Stop Treating Rural White Voters as a Monolith
Christopher Ingraham on the Importance of Understanding
The aftermath of the election prompted a new wave of analysis of the working-class voters who pushed Trump over the finish line. There’s a temptation to treat these white rural voters as a monolith. The sense often seems to be that they’re fundamentally different than their urban counterparts—on culture, on politics, and across so many other social vectors—and similar to each other.
Statistically, of course, there is some truth to this. There is a commonality out here. Nearly everyone is white. Most folks own guns. Many have a tie to the agricultural economy.
But it’s easy to overstate these commonalities. What was starting to become apparent by the 2016 election was that folks in this community—and probably many others like it across the United States—defy easy stereotypes. Yes, Red Lake County, Minnesota turned out overwhelmingly for Trump. But there are plenty of Clinton voters here, too. For me, nothing hammered this point home quite like selecting a group of guys for an interview based on my preconceived notions of what a Trump voter looked like, only to find out that most of them voted Democrat.
Our usual red state/blue state framework does a poor job of capturing the nuance in the country’s political landscape. If you’re just looking at a state-level map, it’s easy to come away with the impression that everybody in certain places votes one way, and everybody in other places votes another. But even in the deepest, reddest states in the country there are millions of people who vote Democrat, and conversely millions of Republicans in places like California.
If this is true at the state level, it’s even more so at the level of counties, cities, and towns. If you drill down to precinct-level vote returns, for instance, you realize that even in the heart of Trump country there are thousands of pockets of places where voters chose Hillary Clinton. Those voters usually live in the small cities and towns that dot the nation by the thousands.
Take West Virginia, the reddest state in the nation in 2016. Even there, islands of liberalism dot the landscape. Charleston? Blue. Harpers Ferry? Blue. Huntington? Blue. Red Lake County was, of course, dark red. But even here, Clinton managed to pull off a win in one precinct just outside the town of Red Lake Falls. She bested Trump by more than 2-to-1 in that precinct, a mirror image of the county results as a whole. Granted, just 23 people voted in that precinct.
Shortly before the 2018 election I spoke with Brent Lindstrom, the Democratic-Farmer-Laborer candidate to unseat Republican Deb Kiel in Minnesota House District 1b. Lindstrom was a union guy from East Grand Forks, a veteran, and a first-time candidate for state office. He expressed dismay at the state of progressive politics in northwest Minnesota, the apparent lack of energy and coordination in Red Lake County in particular. The county didn’t even have its own DFL party meetings, Lindstrom pointed out—instead, progressives in Red Lake Falls and elsewhere were encouraged to organize via Polk County.
Lindstrom ultimately went on to lose to Kiel by close to 30 points, nearly the exact same margin his predecessor had managed two years ago. A simple truth about politics here and everywhere else is that a lot of it simply comes down to what letter comes after the candidate’s name on the ballot—is it a D or an R?
Political scientists increasingly find that when voters make decisions on candidates, partisanship comes first, and policy concerns come after. This is good for political parties, and it’s good for media organizations that treat politics as a spectator sport. But it’s not necessarily great for voters. Progressive politics is very much alive even in the heart of Trump country, in its own quiet way. It’s deeply outnumbered, but it remains vibrant.
I recently met with some Red Lake County progressives at the farm of one Virgil Benoit, the uncle, as it turns out, of my staunch Republican neighbor Dan. Virgil’s family farmed the rich Red Lake County soil for the better part of a century but have since mostly dispersed. Virgil remains behind on what’s left of the farmstead. He recently retired as a professor of French at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and is the guy who puts together the annual French-Canadian festival in the long-forgotten Red Lake County hamlet of Huot.
Virgil and his wife, Sherry, were hosting a French dinner at the farmstead. Sherry teaches English at UND, including classes on literary theory. A guy named Dan Juhl and his wife, Mary, were there, too. Dan is a wind energy pioneer, one of the first people in the country to get into the business of wind in a major way back in the 1980s. He grew up in Red Lake Falls, went to high school here, and after living and working all around the country throughout his career he came back to the town and makes his home here.
Another UND professor, Sharon Carson, was there, as was a reporter from the CNBC based in Winnipeg, Pierre Verriere, who had met Virgil initially through reporting on our move to the area, and subsequently on the history of French and Native American culture in the region. Pierre was originally from France and had come to North America owing in part to an obsession with American culture as a teen. He was there with his girlfriend, Daniella, a native of Honduras who had immigrated to Winnipeg.
I mention all these names and professions simply to underscore that these are the kinds of people who also make their homes on the northern plains, far from the coastal centers of culture and power. Their voices and experiences are no less authentic or important than those of the blue-collar diner attendees who play center stage in so much of American media’s characterization of the heartland. When’s the last time you read a national media profile of these voters?
Politics is also experienced in a quieter, more personal way up here—that may be one reason yard signs for national candidates are so hard to find. Ideological disagreements tend to be hashed out in conversations between close friends, rather than shouting matches between strangers. Decisions and judgments about politics are subtler and less polarized than the election’s results might make it seem.
At Eagle Square, Bertilrud and Dahle were arguing over the severity of future threats the country might face.
“We’re nineteen trillion dollars in the hole,” Bertilrud said. “If interest rates go to five percent, we can’t even pay our interest.”
“I don’t give a hang about that,” said Dahle.
“Remember your great-grandchildren? They’re going to have to pay for this.”
Dahle wasn’t buying it. “They’re not even going to be alive if we don’t get this global warming done and get rid of the damn coal. They aren’t going to be alive if they can’t breathe!”
But at the end, the political talk was just talk and little more.
“We’re friends,” Dahle said. “Politics is one thing. You disagree, and then you go on with your life. You can’t hate people forever.”
Discussion soon turned to what Bertilrud intended to do, as the new mayor, about the plague of squirrels in Dahle’s backyard.
Unfortunately, if you’ve been following the news since the 2016 election, you know that most major media outlets’ coverage of rural areas hasn’t exactly improved. There’s been a never-ending stream of Trump-voters-in-a-diner stories, which stopped being useful or illuminating right around the time the final vote tallies were certified. There’s also been the rise of an entire cottage industry of partisan journalists who view themselves as Trump-whisperers, sending dispatches from Pennsylvania gas stations where wise rural voters whisper gnomic truths about politics that media elites aren’t prepared to hear.
Many folks in the media have reacted to their previous indifference to rural voters by bending over backward in the opposite direction, choosing now to perceive flyover country voters as keepers of a secret oracular wisdom that is something to be sought out, unlocked, and delivered back to the coastal public with wonderment.
This characterization of Trump country strikes me as offensive to everyone involved. It turns rural voters into a white working-class version of the magical Negro—patient, wise, close to the earth, existing solely to help the heroes of the coastal upper class on their journey toward enlightenment. It reifies the falsehood that rural Americans are somehow more real, more true, more authentic than the millions who call cities home.
Bad media coverage of rural areas didn’t start in 2016. As University of Minnesota sociologist Ben Winchester pointed out to me, the prevailing narrative of “dying rural areas” is shaped in large part by how media outlets cover these areas. In your typical rural America story, a newspaper from a large city sends a reporter to a small town for a day. He arrives at a diner or a gas station in the middle of the week, in the middle of a regular workday. The only people there at those times are retirees, because everyone else is at their job or taking care of their kids or otherwise busy doing whatever they do to make the world and their part of it a better place.
The gas station geezers, on the other hand, do what geezers everywhere do: they complain about how the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and talk about how much better things were 50 years ago. Their voices are the ones that end up in the story, simply because they’re the ones available to talk in a small town at 10 am on a Tuesday. Everyone else is busy.This offensive characterization of Trump country turns rural voters into a white working-class version of the magical Negro—patient, wise, close to the earth.
So the prevailing rural narrative in the national media becomes one of loss and decline, Winchester says. There is of course some truth to this—census data, for instance, show a relentless trend of migration from the countryside to the cities for at least one hundred years. But Winchester’s done some research that adds nuance to this picture. He’s found that the rural populations of certain demographic groups—particularly people between the age of 30 and 49—are actually growing. They tend to be relatively well educated and highly skilled. They have kids. They’re searching for safety, decent schools, a slower pace of life, and above all, an affordable cost of living. Sound like anyone you’ve read about?
In Minnesota at least, according to Winchester’s research, rural populations aren’t declining—they’re actually growing, albeit at a slower pace than big cities like Duluth and Minneapolis. Sure, the eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds move out of smaller communities—they pretty much have to if they want to go to college and get a decent start on a career. But by the time they start thinking about kids of their own, many are ready to move back. And many ultimately do.
“We need to write a new narrative about our rural communities, not the story of decline that we’ve been told since the 1950s,” Winchester said at a joint talk he and I gave together in northwest Minnesota not long after we moved to Red Lake Falls.
If there is one thing—one sole, solitary piece of information—that I can convey to you about rural America it’s this: rural America is not a nation apart. The people here are just as complex and fallible as people anywhere else. They consume the same media, cheer for the same sports teams, fight over the same political issues, and have the same hopes and dreams for their kids.
Excerpted from Christopher Ingraham’s If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now. Christopher Ingraham © 2019. Reprinted with permission from Harper Perennial.