Sunday, October 23, 2016

"How rural America lost its F**ing Mind"- and why it's understandable wouldn't seem to be a great source of social and economic commentary, but David Wong beat those expectations earlier this month with a great article titled "How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind." Wong grew in downstate Illinois, and notes that part of the reason Donald Trump has done well with small-town, lesser-educated white people shouldn't be limited to mere racism. It's also because rural America has a very different experience than the America that lives around big cities, a point Wong reiterates by noting "[Illinois] isn't blue. Freaking Chicago is blue."

Wong notes these differences lead to major limitations in small-town America, but that these differences are largely ignored in media and therefore the consciousness of most Americans.
If you don't live in one of these small towns, you can't understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around the city is now a hundred-foot wall called "Cost of Living." Let's say you're a smart kid making $8 an hour at a Walgreen's and aspire to greater things. Fine, get ready to move yourself and your new baby into a 700-square-foot apartment for $1,200 a month, and to then pay double what you're paying now for utilities, groceries, and babysitters. Unless, of course, you're planning to move to one of "those" neighborhoods (hope you like being set on fire!).

In a city, you can plausibly aspire to start a band, or become an actor, or get a medical degree. You can actually have dreams. In a small town, there may be no venues for performing arts aside from country music bars and churches. There may be only two doctors in town - aspiring to that job means waiting for one of them to retire or die. You open the classifieds and all of the job listings will be for fast food or convenience stores. The "downtown" is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in WalMart's blast crater, the "suburbs" are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic...

And if you dare complain, some liberal elite will put out an iPad and type up a rant about your racist white privilege. Already, someone has replied to this comment saying, "You should try living in a ghetto as a minority!" Exactly. To them, it seems like the plight of poor minorities is only used as a club to bat away white cries for help. Meanwhile, the rate of rural white suicides and overdoses skyrockets. Shit, at least politicians act like they care about inner cities.
This is a great point. Because our media is based out of big cities on the coasts, the fact that much of small-town America has gone down the tubes in the 2000s and not recovered much (especially in ALEC states like Wisconsin) gets largely ignored by the media, even as the rest of American economy got back on track.

Because life in these communities is so limited, and the "American Dream" meme is "you can succeed anywhere if you are born into any circumstance", this naturally causes a conflict and leads a lot of those people to lash out at forces that really are keeping them down, but that they can't do much about. Sure, some of these people are very limited and made bad choices, but lots of kids in big cities do the same thing, and their lives don't seem to be shit...or at least the media notices that their lives are shit and rightfully recognize it as a PROBLEM that needs to be talked about.

So what do people in these small, isolated communities do? They turn to people who actually "feel their pain", even if that person is racist fool whose policies will leave them worse off. As Wong notes later in the column
The rural folk with Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I'm telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It's not their imagination. No movie about the future portrays it as being full of traditional families, hunters, and coal miners. Well, except for Hunger Games, and that was depicted as an apocalypse.

So yes, they vote for the guy promising to put things back the way they were, the guy who'd be a wake-up call to the blue islands. They voted for the brick through the window.

It was a vote of desperation.
That doesn't mean we should excuse small-town white people for falling for Trump or for accepting the racism and regressive mentality that comes with accepting Trumpism. But we should understand where it comes from, and try to deal with the different often-bleak reality that exists in small-town America in 2016. Instead, we have a DNC that concentrates on the "Obama Coalition" of educated whites, minorities, and others who believe that diversity and equal rights makes the country better off. And despite those values of respecting diversity being a good thing, what has often been ignored by Team DNC/Clinton is a strong platform addressing economic inequality, realizing that "free trade" with 3rd world Countries has eliminated jobs and reduced the wages of a lot of Americans who did nothing wrong, and cleaning up a corrupt government where the rich and connected are able to play by different rules than the rest of us in "99%-land".

Republicans have used this legitimate anger to rise to power in many states, despite having an economic agenda that makes the crappy life in rural America even worse (especially by defunding public schools, one of the few levels small-town America can have). Some of this is done by distracting older, rural voters with social issues like guns or abortion, because those are personal items that rural people can relate to over racial/sexual equity questions or how to best balance the state budget. It's also done by driving resentment against "educated elites"- (mo)Ron Johnson denigrating Russ Feingold as somehow being a lesser person because Russ chose to be a lawyer, politician and college lecturer vs Johnson's more "legitimate work" of inheriting his father-in-law's business is a great example of this strategy. People in small towns with HS education have little concept of the work that goes into obtaining a higher education, or the value that educational institutions give to a society, but they can see a local mill or business, and think most of those guys are legitimate.

Again, this doesn't excuse the mess and social damage that Trumpism has caused, and it won't go away after November 8 just because a sizablre majority of people of this country will reject Trumpism. These resentments in small-town America will continue, and those of us that live in states that aren't overly dominated by big cities will have to deal with these realities. If small-town America continues to be made invisible, the country will fail to reach its potential because we will have a sizable amount of states run by people like Scott Walker who take advantage of those resentments to win off-year elections, and then those GOPs will put in policies that do nothing to solve the chronic economic problems that make life in the small towns so depressing and anger-inducing, and that'll continue for years until the cycle is broken by a new Dem mentality, or because the rural population declines and dies off enough that they get outvoted for good. And that is not a near-term future that sounds any good for anyone.

PS- Here's a Saturday Night Live skit from last night, where Tom Hanks plays a rural white guy who kicks ass on "Black Jeopardy", because he seems to have a lot in common with the lives of the working/lower-class black people that the questions are geared toward. Well, until when they get to "Lives That Matter" question, and then the answers between Hanks and the two other (African-American contestants) seem likely to be a LOT different.

And you can bet that right-wing radio and rural white America will turn this into "see, look at how those Hollywood elites think of you." And far too many rural whites will say "Yeah, fuck them! What do they know?"


  1. These rural communities have experienced a multi-generational brain drain.

    90 some percent of the most capable have left. "Most capable" includes both the individual's ability and educational preparation for success AND the presence of a supportive family structure coupled with financial means to jump the walls.

    Looking at these small communities which are left behind, anyone must leave to obtain a college education and or advanced job skills. If one succeeds at this, they likely will not return.

    The left behind are left to associate and have children with the others that are left behind.

    1. It really does set up a two-tiered society, especially as good manufacturing abd agriculture jobs dry up. The only job that requires an education is teacher, and those communities can't pay nearly enough to attract talent that can teach in other places, let alone offer a higher quality of life (and the Trumpism and Walkerism that disrespects educators and the educated makes this even worse)

      And as long as we continue on our path of inequality, this downward spiral will continue in many small towns.

  2. What do you suggest governments do to help rural areas? E.g. - should they try to get companies to bring back manufacturing jobs?

    Also, note the decline in the numbers of children up nort:

    1. Good article. I'd certainly say legitimate protections of certain manufacturing jobs are a start (i.e., no TPP or China giveaways).

      But also, we are in need of a rural WPA for the 2010s, and expanded broadband to increase rural competitiveness has to be a big part of that. Can you imagine how many FIBs might want to make their home offices in the Northwoods or other vacation areas if they had online capabilities similar to what they had at home?

  3. Wong is right. He accurately describes what life is like to many of my friends and family who remain in the small Wisconsin town I grew up in.

  4. I grew up in a small town in Missouri, and as Anonymous 6:21 has said, Wong hits the nail right on the head. I went ahead and got a college education anyway, but at great personal cost to myself and my family. And yes , it did involve moving away. Not everyone should do this. I understand the rural Trump voter, at least up to a point. They have been royally screwed by a country that they were taught to believe cares for each and every American.

    1. Anon and Peter- Thanks for sharing the insights. I didn't grow up in a small town, but I have worked a few years in my adult life in them, including teaching a couple of years in the LP- a Rust Belt town that talented high schoolers have to leave in order to end up better off than they are now. And that fact sucks.

      Peter's last line is the best. And it helps explain why they're so pissed off, because they're taught that America is the greatest country and that all people matter. But it's not really true, and that is hard to take for many.