An Alternative Explanation for Rural Resentment


An Ivy League sociologist and a Vox writer had a conversation about rural America, and it went about as you’d expect, as Rod Dreher notes on his blog. This exchange, for one, captures something important to our political disagreements (N.B., Wuthnow is the sociologist):

Robert Wuthnow

We found town managers and elected officials who were frustrated over the generalized anger toward Washington because it inhibited practical solutions from being pursued. These officials knew they had to secure grants from the federal government, for instance, but found it difficult to do that when local elections were won by far-right candidates.

I think the concerns about moral decline often miss the mark. I think a lot of white Americans in these small towns are simply reacting against a country that is becoming more diverse — racially, religiously, and culturally. They just don’t how to deal with it. And that’s why you’re seeing this spike in white nationalism.

Sean Illing

Which is why I’d argue that the divide between rural and urban America is becoming unbridgeable. We can talk all we like about the sanctity of these small communities and the traditional values that hold them together, but, as you say, many of the people who live in these places hold racist views and support racist candidates and we can’t accommodate that.

Robert Wuthnow

Yes, this is one of the most difficult aspects of the discussion we’re now having about morality in America. What counts as moral varies so much from place to place. In the South, for example, you have clergy who are vehement about abortion or homosexuality, and they preach this in the pulpits every Sunday. But then they turn a blind eye to policies that hurt the poor or discriminate against minorities.

Sean Illing

I know a lot of people who don’t live in rural America are tired of being told they need to understand all these resentments.

Take special note of Illing’s twin sentiments:

  • “We can’t accommodate that,” and
  • we’re “tired of being told [we] need to understand all these resentments.”

The urban, coastal Illings believe themselves just to be better, more-enlightened people.  The idea of having to adjust for the backwards beliefs of their moral inferiors simply for the sake of abstractions like national unity and democracy is clearly aggravating.  We’re trying to assemble a fine social machine, and we’ve learned how a lot of the pieces are supposed to go together.  Why should we accept the delay and errors of people who don’t even understand how the machine is supposed to work?  Of course, there’s an opposite version of this attitude on the other side, among those who don’t want to rush because the people charging forward with the construction don’t even understand what the machine is supposed to do.

The mutual nature of these disagreements brings up an important question:  Why do we need to accommodate views we find repugnant and understand resentments we find baseless and objectionable in their premises?

Well, for the most part, we need to accommodate others’ views because urban and coastal progressives want to their values and tastes to govern the entire country.  Wuthnow alludes to one of the levers by which they pursue that end (federal grants), but there are many others, and many that are less voluntary.

The elite class, in other words, wants to be able to go anywhere in the country — no matter how briefly — and find that its values are affirmed by the locals, at least when it counts.  It isn’t that the rural folk don’t know how to deal with diversity, as Wuthnow suggests, but that “diversity” has become an excuse to impose the rules that the elites would prefer regardless of the color variety of the country.  “Diversity,” in other words, is another word for “everybody but you.”

This is true not only in the sense that “diversity” is a ruse, but also in the sense that the people of a rural American demographic are explicitly left out.  The down-side of superficial diversification falls on people who’ve faced great adversity, mainly by virtue of their lower incomes, but who share the skin color and national origins of privileged whites.  They are uniquely left out — sacrifices for the expiation of historical sins on behalf of the people who are actually benefiting in the present from the imbalances of the past.

The resentment, in short, may not be against a changing world.  People who live in the country do understand that life moves along.  Rather, the resentment may be against a powerful, privileged class that is actively blocking their way when they venture out of their neighborhoods and then working to invade those neighborhoods with their own ideology.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    This has long been discussed as the “artificial consensus” in academia. “We are the best and the brightest, we all agree, so we must be right”. Consequently, anyone who disagrees with us must be wrong, if not actually “hateful”.

  • guset

    “Why do we need to accommodate views we find repugnant and understand
    resentments we find baseless and objectionable in their premises?”

    Like civil rights, Justin?

    • Justin Katz

      Not every view you find repugnant or resentment you don’t want to understand implicates a violation of somebody’s civil rights.

      • guest

        No, but it certainly doesn’t help to leave the door open for those harbor those tendencies.

        I suppose you would “leave it to the states” to decide whether they want to give woman and minorities the right to vote.

        • Justin Katz

          The vote is one thing that certainly should be guaranteed.

          Leaving the door open for people who harbor those tendencies is a matter of those people’s civil rights. There actions they can’t call on government to take, but that they might want to take them if they could doesn’t invalidate their right to self governance.

          • guest

            Then who decides when “those people’s civil rights” infringe or block other’s rights?

            Your argument seems to be that people have civil rights to deny other’s civil rights. Do you support the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution?

            You may believe you have a right to oppose other’s civil rights, but you do not have a civil right to oppose them.

          • Justin Katz

            * In a sense, our entire system of government is about “who decides.” The answer is, basically, “the most small-d democratic process at the most local level possible.” At the federal level we definitely should have a hard-stop for “must be able to vote.” But Illing’s (paraphrasing) “those people are fundamentally racist, so they therefore should be discounted” is pretty much the same distance on the wrong side.

            * I think the 14th amendment was poorly constructed during an emotional time.

            * Of course citizens have a civil right to oppose other citizens’ civil rights. The boundaries of what they can do with government should be drawn and rigid, but they have a right to oppose the rights.

          • guest

            What is your issue with the 14th Amendment?

        • Rhett Hardwick

          ” “leave it to the states” to decide whether they want to give woman and minorities the right to vote.”

          It is a Constitutional requirement that “who gets to vote” is a matter for the states. That is why Constitutional Amendments are required to “create that right” on a Federal level.

          • guest

            Funny, many of you that like to carry a pocket version of the Constitution with you seem to have difficulty finding the 15th Amendment and especially have difficulty with (Article VI, Clause 2). Where can I find that “It is a Constitutional requirement that “who gets to vote” is a matter for the states.”?

          • Rhett Hardwick

            I perhaps should have said that the Constitution does not provide that the “right to vote” is a Federal right. Qualifications to vote in House and Senate elections are decided by each state, and the Supreme Court affirmed in Bush v. Gore that “[t]he individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.”
            Consequently, amendments were required to give the right to vote to blacks and women. It is not so much that the Constitution “gave the right”, so much as it is that amendments described reasons it could not be denied, and therefore eliminated some “state’s rights” to deny voting privileges.

            Article VI, Clause 2, provides that the right to vote cannot be denied for reasons of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. That did not prevent states from denying the right to vote to black women, because sex/gender was not enumerated. That required another amendment.

          • guest

            Not sure where you are going with your example. “[t]he individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.” refers to the Electoral College which has nothing to do this discussion.

            Article VI, Clause 2 is the Supremacy Clause of the United
            States Constitution. It establishes that the Constitution, federal laws made
            pursuant to it, and treaties made under its authority, constitute the
            supreme law of the land. It provides that state courts are bound by the
            supreme law; in case of conflict between federal and state law, the
            federal law must be applied. Many of the “states rights” yahoos don’t recognize this part of the Constitution.

          • Mike678


            §611. Voting by aliens
            (a) It shall be unlawful for any alien to vote in any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing a candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, or Resident Commissioner, unless—
            (1) the election is held partly for some other purpose;
            (2) aliens are authorized to vote for such other purpose under a State constitution or statute or a local ordinance; and
            (3) voting for such other purpose is conducted independently of voting for a candidate for such Federal offices, in such a manner that an alien has the opportunity to vote for such other purpose, but not an opportunity to vote for a candidate for any one or more of such Federal offices.