Responding to Rural America

When I saw the election results, particularly when I saw the distribution of the vote, I immediately thought of former Virginia Senator Jim Webb. As a kind of self-appointed ambassador to the Scots-Irish hill people diaspora, he’s said some things I thought wrong-headed or even insensitive, but he’s also helped me understand some things from their point of view. I was curious what he’d have to say about President-Elect Donald Trump.

Well, he gave a speech at George Washington University yesterday, and here’s part of what he said.

Hopefully the results of this election will provide us an opportunity to reject a new form of elitism that has pervaded our societal mechanisms. This is not quite like anything that has faced us before in our history. It has many antecedents but the greatest barrier, even to discussing it, has come from how these elites were formed, largely beginning in the Vietnam era, and how their very structure has minimized the ability of the average American even to articulate clearly and to discuss vigorously, the reality that we all can see.

Part of it was the Vietnam war itself, the only war with mass casualties – 58,000 American dead and another 300,000 wounded – where our society’s elites felt morally comfortable in avoiding the draft and excusing themselves from serving. As I wrote of a Harvard educated character in my novel Fields of Fire, “Mark went to Canada. Goodrich went to Vietnam. Everybody else went to grad school.” This created, among our most well-educated and economically advantaged, a premise of entitlement that poured over into issues of economic fairness, and obligations to less-advantaged fellow citizens. Writer and lawyer Ben Stein wrote many years ago of his years at Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Clinton, “that we were supermen, floating above history and precedent, the natural rulers of the universe. … The law did not apply to us.”

Part of it was the impact of the Immigration Act of 1965, which has dramatically changed the racial and ethnic makeup of the country while keeping in place a set of diversity policies in education and employment that were designed – under the Thirteenth Amendment – to “remove the badges of slavery” for African Americans. This policy designed for African Americans, which I have supported, was gradually expanded to include anyone who did not happen to be white, despite vast cultural and economic differences among whites themselves. More than 60 percent of immigrants from China and India have college degrees, while less than 20 percent of whites from areas such as Appalachia do. But to be white is, in the law and in so much of our misinformed debate, to be specially advantaged – privileged, as the slogan goes, while being a so-called minority is to be somehow disadvantaged.

Frankly, if you were a white family living in Clay County, Kentucky, one of the poorest counties in America, whose poverty rate is above 40 percent and whose population is 94 percent white, wouldn’t this concept kind of tick you off? Wouldn’t you see it as reverse discrimination? And wouldn’t you hope that someone in a position of political influence might also see this, and agree with you?

And part of it, finally, is that diversity programs, coupled with the international focus of our major educational institutions, have created a superstructure, partially global, that on the surface seems to be inclusive but in reality is the reverse of inclusive. Every racial and ethnic group has wildly successful people at the very top, and desperately poor people at the bottom. Using vague labels about race and ethnicity might satisfy the quotas of government programs, but they have very little to do with reality, whether it’s blacks in West Baltimore who have been ignored and left behind, or whites in the hollows of West Virginia. Behind the veneer of diversity masks an interlocking elite that has melded business, media and politics in a way we could never before imagine. Many of these people also hold a false belief that they understand a society with which they have very little contact. And nothing has so clearly shown how wrong they are, than the recent election of Donald Trump.

A decorated Vietnam veteran, Jim Webb has long interpreted most things through the lens of that war. Because I was six when the last American left Saigon and because my father was too old and my older brothers too young to serve there, I don’t share Webb’s experiences of the war on any level. I don’t have a before and after to make comparisons. What I do know it that my oldest brother was born in Germany because my father was sent there after college, and that he was draft eligible by 1974 and therefore had a personal interest in the progress of the Vietnam conflict during his high school years. I had to register with the Selective Service but I never faced the prospect of being compelled by my government to serve in the armed services.

I think more than the war itself, the decision to eliminate the draft created a chasm between our military and our elites. Perhaps during the war there were places like Yale Law School where people felt that they were “floating above history and precedent, the natural rulers of the universe,” but when it came time to make decisions about sending kids to fight in Panama or Kuwait this phenomenon was broader and a much larger segment of society could view the political decisions with a sense of voyeuristic detachment. I was a sophomore in college when Poppy Bush went after Manuel Noriega and I opposed the action because I couldn’t discern the real motivations for it, but it never occurred to me that I might have to participate. The soldiers were not my peers, but more like pieces on a Risk board.

On the other end of this, in the communities where many people still opt for voluntary military service, the experience of being a pawn with no say must have been experienced much more directly. And, yes, that experience began even when the draft was still existent but didn’t apply to college kids and grad students.

I think this sense of powerlessness and separation leads directly to feelings of resentment and anti-elitism. My impression is bolstered by the work of Prof. Kathy Cramer of Wisconsin-Madison who spent nearly a decade talking to rural Wisconsinites in preparation for her book The Politics of Resentment. She spoke to the Washington Post both before and immediately after the election and here is some of what she had to say.

What I was hearing was this general sense of being on the short end of the stick. Rural people felt like they not getting their fair share.

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resourcesThat often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.

So it’s all three of these things — the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.

What’s interesting to me is the sense of alienation that feeds racism, yes, but also a broader anti-urban, anti-intellectual sentiment.

What I heard from my conversations is that, in these three elements of resentment — I’m not getting my fair share of power, stuff or respect — there’s race and economics intertwined in each of those ideas.

When people are talking about those people in the city getting an “unfair share,” there’s certainly a racial component to that. But they’re also talking about people like me [a white, female professor]. They’re asking questions like, how often do I teach, what am I doing driving around the state Wisconsin when I’m supposed to be working full time in Madison, like, what kind of a job is that, right?

It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people.

To drive home this point, I thought the following was particularly illuminating:

Thank God I was as naive as I was when I started. If I knew then what I know now about the level of resentment people have toward urban, professional elite women, would I walk into a gas station at 5:30 in the morning and say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Madison”?

I’d be scared to death after this presidential campaign! But thankfully I wasn’t aware of these views. So what happened to me is that, within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.

What’s important here, I think, is to understand that racism is one part of a bigger set of resentments. People can argue over whether Trumpism is driven primarily by economic insecurity or by racial attitudes but it’s clearly driven by both of those things and also by a more general sense of voicelessness and lack of power and respect.

There’s definitely a component of deservingness involved, which gets to misperceptions about who works hard and who gets the lion’s share of federal assistance. That feeling is fed constantly by Republican messaging. But I think it’s wrong to focus too much on the individual components of this resentment and anti-elitism. Rather, the whole package must be considered.

One thing to remember is that these communities actually do agree with the Democrats’ critique of the Republican Party as an organization that isn’t looking out for them. This is probably the reason that Barack Obama did substantially better with them when running against a guy like Mitt Romney than Clinton did running against a guy like Donald Trump.

I was thinking about all of this when I read Jamelle Bouie’s piece yesterday: There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter: People voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes. They don’t deserve your empathy.

I liked Bouie’s piece in the sense that it was well-constructed and strongly argued and that it came from a place of moral seriousness. In his demand that people take responsibility and be held accountable for empowering a Trump presidency and all that results from it, I could find little to argue with.

Yet, I think we can do better than denying tens of millions of people any empathy. I don’t think we should ignore that we share a broad dissatisfaction with our elites, and I don’t believe in leaving anyone behind. Most of all, as I’ve been pointing out since the election, the left in this country has to reckon with rural America’s hostility if it’s going to ever have power again in state legislatures and in Congress. So, even if we feel that they’re undeserving, we need to temper that sentiment for reasons of self-interest if nothing else.

Now, Jim Webb has a way of talking about racial preferences that I find frustrating and problematic, but when he says that “blacks in West Baltimore…have been ignored and left behind” no less than “whites in the hollows of West Virginia,” he’s touching on something important. It’s important because it makes it easier to see how electing a champion (however flawed and ridiculous) like Trump is meaningful and validating to his supporters in a way that having the Obama family in the White House was meaningful and validating to blacks in this country. It’s important because it reinforces the point that our society has become dangerously stratified and that an elite governs us and makes decisions about trade and war without enough consideration for the people who will pay the price.

When Webb critiques the accomplishments of our multicultural and tolerant and highly educated society as being spread across a thin veneer at the top, he’s telling us something insightful and urgent.

He may still have a tin ear and he may have a constricted worldview forged fifty years ago in the jungles of southeast Asia, but he’s still worth listening to because his perspective explains a lot even when it isn’t consistently fair or accurate.

Democrats cannot afford to have rural counties in this country considering them such an enemy that they won’t give more than 20% of their votes to the party. They want more decision-making power and more respect and a more secure economy. They ought to have those things, and the left better get to work figuring out how to give it to them.

And, to be clear, electing Donald Trump will not give them the kind of power I’m talking about, nor am I talking about giving them more power to impose on our lives. I’m talking about the kind of power and economic security that will benefit the people of West Baltimore and the people in the hollows of West Virginia equally.

As for respect, that seems to be in short supply on all sides right now. A successful response to Trump and Trumpism will find a way to bring truckloads of respect back to our political discourse, because that’s what it’s going to take.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.