Friday, December 7, 2018

More conflation of the rural-urban divide with the racial divide--and more divisive language about what constitutes the "real" America

The headline in the New York Times Upshot feature is "Are Rural Voters the 'Real' Voters?  Wisconsin Republicans Seem to Think So."  I worry that it is one more feature from the progressive media, no doubt well intentioned, that drives a further wedge between rural and urban people.  The story does this primarily by conflating whiteness with rurality, by suggesting that rural interests (broadly defined) are synonymous with white interests and therefore necessarily racist.

Here's the background:  Since Tony Evers beat Scott Walker in the Wisconsin governor's race last month, the Wisconsin legislature has moved to limit the governor's power.  Make no mistake:  I see this as a huge problem and, as many media outlets have labeled it, anti-democratic (with a small "d").  Here's what the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Statehouse said after the 2018 election in which Evers defeated Walker:
If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, [Republicans] would have a clear majority.  We would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.
Now this is obviously a silly thing to say because Madison and Milwaukee are, in fact, part of Wisconsin, and the votes of people there count for just as much as those in rural places, which I understand are often called "outstate" in the Wisconsin context.

Here's how Emily Badger responds to this current controversy in her Upshot story for the New York Times:
In much of Wisconsin, “Madison and Milwaukee” are code words (to some, dog whistles) for the parts of the state that are nonwhite, elite, different: The cities are where people don’t have to work hard with their hands, because they’re collecting welfare or public-sector paychecks. 
The debate over whether Trump voters, and by extension Scott Walker voters, were motivated by racism v. economic woes has been dominant theme of news reporting and opinion pieces since the 2016 Presidential Election.  I have a file folder inches thick collecting stories debating the issue, and the vast majority conclude "racism."  Most liberal elites seem to have concluded that rural voters, as well as working-class white voters, are motivated more by racism than by economic woes.  Indeed, I've seem some pretty dramatic expressions of that, such as a Tweet by Amy Siskind stating that the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017, proves that support for Trump was racially motivated, "Jobs my ass," she wrote. "The truth is marching in Charlottesville." I thought this was a problematic thing to say because it conflated all Trump voters with those marching in Charlottesville, thus rendering all who voted for Trump white nationalists.  It was also a problem because it dismissed the economic distress that many Trump voters are in fact facing.

In any event, Badger's story continues:
That stereotype updates a very old idea in American politics, one pervading Wisconsin’s bitter Statehouse fights today and increasingly those in other states: Urban voters are an exception. If you discount them, you get a truer picture of the politics — and the will of voters — in a state. 
I don't think I agree with Badger on the point that urban voters are being framed as the exception.  I think rural voters are struggling to be heard at all, to have their concerns taken seriously.  Republicans may leverage that concern into an anti-urban message, and that anti-urban message will resonate with many rural voters because they don't feel they are getting their fair share of the commonweal or that they are getting the government support they need.   In short, I'm not convinced that rural voters are hearing the dog whistle or, perhaps more precisely, if they are that it is disconnected from their own sense of not having gotten a fair shake in recent decades.  Plus, I've often observed a feedback loop between economic concerns and racism; I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive. The more excluded and neglected rural and white working-class voters feel, the more likely they are to resent people they feel are getting more from the government than they are.  Many of those people are going to be urban, and some of them are going to be non-white.  Recall Arlie Hochschild's metaphor of the white man waiting in line for his turn, for economic opportunity and economic stability, only to see (or at least perceive) others cutting in line ahead of him.  Those "others" include women, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and--in the context of Louisiana--the brown pelican, which was protected by environmental laws. 

Badger's column continues: 
Thomas Jefferson believed as much — “the mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government,” he wrote, “as sores do to the strength of the human body.” 
Wisconsin Republicans amplified that idea this week, arguing that the legislature is the more representative branch of government, and then voting to limit the power of the incoming Democratic governor. The legislature speaks for the people in all corners of the state, they seemed to be saying, and statewide offices like governor merely reflect the will of those urban mobs.
For more on the rural-urban divide--and rural Wisconsin as "outstate"--see Kathy Cramer's book, The Politics of Resentment, which I blogged about here.  I don't recall Cramer, who did extensive field work for her book by holding focus groups all over the state, calling out the racial divide that Badger's piece would have us believe lies along the rural-urban axis.  But my memory might fail me on this point.  Another example of conflating rurality with whiteness in the midwest is here.

It's also worth noting that Sarah Palin surfaced the "rural America is the real America" argument back in 2008.  Remember Joe Six Pack?  Palin was to represent Main Street while Obama, the uber urban cosmopolite, represented Wall Street.  (Read more here on how the culture wars got construed as straddling the rural-urban divide during that election cycle.) That was just about 10 years ago, yet the extent to which we are now assuming all rural voters are white--and racist--has shifted dramatically in the course of a decade.

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.  Another recent post about the conflation of rurality with whiteness is here.

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