Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rurality and the recent political attention to the white poor and white working class ...

The media have been flush in recent weeks with commentary on the role of the white working class, along with poor whites, in this Presidential campaign cycle.  One strand of the commentary is about how the Republican establishment has turned on those who had (apparently) become their base:  poor and working class whites who are now supporting Donald Trump.  I want to talk about how rurality is implicated in all of this, a topic (sadly) similar to my 2011 law review article, The Geography of the Class Culture Wars, about the 2008 campaign season.  I guess we can think of this blog post (the first in a short series) as Part II of that law review article.

Let me start with Thomas Edsall's piece in today's New York Times because he summarizes some territory that has been covered in recent weeks--well, territory that "began" with a couple of pieces in the National Review, the unapologetically conservative publication.   Edsall's piece is titled, "Who are the Angriest Republicans?"  He leads with these sentences:
Conservatives who once derided upscale liberals as latte-sipping losers now burst with contempt for the lower-income followers of Donald J. Trump. 
These blue-collar white Republicans, a mainstay of the conservative coalition for decades, are now vilified by their former right-wing allies as a “non-Christian” force “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture,” corrupted by the same “sense of entitlement” that Democratic minorities were formerly accused of. 
Kevin Williamson, a columnist for National Review, initiated the most recent escalation of this particular Republican-against-Republican power struggle.
Edsall goes on to quote some of Williamson's more incendiary comments:
They [the poor whites] failed themselves. If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog— you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be.
(emphasis added).  Note the mention of various rural places ... places that are mostly white.  (See more below)  And then there was this, to drive home the domestic v. foreign, rural v. urban distinction:
There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.
 * * * 

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.
Pretty harsh stuff, but it doesn't stop there.  There is also this quote from David French, also of the National Review, being an apologist for Williamson a week or so after Williamson's column appeared:
I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.
(For more on the drug issue, see this and this).

I could just stop at this point and again observe the focus on places like Tennessee and Kentucky and West Texas and upstate New York as proving my point that the white underclass has come to be associated with rural America.  But wait, there's more.  One of the examples that Williamson used in his initial column is from a specific rural place--indeed, a "hamlet"--called Garbutt, New York.  Here's the quote:
There was no Garbutt, N.Y., until 1804, when Zachariah Garbutt and his son John settled there. They built a grist mill, and, in the course of digging its foundations, they discovered a rich vein of gypsum, at that time used as a fertilizer. A gypsum industry sprang up and ran its course. Then Garbutt died. “As the years passed away, a change came over the spirit of their dream,” wrote local historian George E. Slocum. “Their church was demolished and its timber put to an ignoble use; their schools were reduced to one, and that a primary; their hotels were converted into dwelling houses; their workshops, one by one, slowly and silently sank from sight until there was but little left to the burg except its name.”
Here's the wikipedia entry on Garbutt, New York, the dying, rural place Williamson focuses on in his sad tale of population loss, of a rural place drying up and blowing away, so to speak, because its only economic engine eventually petered out.  To this, no talk from the right-wing about "just transitions" for these communities.  No, from Williamson, just this prescription:

They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
In other words, move to the city.  Indeed, that refrain is echoed by French's follow up piece:  
Kevin is right. If getting a job means renting a U-Haul, rent the U-Haul. You have nothing to lose but your government check.
If only it were all as simple as moving to town ...

There is more still to say about this conflation of poor and working class whites with rurality, including scholarly work that challenges us to probe the depths of what became known as white trash.  More on that in a subsequent post.

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