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):
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.
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.
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.
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.