cross-feelings, there are those who remain. And it is they who find instead themselves, willingly or otherwise–and many small-town residents, Wuthnow emphasizes, initially were definitely otherwise–taking solace in, and in turn contributing to, a moral conception of community that, above all, prizes the “the shared notion that what the community represents is right” (p. 78). Freedom to act is treasured–but the actions which are worth treasuring are those which arise from the bounded context one inherited and knows.
Such communitarian convictions can and do arise in any lived environment, of course–urban neighborhoods and suburbs as well as farming villages. The difference, though, is that the former two are seem by many rural dwellers as inextricably connected to the speed, bigness, and changeableness which characterizes modern urban life. And all those things–bigness, and the variety and unpredictability and factionalism which it accommodates–undermine the conceit widely shared in small farming towns: the idea that their town is a particular kind of moral community, within the bounds of which one can safely assume that everyone, whether rich or poor or (most commonly) just cobbling together a lower middle-class life, was connected together, that “everyone was the same” (p. 100).
Do rural people know this conceit, like any social conceit, when one looks at it closely, isn’t actually true? Of course they do; Wuthnow shows repeatedly that unavoidable deviations from the white Christian heterosexual conservative norm are recognized, and often–not always, perhaps not even usually, but often–tolerated. (Many interviews suggest that actual farmers, as opposed to those who are part of the service economy around them, are “far more informed than the average town-person in this regard”–p. 102.) But it is a conceit that makes possible a particular conception of freedom, authenticity, and community, all of which have both deep historical roots and real theoretical and moral value. And so it is in their collective self-interest to hold to it–with the result that often even the most self-critical small-town people feel a deep resistance to anything which threatens their bounded, routinized environment. Which then becomes self-reinforcing…and, as Wuthnow concludes, “you do not question what you do not see.” The fact that many rural people either literally do not see (because of their circumscribed environment) or otherwise are inclined to deny the local challenge of (because of their moral attachment to the rewards and virtues that their place has provided them with) that which is foreign to their bounded world–and in most small rural towns in America, that usually means non-whites, sexual minorities, intellectuals, liberals, religious dissidents, and non-Christians–has a predictable result: when small-town people learn (accurately or otherwise) that the federal government is favoring the interests of “people who live in cities and don’t look like you,” it is easy to believe (p. 161). The result is an unreflective anti-urban and anti-diversity bigotry which is hard to name as such, because it begins not with a personal animosity towards different people, but with a challenge to the supposedly self-sufficient and always longed-for boundaries and expectations of the rural world. That’s not an excuse for such; Wuthnow is pretty explicit in pointing our how paranoid and pointless (and, unfortunately, predictable) most of the confused frustration he documented was. But it is an explanation, and that’s a crucial first step.
Unlike many, Wuthnow grants the legitimacy–if not the accuracy–of those explanations. He recognizes the appeal of that sense of stability and boundedness, that social entrenchment in the land–after all, for a great many rural residents, it is a moral order that works. As such someone who left that ordered environment world but still recognizes its relevance, he has hope that that the gap between those who leave and those who are left behind can be bridged. (Don’t forget that there is plenty which those whose life was shaped by urban or suburban realities either don’t see or tend to deny about the land whose bounty they survive off of as well.) True, he suspects the political polarization which has been mapped onto the rural-urban divide has taken such deep roots that is it ridiculous to hope for a cultural breakdown which could change things overnight (he baldly comments that “the chances of Democrats winning local elections in counties that have been Republican for generations are nil,” which, actually, is more than I would say–p. 164). Equally ridiculous, one must conclude after reading Wuthnow’s many writings on America’s rural world, is to have any hope for some radical re-examination of how we have socially and economically thought about the landed resources at the heart of so many of America’s small towns. Wuthnow is a good, conventional, Hillary Clinton-supporting Eastern academic; he doesn’t appear to think much of the Populists (not any more than most of the farmers he interviewed did), accepts the arrival of agribusiness and school consolidation as necessary to the survival into the 21st century of those few rural, small-town environments which still endure, and the idea of him even asking farmers about agrarian, socialist, or distributist alternatives to their work, much less pushing them to hope for such, is plain silly. I think that’s unfortunate, myself (Wuthnow’s analysis of his interviewees’ comments, in my view, would have been much improved by the selective use of some Marxist categories). But that does not mean we can’t learn what he clearly regards as the most important lesson of his research: that the people who long for the small-town life, who are willing to remain behind on the farm or nearby it, really want that life to endure.
Throughout the history of rural America, Wuthnow makes clear, you have seen old patterns give way, and local elites accept a change necessary for their town’s survival (even if they never truly own up to the political backtracking and revising of self-conceits which accepting such changes always entails). The constant snort from actual (or, often, just self-styling) rural folk about how the political class in Washington D.C. lacks “common sense” is, I suspect, wearying to all the metropolitans and philosophical liberals who read this (which is, I suspect, just about everyone, whether we came from rural environments or not). But whether the federal government has such common sense or not, the evidence is that rural America does. When faced with their own local imperatives, “adapting to new conditions” (p. 164) is what they have always done. In actual fact, America’s small towns and farms no longer–if they ever did–pose that strong of an alternative to an individualized, capitalized, metropolitan nation. But so long as there is some way for those who love those places to hold onto their bounded horizons–even if it means learning to write that next federal grant, or hoping to catch some of that next wave of immigrants, or continuing to push for the expansion of Medicare–the historical evidence is that they’ll do so, or at least eventually come around to supporting those who will do so.
That doesn’t answer any questions about the long-term future of agriculture, health care, immigration, or the Constitution itself, of course, much less how any one political party can effectively build connections across the rural-urban divide so as to address any of the above. The basic social, economic, and political conditions of our mostly urbanized polity–of which rural America nonetheless remains an enduring part–need serious, perhaps radical, critique and change. But in the meantime, Wuthnow reminds us, that however slow the small towns of rural America may appear to act, or however stubbornly they tend to vote, they really are, and should be accepted as, a legitimate part of the national conversation, one that can make a case for itself on its own terms. They may not be the terms that more than 80% of us would choose given the chance–but they are terms which reflect a worthy perspective nonetheless.
Teaser photo credit: CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=283801