Monday, March 6, 2017

The Central Valley brand of conservatism

As a born-and-bred resident of the Central Valley (a small town outside of Fresno, to be exact), I make an effort to read everything I come across about the political habits of that region of California. This recent article in the SF Chronicle, an op-ed on the Central Valley's conservative voting behavior, raised some questions and thoughts that have been plaguing me since the election.

One of the most striking differences that I've noticed between a place like Fresno and a place like San Francisco is the emphasis on different sorts of jobs, and what values are reflected in choice of livelihood. To be a farmer in Fresno is a badge of honor, likely passed down for several generations. To be an up-and-coming tech startup company in San Francisco is, similarly, a badge of honor, but with a clear twist: the very newness and inventiveness of such a career is what makes it appealing to an urbanite, while the converse is true for ruralities. That is not, of course, to say there are never exceptions--people in San Francisco need skilled mechanics just like people in Fresno do. However, the distinction between resource-based jobs, which we know to be in decline, and "skilled" jobs like tech or finance, is certainly a significant recognizable characteristic of the rural urban divide.

The question remains: what is the link between workforce type and political habit? The author of the SF Chronicle piece posits,

Those in rural and small-town America — who were more likely to pump their own water, to worry about their septic tank and to fret whether the weather will allow them to profit or lose money — think, talk and vote differently from those who expect the tap always to flow, the toilet to flush regularly and to get paid on time, rain or shine, drought or flood.

As someone raised among a largely farming-dependent workforce, this theory makes sense to me. Those preoccupied with labor-intensive work from sunup to sundown are, naturally, very concerned about things that affect their daily livelihood, which can range from water storage management to increased regulation of livestock housing (see: the debate over how much cage space a chicken really needs). A farmer in the Central Valley understandably may grow frustrated when beset by the feeling that the people making the laws don't understand his day-to-day needs. A farmer may feel the pressure of eking out a day to day living, wholly dependent on whether he can afford his water allotment that year based on the projected price his almonds will fetch at market, while a Facebook software engineer may have the luxury of worrying about the homeless problem in San Francisco, and whether his local nature preserve will be well-maintained with tax funds this year.

In addition, statistics support the fact that rural Americans are more religious than their urban counterparts. This frequently manifests politically in voting behaviors on things like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Taken together, differences in labor types and religious prevalence are unquestionably a huge factor when considering the voting behaviors of rural America.  As a fairly recent urban transplant, I find myself somewhat sympathetic to both points of view. I understand the struggle and frustration that a rural laborer faces in California, feeling that his day-to-day needs go unmet while "big government" focuses on things that largely benefit the urban centers of the state. I also understand the importance of looking towards the bigger picture with regards to things like social welfare programs and environmental protection (again, not to say that those opinions are inherently incompatible, just a reflection of larger general trends). The (potentially unanswerable) question thus becomes, how do we synthesize this understanding into a solution moving forward?


dnlauber said...

Anne, thank you for sharing your perspective on the Central Valley's voting trends. As you know, I am also from the Fresno area. I too like to stay connected to news about the Central Valley.

I read the SF Chronicle article and a particular section stood out to me: "But urbanites are more assured that their degrees, good intention and sophistication properly bring prosperity and security. They more likely assume that they can move on to greater things than worrying about where their food, water and fuel come from." The author, Victor Davis Hanson, seems to suggest that education and sophistication create part of the divide in voting trends seen in the Central Valley and more urban locations in California. Yet, so many of my friends from high school went away to college in big urban areas, such as L.A. and Phoenix, and stayed true to their conservative roots. Many even publicly supported Trump throughout the election. How do you think Hanson would explain this?

I would also like to highlight recent news that the Fresno Mayor, Lee Brand, vowed that Fresno will not follow the common California trend of becoming a sanctuary city ( It seems interesting, and somewhat paradoxical, to me that a community which so heavily relies on migrant farmworkers would not want to provide practical protections to the people who form the backbone of the city's agricultural economy. However, such a political decision out of Fresno hardly surprises me. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Orchid64 said...

I think that a start is realizing that there are no "one size fits all" solutions and that rural and urban needs and culture are different so maybe laws and regulations need to consider population density.

Beyond that, if urban liberals wish to limit resource depletion in rural areas, they need to pay taxes that assist in the development of other industries in those areas. A vote to limit logging or fisheries or whatever should be attached to a tax increase to find alternative employment for areas which lose jobs. My best guess is that, if the people in Los Angeles or the Bay Area had to pay a .25% sales tax increase to protect owls and forests in the rural areas, they'd be less likely to vote for such prohibitive measures. Such types of support for rural people would go a long way toward saying that urban voters understand that their choices are harming rural economies, but they will do what they can to restore them with other types of investment.

As it is, when I lived in the Bay Area, I heard a lot of rural bad-mouthing about things like cutting down trees while those same people had cozy fireplaces that they didn't need for heat and a huge pile of wood in the backyard waiting to feed it - not to mention regular trips to Ikea for cheap furniture.

Wynter K Miller said...

Anne, you raise some interesting questions in this post; I am struck especially by your discussion of the differing perceptions of rural and urban populations with respect to professional values. This sentence from the San Francisco Chronicle articles speaks to the same idea: "What one place values does not necessarily mean much in the other." In a broad sense, I think it's obvious that rural and urban communities experience different problems (Orchid64's comments above offer some examples) and therefore support and oppose different problem-solving approaches. It seems equally logical that the experience of different hardships would give rise to different values. In communities that rely on industries like agriculture and resource-extraction, as in much of rural America, it makes sense that those types of employment would be more highly valued. Similarly, in communities that depend on professions characterized by physical labor, it makes sense that "skilled" professions in tech or finance would be less celebrated. That said, I'm not sure the Chronicle article gets it exactly right. In mulling over another sentence — "Urban elites seldom experience the full and often negative consequences of their own ideologies." — I'm struck by the thought that I'm not sure rural America understood the full and negative consequences of their own ideologies when they cast their votes in the 2016 election. Rural America seems to be insisting that open borders are bad for the country, despite the fact that our nation's food supply depends on undocumented farmworkers (see, e.g., As Hanson notes, rural America seems convinced that the Affordable Care Act was a political and economic misstep, and yet, repealing the ACA may have very negative implications, especially for rural America (see, e.g., To be clear, I am not at all discounting or invalidating the belief on the part of rural Americans that they are being regulated by regulators out-of-touch with their reality. There is surely some truth to that perception. I'm merely suggesting that the "age-old stereotyped divide between city and country" is not nearly a wholly satisfying explanation.

RGL said...

Like Wynter, I was particularly interested in the distinction of values created by differing employment held by rural and urban populations. Other than faith, the way a family earns their living is indicative of their lifestyle, values, and other aspects of culture. This in turn affects politics, as you noted.

I was put off by your statement that a "software engineer may have the luxury of worrying about the homeless problem in San Francisco." The rest of your article seems to merely compare and contrast lifestyles, job force characteristics, and politics, not making value judgments about whether it is more respectable to be a farmworker or a techie. I don't think it is fair to put down the techie merely because he lives in the city and has a well-paid job. Sweeping generalizations are not helpful to the conversation.

As far as a solution, I found what Assemblyman Brian Dahle suggested about re-distributing representation among California's districts compelling.

ofilbrandt said...

Besides spatiality, another aspect to be unpacked in the diverging values of the urban techie versus the rural farmer is the element of possibility of convergence. You may try to teach them to care about the other's values but I pose that there a missing element of possibility of being in each others' shoes that makes it impossible. Besides missing essential farm training, it would be impossible for a techie to join a community that builds trust by tracing family generations and lineages in a place. It would similarly be impossible for a community-minded farmer to succeed in an area prided on individuality and autonomy. My point is that not only are values different, epistemological differences create caverns of dissimilarity. Each's way of thinking is different.

Further, I think the point about voting on religious line is voting on party lines is oversimplified. While rural America may be more religious, it is not that religious people vote republican and atheist/agnostic people vote democrat. It is that white evangelicals and conservative Catholics vote republican specifically and because they are anti-abortion and against same sex marriage. The 2016 race showed that it doesn't really depend on the candidate. Hillary Clinton is a devout Methodist and Trump... I do't really know. This source points out he's a "twice-divorced, theologically challenged candidate who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault" pretty far from conservative values. The data is lacking on if these groups vote differently in rural populations than urban populations.

Kaly said...

I really appreciated this post because, as someone who grew up in a mid-size city, it can be very difficult to put mentally put myself in the place someone who was born and raised in a rural town.

In your post you mention how the people in rural areas don't have the luxury of considering the San Francisco homelessness crisis like urban techies (which I think might be more of a wealth thing than a rural/urban thing but I digress), and it made me curious about rural homelessness. Some googling led me to this article by the Pew Charitable Trusts In the article they made this point.

"In big cities, you see the homeless virtually everywhere, sleeping under a bridge or in the park, pushing around overflowing shopping carts. The rural homeless live in the woods, in tents or in campers, in barns and ice sheds. They crash on a friend’s couch. Or they’re living in a shack with no heat, electricity or running water—usually not far from where they were born and raised. Many of them are employed or underemployed."

Perhaps if the homeless in rural areas were more visible it might become higher on the list of priorities. Or perhaps many people in the community don't think of them as "homeless", so addressing the problem that way doesn't make sense to them.

Regardless, great post!

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

NPR and other news outlets' recent coverage of Devin Nunes, Congressman from /for the Fresno area who is the chair of the House Intelligence committee and a focus of the current Russiagate mess, has revealed a lot about Central Valley "rural" politics. Here's one terrific story about Nunes' background and strength in his district.

and here is a piece from the LA Times that compares Nunes with Adam Schiff and the "two Californias" they represent: