Monday, February 19, 2024

Billing indigent defendants for provision of constitutionally provided legal counsel

Lauren Gill and Weihua Li reported last week for the Marshall Project under the headline, "If You Can’t Afford an Attorney, One Will Be Appointed. And You May Get a Huge Bill."  The subheading is "In Iowa, people too poor to pay for a lawyer are on the hook for big fees they can’t afford. So-called “free” lawyers aren’t free."  Here is an excerpt that highlights problems in states other than Iowa:  

This summer, the American Bar Association released guidelines recommending that poor people shouldn't have to pay for a lawyer in criminal cases. But in Dothan, Alabama, for example, people charged with Class C and D felonies, which commonly include low-level drug charges, must pay a flat fee of $2,000. In rural Anderson County, in East Texas, people are charged $750 to plead out to a third-degree felony. If they choose to go to trial, they must pay $750 a day for legal counsel.
And here are some excerpts about the Iowa system--highlighting differences between rural and urban places, or what sociologists and geographers call spatial inequality. 
Iowa legislators recognize they have a constitutional obligation to cover indigent defense, which is paid for by budget appropriations, said state Rep. Brian Lohse, a Republican who chairs the Justice System Appropriations Subcommittee. But the fees are meant to deter repeat offenders, he said. “I think the purpose of that is simply to kind of hold them accountable a little bit,” he said of defendants. “So they just don't see it as a kind of gift.”

David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, an organization focused on indigent defense, disagreed. “The right to counsel is both a foundational American value and a 14th Amendment obligation of states owed to each and every defendant — it is not a ‘gift.’”
* * *
Out of Iowa’s 99 counties, just 13 have public defenders, who receive a state salary. Their offices are located in the state’s most populated cities. Iowa requires clients of public defenders to repay the costs of their defense, but these lawyers say that they often do not charge for all the time they work on a case. Public defenders had much higher caseloads than lawyers in rural counties.

Residents of the 86 more rural counties mostly rely on private lawyers who contract with the state to perform indigent defense work. Judges can also appoint other lawyers in certain circumstances. Iowans who accept contract lawyers are on the hook for the full amount of their services unless they can convince a judge to reduce the bill by filing a lengthy document within 30 days of sentencing. Current rates for contract lawyers are $73-$83 an hour, depending on the seriousness of the charge; paralegal time costs $25 an hour.

People who live in counties without a public defender are more likely to be assessed higher attorney’s fees, data shows. For example, in the decade between 2012 and 2022, Iowa charged an average of $391 per case. People in counties with a public defender’s office were billed an average of $312; those in rural areas were billed an average of $506.

Black Hawk County Judge Melissa Anderson-Seeber, a former public defender, said that she does not usually assess court debt against people who are incarcerated. When someone is free and working, she said, “I may not make them pay the full amount.” For people who are not employed, she makes them perform community service to pay back their court debt.

Another judge in the same county, Joel Dalrymple, has a different approach. A former prosecutor, he said he tends to consider whether people can make payments under a payment plan rather than one lump sum.

The billing indigent defendants for the cost of their defense is an issue I first became aware of more than a decade ago, when I was writing this about provision of this constitutionally guaranteed service in Arizona.  In short, it's not a new issue.  Since then, I've seen some coverage of the issue elsewhere, but without the attention to rural difference that is featured here. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Biden's investments in rural America

Farah Stockman wrote in the New York Times blog yesterday about the Biden administration's investment in rural America.  
Frustration in rural America, which has long felt left behind in federal attention and dollars, has been a major driver of right-wing populism. To counter that, the Biden administration has bet literally billions on the idea that federal investments can turn those places around. The infrastructure act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act all contained special incentives aimed at improving the economic prospects of rural towns and small cities across the country.

It’s too early to tell whether it worked.

Stockman then notes a recently published Brookings Institution Report seeking to assess just that--whether these investments are working.  In particular, it tracks "$525 billion in private investment in advance technologies like clean energy and semiconductors" and "found that a significant portion has gone into economically depressed places that hadn't seen those types of investments before."  Here's a bullet point form the Bookings Institution Report: 

So far, economically distressed counties are receiving a larger-than-proportional share of that investment surge relative to their current share of the economy. With comparatively low prime-age employment rates and median household incomes, these counties account for about 8% of national GDP but have received 16% of announced strategic sector investments since 2021.

The NYT blog post focuses on Haywood County, Tennessee and Matagorda County, Texas, which are seeing the benefit of these investments.  

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Literary Ruralism (XLIV): Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections and Saving America

In his 2019 book, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, Professor Ian Haney Lopez explores the best messaging to achieve cross-racial coalition building to support progressive causes.  Here's the beginning of Chapter 9:  The Race-Class Approach:
The Right’s core narrative urges voters to fear and resent people of color, to distrust government, and to trust the marketplace. The Left can respond by urging people to join together across racial lines, to distrust greedy elites sowing division, and to demand that government work for everyone. This is, to repeat, a core narrative, not a recommendation regarding precise language. This is the foundational scaffolding the Left can use to build a multiracial movement for racial and economic justice. The first box puts the core narrative into visual form. The next puts flesh on the bones, offering three versions of the race-class message. How did the race-class messages perform compared to dog whistle racial fear? We tested nine versions of the race-class message. Persuadables found all nine race-class messages more convincing than the dog whistle racial fear message. It’s an impressive result for a first run. Recall that familiar messages typically do better simply because they’re familiar. Those in the middle hear racial fear messages every day, and yet even when first exposed to the race-class messages, this group found all of them more convincing.

And here's the part that specifically references rural folks and their receptivity to the so-called race-class narrative: 

While much more research remains to be done and the race-class messages will certainly evolve, we’re confident the early positive results were not a fluke. Other groups subsequently tested versions of the race-class message and also report strong findings. Rural Organizing, a progressive group focused on rebuilding rural America, surveyed their constituents in 2018. Unsurprisingly, they found rural-specific messages to be very popular. For instance, this message garnered approval from 94 percent of respondents: “The rural and small-town way of life is worth fighting for.” Now compare how the novel race-class arguments did. Rural Organizing also tested this message: “In small towns and rural communities we believe in looking out for each other, whether we’re white, Black or brown, tenth generation or newcomer.” Almost nine out of ten, 89 percent, agreed. And this message: “Instead of delivering for working people, politicians hand kickbacks to their donors who send jobs overseas. Then they turn around and blame new immigrants or people of color, to divide and distract us from the real source of our problems.” Three-quarters of all respondents, 76 percent, agreed.3

In the summer of 2018, Latino Decisions polled more than 2,000 registered voters in the 61 most competitive House districts. They tested this statement: “Today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening our seniors with cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for our hard times at poor families, Black people, and new immigrants. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future.”4 More than 85 percent of respondents agreed.

These high levels of agreement are heartening, especially coming from rural areas and competitive districts where one might expect a more lukewarm reception.

We’ve also seen the race-class approach picked up in campaigns and by politicians across the country.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Extraordinary story of French farmer behind recent blockade in Southern France

Catherine Porter reported for the New York Times last week under the headline, "The Farmers' Protests Have Become a Wildfire.  He was the Spark."  The "he" is Jerome Bayle, and this story is largely about the 42-year-old former professional rugby player who has been running his family's farm since his father died by suicide in 2015, at age 61.  

The story's lede is catchy, for sure, and presents a real contrast between rural and urban: 
Jérôme Bayle had spent seven nights on a major French highway, leading a group of aggrieved farmers in protest, when the prime minister arrived, dressed in his Parisian blue suit and tie, to thank them for “making France proud” and announced he would meet their demands.

Before camera flashes and outstretched microphones, Mr. Bayle told Prime Minister Gabriel Attal that he had seen the standoff as a match between two teams — the revolting farmers, led by Mr. Bayle, and the government, led by Mr. Attal.

“I don’t like losing,” said Mr. Bayle, dressed decidedly more casually, with a baseball hat on his head, turned backward. The thick crowd around him chuckled. It was clear his team had won.

Then there is this bit, which provides a wider-angle perspective: 

More broadly, not just in France but all around Europe, farmers are complaining about rising costs from inflation and the war in Ukraine. Those burdens have been exacerbated as the governments look to save money by shaving farm subsidies, even as the European Union heaps more regulations on farmers to meet climate and other environmental goals.

You can hear Porter's further commentary on Bayle and his victory on the NYTimes audio of this story. 

Regarding the wider European angle, here's news yesterday of a Spanish farmer blockade. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Rural(ish) straight white guy becomes California senate's speaker pro tem

Mackenzie Mays brings us this feature of Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.  Here's the lede: 
On a foggy January morning in his hometown nestled in Northern California wine country, state Sen. Mike McGuire was at an elementary school doing a dance called the “wheelbarrow” and explaining insurance policy to children who were more eager to talk about their 4-H pigs.

The Sonoma County Democrat then rushed off, driving past rolling green hills and dewy vineyards, to have coffee with firefighters who are banking on him to help a region that has been repeatedly devastated by wildfires and often feels overlooked by state leaders.

At the Healdsburg Fire Department, a staffer struggled to get McGuire out the door in time so that he could make it to a Chamber of Commerce event three hours north in Eureka. There, he would partake in a hobby perfectly suited to his sense of urgency and penchant for squeezing as much as he can into the time he has: auctioneering.

* * * 

[I]n some ways, McGuire’s appointment comes as a surprise. He represents a rural district in a powerful position long held by senators from major cities. He is a straight white man helping lead a state that is predominantly Latino amid calls for more diversity in Democratic politics.

A prior post about McGuire is here.  Some other posts mentioning him and his vast coastal district are here

Here is an excerpt from CalMatters coverage of McGuire's ascension to speaker pro tem; it focuses on the rural-urban angle--and how long it's been since someone from the north coast has led the Senate:

But the optics of McGuire’s ascension are notable: It’s the first time since 1866 that a lawmaker from the north coast leads the Senate, the Associated Press reported. Alongside his Assembly counterpart, Speaker Robert Rivas of Hollister, both legislative leaders now hail from more rural, agricultural areas of California — a shift in the epicenter of power. McGuire succeeds Toni Atkins of San Diego, while Rivas replaced Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles County last summer.

I find myself skeptical that the balance of power between rural and urban will shift because of the presence of McGuire and Rivas, but we shall see.

The Sonoma Press-Democrat coverage includes a photo of McGuire hugging Pat Sabo, the chair of the Sonoma County Democratic Party--who was also his 8th grade math teacher.  Like the coverage I heard on Capital Public Radio, it mentions McGuire's grandmother, on whose prune farm he worked growing up.  McGuire was raised by his single mother and his grandmother, and he credits them for his work ethic. 

Monday, February 5, 2024

Racism in rural Vermont: 1890s

Vermont Public published a great story a couple of weeks ago regarding the 1890 disappearance of a Black preacher, John Harrison, in Norwich, Vermont and the failure to charge the man who confessed to his murder. It also details a place name with racist origins that may have derived from his presence in the community. You can read (or listen) to the story here. It serves a nice follow up to my previous piece on racism in North Carolina during the same period and a good reminder that racism wasn't the exclusive province of the South. 

This piece touches on a few interesting artifacts of history:

  1. The outmigration of people from rural New England in the 19th century. I've touched on this in previous writings but this article does a great job of illustrating the opportunities created by the holes that are left when people leave. In this story, Mr. Harrison ends up in Norwich to serve as a preacher, a job which had become less coveted because of the declining population. It is unfortunate that racial prejudice prevented him from fully taking advantage of the opportunity. 
  2. The racism that people of color faced outside of the rural South. The heart of the Abolitionist movement was in New England, but that doesn't mean that Black people were welcome in those communities. People wanted them to be free, but free elsewhere. 
  3. The erasure of records, which is a national problem for people of color and historically lower-income people. 
As a student at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire, I spent four years living across the Connecticut River from Norwich. The Upper Valley (as the area is known locally) is a beautiful community with an interesting history. I'm happy to see my former Sociology of Law professor, Deborah King, quoted in this piece and I am excited to see her research into Dartmouth's role in the transatlantic slave trade. 

Literary Ruralism (Part XLIII): GOP pollster Ruffini's Party of the People

In late 2023, GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini published his first book Party of the People:  Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP.  It's got quite a few references to the rural vote, and I'm going to highlight here some of the ones from Chapter 1, also titled "Party of the People"  (emphasis mine). 

The chapter leads with the assertion that political parties used to come down to class.  Increasingly, however, the key axis is between those with a college degree and those without one: 

The choice to finish college and to not finish (or event start) is now the choice that says the most about who you are and what you value in life—between self-actualization in a competitive professional field or an honest day’s work mainly as a way to provide for your family; between acquiring knowledge for its own sake or staying close to the people and places you knew growing up. Among whites, this basic cultural divide translated to a modest political divide in the 2000 election—when the concept of rural red versus urban blue first came into view—and a big one in the 2016 election, when one candidate intuited a path to power that involved making implicit cultural differences between the parties very, very explicit.

* * *

 Since a college diploma translates readily to higher incomes, the new education divide has upended the class divides that defined twentieth-century politics. As a result, the Republican Party now has more people in it who are in the bottom half of the income distribution than it ever has, while it bleeds votes among the wealthiest. 

 * * * 
Signs of the class role reversal are also present among Black and Asian American voters, where those in higher-income brackets voted a few points more Democratic than their lower-income counterparts in 2020. The crucial exception to this trend are Hispanics, the group where Donald Trump made his biggest gains in the 2020 election. On the margin, higher-income Hispanics voted 11 points more Republican in 2020 than lower-income Hispanics. In this, they resemble the white voters of the 1970s and ‘80s, a time when there was no appreciable education divide and higher-income members of the group were more likely to support Republicans. 
* * *
How did the class role reversal actually happen? Right in the title, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? talks about the phenomenon as one might talk about an unwell relative. In 2000, the country saw a hard shift to the right among rural voters, powering Bush victories in a raft of Clinton-voting border states or those on the fringes of the South, from Louisiana all the way up to West Virginia, a coal-mining state once considered the most Democratic in the country. Liberal readers craved answers about how poor, rural Americans could be tricked into voting against their economic self-interest. Frank’s story centers around his home state of Kansas, where Republicans had morphed from the party of the country club into the party of Sunday service—banking the votes of lower-income, deeply religious white voters opposed to abortion and gay marriage. In Frank’s telling of the story, it was the Republican bankers and donors in the wealthy Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills—where Frank Grew up—pulling the strings. “Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes,” Frank riffed. “Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization…Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking…Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes.” Mission Hills donors might grumble about the rural riffraff entering the party, but that was a small price to pay for a Republican majority that would deliver on their desired economic agenda.
* * * 
In Wisconsin, Clinton improved Democratic margins in the Milwaukee area, most prominently in the suburbs, but turnout in Milwaukee proper dropped by more than ten points, which meant fewer votes to hold back the rural red tide for Trump.

* * * 
Trump had surged all along the Mexican border with Texas, including a 55-point swing in rural Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley, nearly winning a county that Clinton had captured four years earlier by 60 points. He won next-door Zapata County, the first Republican since 1920 to do so. Votes were slower to report in California, but the surprise election to the House of two Asian American Republicans in Orange County, Michelle Steel and Young Kim, indicated a surprising shift in immigrant-heavy communities that was broad-reaching and not limited to Hispanics. With Trump’s coalition adding more working-class nonwhites and subtracting more college-educated whites, the pro-Republican Electoral College skew became more pronounced. 
* * * 
It needs to be repeated that Trump lost the 2020 election. Neither his gains in key groups nor his false narratives about a stolen election change this fact. But Trump’s performance was testament to the resiliency of a Republican coalition built around the working-class voter, which in 2020 had grown to include more nonwhite voters. The rise of multiracial working-class conservatism, once on track to merit but a small footnote in the story of a landslide Trump defeat, instead became a crucial reason why the election was so close.
* * * 
The challenge for Republicans in 2023 is to show that they can reap the structural benefits of Trump’s realignment of the American electoral without Trump’s chaotic persona at the top of the ticket. Post-Trump elections show this is possible. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the 2021 race for the Virginia governorship, for example, represented a wide-ranging advance from Trump’s 2020 vote in counties across the state—including a stronger performance than Trump in the state’s rural, working-class southwest. Youngkin deftly threaded the needle in 2021, running on a genial business-savvy reminiscent of Mitt Romney, while meeting the populist moment with a campaign against a left-wing, “woke” agenda in the schools and a pledge to suspend the sales tax on groceries.
This is just a smattering of the book's attention to rural voters and their role in this re-alignment.   Indeed, Chapter 9 is entirely about realignment in the largely Latino Rio Grande Valley, which has significant pockets of rural population. 

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Art Cullen on how Trump came between him and his long-time, small-town friend

Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize winning editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, and his column in today's New York Times is titled, "We were friends for years. Trump tore us apart."  Cullen leads with some background on his relationship with a group of men in his home-town, men he's known since Little League and often fished and played pool with.  Here's the part where things start to go wrong, amidst politics and the pandemic--and the politics of the pandemic. 
One of my old friends, or shall I say acquaintances, recently said on Facebook that I lacked integrity after I posted an editorial from our newspaper complaining about Mr. Trump’s contempt for the democratic process and rule of law.
* * * 
You would think we could see around our differences. We can’t. We’ve been programmed by nonstop propaganda, especially those of us in Iowa besieged by presidential campaigns and the wedge issues they drill home. Instead of trying to hash things out, I just quit trying. My bad. I got tired.

Small-town hacks learn who their friends are. We publish uncomfortable facts of public interest and opinions that often go against the grain. Businesses stop advertising because you wrote about their lawsuit. That I get. It’s a hazard of the occupation that I regret every day. You pledge to do better even when you have done nothing wrong.

The ad hominem attacks have become the norm, especially since Mr. Trump took center stage and refuses to exit. We went from Iowa Nice to Iowa Nasty. We’re stuck there whether Mr. Trump leaves or hangs around. That’s my lament.
* * * 
I know where I live. Northwest Iowa is a frozen slice of Texas, one of the most conservative places in the country. I guess I am what you call woke because I don’t think immigrants are the problem; I think income — lack of it — is the problem. All this talk about bathroom bills and book bans is one giant distraction from how global corporations have stolen our franchise. I am not the enemy of the people, dude — we were in Cub Scouts together.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Democracy Lost - Jim Crow Comes to Rural North Carolina

What would the fall of American democracy look like? 

The Jim Crow South provides us with a blueprint of how democracy can fall in America and the role that the media can play in making that a reality.  Telling this story helps us understand the history of rural Southern communities and their relationships with access to justice. 

Any person of color with ancestral roots in the rural South has ancestors who both lived through the fall of democracy and dealt with the aftermath. It would be difficult to argue that the Southern states were functioning democracies during the era of Jim Crow. After all, it was a single party region where leaders were often chosen by party bosses and where a substantial portion (in some cases more than half) of the population was systemically excluded from the democratic process. My ancestral roots are in North Carolina so I will focus on our experience with the matter, but you can find similar stories across the South. 

Post-Reconstruction North Carolina

North Carolina in the late 19th century was primarily an agrarian society. The largest city, Wilmington, was not even among the 100 largest in the country. It was also a reasonably politically balanced state. While the Democrats monopolized the governor's mansion after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the Republicans usually put-up strong showings in statewide elections. Republican strength in the state was buoyed by the newly enfranchised Black population and rural whites in the mountainous parts of the state. The Democratic Party was openly the party of "white supremacy." In 1892, the Wilmington Star even referred to white supremacy as the "corner stone of Southern society" in their plea to voters to support the Democrats. 

White Supremacist Rule Is Threatened

Democratic rule in North Carolina came under threat in the late 1880s, when a national recession helped birth the Farmers Alliance, which later led to the Populist Party in North Carolina. This chain of events presented an opportunity to Republicans, who frequently came close to toppling Democratic governors but needed an extra boost in order to do so. The Populist movement in North Carolina was driven by disgruntled farmers who were unhappy with the economic conditions that threatened their livelihoods. In the 1892 North Carolina's governor race, Democratic candidate Elias Carr won the election with just 48.3% of the vote. For the first time since Reconstruction, the majority of North Carolina voters had voted to reject the Democrats.

The Republicans saw opportunity, but the Populists were reluctant. The August 8, 1893 edition of the Progressive Farmer (which was founded by the Farmers Alliance) addressed rumors of a Republican-Populist fusion by saying that such rumors were unfounded, even going so far as to say that a Republican-Democrat fusion was more likely. Contemporary reporting also bears out that some Black leaders in the Republican Party were skeptical of the Populists and worried about their power being diluted. Their fears weren't entirely unfounded, North Carolina was the only Southern state in which the Populists were not working with Democrats. 

Despite the reluctance of the parties involved, the Republicans and Populists ultimately formed a Fusionist ticket and took control of the General Assembly in 1894. This victory also allowed them to elect one Republican and one Populist to the United States Senate. In 1896, the Fusionist ticket elected Daniel Russell, a Republican, as governor of North Carolina. 

White Supremacists Strike Back

In their coverage of Governor Russell's January 1897 inaugural address, the Raleigh News and Observer wrote that the governor "hates democracy because democracy stands for white supremacy." This was a preview of the tactics that Democrats would use to regain power in 1898. White farmers had aligned with Populists because of economic concerns and the White Supremacists hoped to bring them back to the Democratic Party by using race baiting. 

In the lead up to the 1898 election, newspapers across North Carolina extolled the virtues of white supremacy and its "essentialness" for democracy. A common tactic was to follow the lead of the News and Observer and equate white supremacy to the preservation of democracy and call it the "natural order." The Fayetteville Observer even ran advertisements (see right) saying that they were the leading advocate for "white reunion against black fusion."

This messaging was also prevalent in small town and rural newspapers. In late 1897, my hometown paper, The Robesonian (in Robeson County, North Carolina), which is located in a county with large Indigenous and Black populations, reprinted an article that said that white supremacy "is the child of necessity." In Craven County, the Goldsboro Weekly Argus printed an editorial in which it decried the fact that every deputy sheriff in the county was Black and blamed the Republican-Populist Fusionists. 

Throughout the year, articles were printed around the state that depicted individual Populists leaving the Fusionist cause over the race issue. In October 1898, the Craven County Populist Party formally renounced Fusionism, threw their support behind white supremacy, and encouraged their fellow Populists to follow suit. The Progressive Farmer held out hope that people would not be persuaded by such arguments. 

There was also the looming threat of violent voter suppression, especially at the hands of South Carolina's Senator (and former governor) Ben Tillman and his Red Shirts, which prompted Republican Senator Jeter Pritchard to ask President William McKinley to deploy federal troops to the state to ensure that everyone had access to the ballot. His request was denied. 

As you might expect, the white supremacist Democrats utilized a combination of violent voter suppression in predominantly Black districts and race baiting to whites to win back the General Assembly. 

Just two days after the election, white supremacists in Wilmington overthrew the city's majority Black government in the only successful coup in American history. The wheels of Jim Crow were in motion. 

And Jim Crow Begins...

Upon regaining power, the White Supremacist Democrats sought to keep Black voters from regaining power in the state. At the time, the Governor of North Carolina had no veto power so Governor Russell (who still had two years left in his term) could only sit idly by. To cement themselves into power, the Democrats proposed Constitutional Amendments that would create a poll tax and literacy test. It would require a popular vote in order to pass these Amendments. 

Democrats deployed many of the same tactics they had used in 1898 to win the passage of these amendments (and the governor's mansion). Tillman and Red Shirts were once again deployed, and the media once again resorted to race baiting. The Semi-Weekly Messenger in Wilmington even attributed the city's recent economic growth to "white supremacy." Not long after this, Wilmington lost its perch as the largest city in the state. 

My local newspaper openly championed white supremacy. In June 1900, a "white supremacy club" (see right for announcement in The Robesonian) was even organized to promote the cause. 

Unsurprisingly, the white supremacists were successful in their endeavor, Jim Crow became enshrined in the North Carolina Constitution, the white supremacists took back the governor's mansion, and democracy fell in North Carolina. 

North Carolinians of Color in 1900 woke up in a world where they were largely excluded from institutional life and forced to become observers of their state government. 

Understanding systems of power in the Rural South requires understanding the paradigm that dominated it in the first half of the 20th century. Democracy in North Carolina fell because of voter suppression and media-aided race baiting.  These legacies don't die overnight. 

Communities of color in rural North Carolina are still dealing with the impacts of Jim Crow. In a future post, we'll dive into historic poverty levels in Eastern North Carolina, home to most of North Carolina's rural POC population. 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

This NYT story about the youth criminal justice system in Maine screams "rural"

Callie Ferguson's story in the New York Times, "'Shame on Us':  How Maine Struggles to Handle Troubled Youth" uses the word "rural" only once, but the facts and circumstances are signaling rural, in particular the struggle to deliver services in rural places.  Clearly implicated in the problems are rural deficits in the services necessary to support and rehabilitate youth.  Here's a key quote:  

In Maine’s rural northernmost county, for example, certain intensive services that help steer adolescents from entering the justice system are not offered. The wait-list for another behavioral health program can reach 200 days. Getting in to see a therapist can take a year.

And here's a big picture comment: 

“The heartbreak of Maine,” said Lindsay Rosenthal, a criminal justice policy expert, “is that they have done so much on juvenile legal system reform to keep kids out of the system. Yet there just hasn’t been any action on building out the community-based continuum of care recently, or not enough action.”

This entire story is worth a read, especially for those who care deeply about young people.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Rural New York prisons closing, too

Legal Ruralism has featured several posts in recent years about the closure of prisons in rural California and the implications for host communities.  Now North Country Public Radio (NPR) is reporting that some prisons in upstate, rural communities in New York state are also closing--and for some of the same reasons: declining rates of incarceration.  Here's an except from the story: 
Earlier this week, Governor Hochul released her proposal for the 2024-2025 budget. In it, she proposed closing up to five state correctional facilities.

Local North Country politicians on both sides of the political aisle have expressed dismay and frustration over the proposed closures.

Democratic Assemblyman Billy Jones told the Plattsburgh Press-Republican that he was “highly disappointed” by the governor’s decision to close more correctional facilities, and said the closures would not “mitigate the rise in crime or increase safety in prisons.”
 * * *
Jones also expressed concern about how closures could impact communities in the North Country “who support these correctional facilities and depend on them.” State prisons provide hundreds of good-paying jobs to North Country communities.

In his own statement, Republican State Senator Dan Stec echoed similar concerns. “I represent several correctional facilities and the men and women that work there,” said Stec. “Closing them [correctional facilities] would mean a loss of good-paying jobs and have a devastating effect on our community.

There are 44 prisons in New York. Eleven of them are in the North Country.

That’s a lot fewer than there used to be. Since 2009, the state has closed eight correctional facilities in the region.

Monday, January 22, 2024

The Relevance of the New Hampshire Primary

On Tuesday, voters across New Hampshire will head to the polls to cast their ballot in the first official primary of the 2024 election season. 


New Hampshire Democrats are holding their primary in defiance of the Democratic National Committee's decision to move the first primary to South Carolina. For all intents and purposes, the New Hampshire primary will not count for the Democrats, and incumbent President Joe Biden isn't even on the ballot. For reasons we'll discuss later, this isn't entirely the fault of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. 


The Republicans are holding a contested primary, with former President Donald Trump seeking to become the first candidate since Grover Cleveland to receive a major party nomination in three consecutive elections and the first President since Cleveland to serve two non-consecutive terms. Trump's most notable challenger is former South Carolina governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who finished third in the Iowa Caucuses behind Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis (who quit the race mere minutes before I started writing this piece). Trump is the odds-on favorite - but Haley is mounting a strong campaign in New Hampshire. A Haley win in New Hampshire is plausible, even if unlikely. 


....But does any of this matter in 2024? 


The "First in the Nation" New Hampshire primary has long been a staple of the nominating process. For decades, candidates, their campaigns, and the media have decamped to New Hampshire for months on end, campaigning for the hearts and minds of voters across the Granite State. New Hampshire is a small state, both in population and geography. Candidates have historically taken advantage of this by holding smaller events, even going to people's homes to personally appeal to voters and their neighbors. It is not uncommon to see candidates marching in small-town parades.


And voters have historically rewarded this personal outreach. New Hampshire has revived previously thought-dead campaigns and placed candidates on the path to their party's nomination. Any follower of New Hampshire primary lore is familiar with Jimmy Carter's 1976 primary victory, which was powered by Carter (and his campaign volunteers from Georgia), who vigorously went to every corner of the state. There's also John McCain's victory in 2008 and Bill Clinton's stronger-than-expected performance in the 1992 primary (who earned Clinton the moniker "The Comeback Kid"). There are other examples of candidates over-performing in New Hampshire against establishment candidates, even if they failed to win the nomination (McCain and Bill Bradley in 2000 and Pat Buchanan in 1992 are two examples that come to mind immediately). 


The First in the Nation primary is so embedded within New Hampshire's political culture that its very existence is codified in state law. New Hampshire state law provides that, "[t]he presidential primary election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a date selected by the secretary of state which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier, of each year when a president of the United States is to be elected or the year previous." Given the existing state law, New Hampshire Democrats had no choice but to defy the DNC and hold their primary as scheduled. 


For those of us who care about rural issues, the New Hampshire primary holds a special significance. New Hampshire has a higher-than-average percentage of its population living in rural areas and is bordered by two of the four states with a majority rural population (Vermont and Maine). These facts have positioned the New Hampshire primary as a suitable venue for candidates to learn more about issues that uniquely impact rural spaces, which is important for candidates who may represent or govern predominantly urban constituencies. 


The Emergence of Trump 


However, the emergence of Donald Trump has challenged many of our assumptions about the New Hampshire primary. He won the 2016 primary despite engaging in a negligible amount of retail politics. He held large rallies, not house parties. He didn't march in small-town parades, and he did not go to people's homes. He didn't hold town halls, didn't take questions from voters, or open himself up to the traditional vetting process that New Hampshire has long prided itself on having. 


While John Kasich's strong second place (by far his best performance in 2016) indicated that some voters still rewarded personal outreach and engagement, Trump's victory challenged many conventional assumptions about how to be successful in New Hampshire.


The emergence of social media and the increased access to voters that it provided played a huge role in Trump's victory and the upending of the New Hampshire primary's "norms." Through social media, Trump and his surrogates could reach voters like never before. With social media, you do not have to be physically present in someone's home. You could visit them "digitally" by sending a tweet, and your surrogates could use Facebook groups and pages to speak to voters directly. Trump did not have to march in a small town parade because he commanded the attention of those in the virtual town square. Through social media, Trump could reach out to voters from New Hampshire to California with the click of a button. 


Trump also benefited from the nationalization of politics. One of the advantages of the New Hampshire primary has long been the fact that it isn't dominated by one media market. New Hampshire's communities are divided into the media markets in Burlington, Vermont, Portland, Maine, and Boston, Massachusetts. With only television news outlet historically serving the state (WMUR-TV in Manchester), there were few opportunities to utilize media in any kind of macro way. This placed an onus on candidates to do personal outreach and utilize local print media. However, print media circulation in New Hampshire has been declining and people are increasingly turning to national news sources, a process that social media has facilitated. This fact has created a de-emphasis on local issues and an increased importance on national issues, which benefits a candidate like Trump. 


Donald Trump proved that you could win a New Hampshire primary without doing anything that it was thought you needed to do to win. That is a seismic shift. 


If candidates can win in New Hampshire without engaging on local issues, is it still relevant for teaching candidates about rural issues? 


The New Hampshire Primary's Influence


The other side is whether or not the New Hampshire primary is even still influential for voters in other states. Now-President Joe Biden finished 5th and garnered only 8.4% of the vote in 2020. That kind of performance would have killed a campaign in previous cycles. But yet, Biden managed to win the Democratic nomination. The New Hampshire primary also failed to lift the campaign of second place finisher Pete Buttigieg or expand the base of winner Bernie Sanders. After Biden's win in South Carolina, it was almost as if the New Hampshire primary never even happened. 


Even in 2016, you could argue that John Kasich should have gotten a bigger boost from his second place finish. In 1992, Pat Buchanan parlayed his strong showing in New Hampshire into strong showings in other states. John McCain followed up his second place showing in 2000 with a strong second place in South Carolina and wins in other states. Kasich failed to receive any boost from his performance in New Hampshire. 


The question for Tuesday is whether or not a strong showing for Nikki Haley will even matter. Recent history indicates that it may not. 


So....does it matter?


The New Hampshire primary is certainly less relevant than it has been in decades past. Candidates can now bypass the traditional means of reaching voters and rely on nationalized outlets such as social media to "personally" reach out to voters. The impact of this is two-fold. Candidates no longer rely on the increased media coverage from a strong showing in New Hampshire to carry them forward in other states, and candidates can win in New Hampshire without pursuing traditional retail politics. They can also win in New Hampshire without engaging on local issues, missing an opportunity to learn more about issues that rural voters face. These facts have fundamentally reshaped the New Hampshire primary and I would argue that the primary's relevance has significantly declined as a result. 


All of that said, there is still a place for New Hampshire as the First in the Nation primary. Just last year, I wrote a piece in The Daily Yonder in which I called for the pairing of New Hampshire and South Carolina at the top of the calendar. The two states represent stark contrasts in the rural experience. South Carolina has more racial diversity and its agricultural past has been dominated by large scale agriculture. They also have deeper and more persistent poverty; thirteen of South Carolina's forty six counties are persistent poverty counties. New Hampshire has no persistent poverty counties and small-scale, subsistence farming dominate its agricultural past. Both states have similar population densities, though New Hampshire has a larger share of its population living in rural spaces. 


Candidates can still benefit from the exposure to rural concerns, even if the electoral importance of the First in the Nation primary has declined.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Chris Chavis Returns to Legal Ruralism

For the first time in four years, I am back on Legal Ruralism! It is a tremendous honor to be able to return to my former blogging home and contribute to the collective knowledge of rural access to justice and continue advocating for solutions.

Where I have been for the last four years? 

In December 2019, I was fortunate enough to land at the National Indian Health Board in Washington, DC where I was able to directly advocate for access to health care for rural Tribal populations. My specialty was Medicaid policy, which exposed me to politics in a variety of states. One of my first projects was advocating against Medicaid work requirements, which given their impact on rural populations was a dream come true. As we all know, March 2020 changed everyone's world and I was thrown head first into the world of health policy during a once in a century global pandemic. I conducted policy research and led advocacy efforts to preserve and expand access to health care for rural Tribal populations (who were hardest hit by the pandemic). I started out as a Policy Analyst and left in the Summer of 2022 as the Policy Director. This experience was transformative.

I left NIHB so my wife and I could move to her hometown of Los Angeles to start our family. Our daughter was born in October! In December 2022, my wife and I began working on what has become Chavis Policy Group - where we provide BIPOC and rural serving non-profits with policy research, advocacy, and campaign planning support. We also provide policy research and education on matters that impact rural and BIPOC populations, including the historical underpinnings of many of the systemic inequities that we see manifested daily in our communities. My return to Legal Ruralism is part of the latter initiative. 

I grew up in rural Tribal community in southeastern North Carolina and spent five years in Washington, DC. During my time in DC, one of the consistent themes that I saw was a lack of representation of impoverished rural and BIPOC interests in policy discussions. Chavis Policy Group seeks to change that. It makes no sense for the vast majority of the small nonprofits that serve rural and BIPOC populations to employ a policy staff, but it does make sense for them to be engaged in the policy process. 

I am looking forward to being active in this space again and going back to contributing (what I hope is) top-notch policy research and commentary. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

The role of rurality in Iowa's lurch to the right

The Iowa Caucuses will take place on Monday, and media outlets are chock full of coverage.  Particularly noteworthy in terms of attention to the rural-urban divide is this New York Times story by Jonathan Weisman headlined, "Why Iowa Turned So Red When Nearby Stats Went Blue."  While you wouldn't know it from the headline, it's very much a story about the role of rurality in presidential politics.  In fact,  Weisman uses the word "rural" 19 times.  I can't excerpt them all here (at risk of exceeding fair use), but I'll excerpt a few that I think are key.  A key theme: the impact of the the rural brain drain on Iowa's politics:    
Deindustrialization of rural reaches and the Mississippi River regions had its impact, as did the hollowing out of institutions, from civic organizations to small-town newspapers, that had given the Upper Midwest a character separate from national politics.
* * *
An analysis in 2022 by economists at the University of North Carolina, the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago of data gleaned from LinkedIn showed how states with dynamic economic centers are luring college graduates from more rural states. Iowa loses 34.2 percent of its college graduates, worse than 40 of the 50 states, just below North Dakota, which loses 31.6 percent. Illinois, by contrast, gains 20 percent more college graduates than it produces. Minnesota has about 8 percent more than it produces.

Even when young families look to move back to the rural areas they grew up in, they are often thwarted by an acute housing shortage, said Benjamin Winchester, a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota extension in St. Cloud, Minn.; 75 percent of rural homeowners are baby boomers or older, and those older residents see boarded-up businesses and believe their communities’ best days are behind them, he said.
* * *
The politics of rural voters in the Upper Midwest may simply be catching up to other rural regions that turned conservative earlier, said Sam Rosenfeld, a political scientist at Colgate University and author of “The Polarizers,” a book on the architects of national polarization. Southern rural white voters turned sharply to the right in the 1960s and 1970s as Black southerners gained power with the civil rights movement and attendant legislation, he noted.

But rural voters in the Upper Midwest, where few Black people lived, held on to a more diverse politics for decades longer. North Dakota, with its state bank, state grain mill and state grain elevator, has retained vestiges of a socialist past, when progressive politicians railed against rapacious businessmen from the Twin Cities. Even still, its politics have changed dramatically.

The entire story is worth a read.   

This excellent Washington Post piece by Theodoric Meyer, published today, compares a rural county (Decatur, on the Missouri state line) with a metropolitan one (Dallas, suburban Des Moines in central Iowa).  Here are two key paragraphs focusing on the rural-urban divide: 
While Iowa’s largely White small towns and rural areas have turned redder and redder, Des Moines’ prosperous, educated suburbs have moved toward Democrats. The divergence between Decatur County, where DeVore lives, and Dallas County, where Judge lives, has been propelled by the same forces reshaping the rest of the country’s political terrain, with voters increasingly divided along socioeconomic and geographic lines.

The shift toward Democrats in well-off Des Moines suburbs such as Waukee, Clive, Ankeny and Johnston mirrors Democrats’ newfound strength in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Phoenix, which helped Biden win in 2020 and allowed the party to retain control of the Senate in 2022. Republicans’ growing dominance of rural Iowa, meanwhile, resembles changes across the Midwest and the rest of the country that helped Trump win in 2016 and cost Democrats Senate seats in Missouri and North Dakota and House seats in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Both counties lie in the state's third congressional district, which has been a swing district.  Meyer quotes Matt Paul, who worked as state director on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign: 

You really have within the 3rd District the tale of two Iowas. You have one Iowa that is growing, that has new schools, a growing tax base, a strong housing market. And you have an Iowa that has school districts that are struggling to stay open, that have lost their employment base, that are struggling with the challenges and realities of small-town America today.

Also, don't miss this Los Angeles Times story about a Southern California family who moved to Iowa in 2022 because the politics there suited them better.  And this one last month by Jose del Real in the Washington Post, "A Harvest of Memories," out of Chickasaw County, Iowa  It's chock full of community and lack of anonymity.  

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Structural issues threaten California's rural hospitals

Scott Wilson writing in the Washington Post last fall provided a deep dive into why California's rural hospitals are faltering.  The dateline is Madera, California, and the headline is, "A hospital’s abrupt closure means, for many, help is distant."  

Here's some detail about the Madera closure (topic of this earlier post) and what it portends for other hospitals in rural California:

The shuttering of the 106-bed hospital here, which has disrupted health-care services across this region of vast almond groves and grape orchards, is the first of what state lawmakers say could be more shuttered rural hospitals.

And here's some structural analysis about why this is happening, which I've not yet seen elsewhere.  

California’s rural health-care system is teetering, a consequence of the pandemic’s long legacy, a broadly unhealthy patient pool due to higher poverty rates, and the imbalances in the way a rich state focuses its public health resources.

The dilemma exposes California’s widening east-west divide, a rural-urban split that helps define how the state government distributes resources for public health programs, education and other basic services. The eastern valleys and Sierra foothills, less populous and generally more conservative in their politics, have often been neglected by liberals from the coastal West.

In this case, the inequality comes in the form of often-inadequate government insurance reimbursements for rural hospitals, especially community hospitals unaffiliated with large health networks, and in medical education opportunities, which are scant to nonexistent across much of the Sierra Nevada and Central Valley.
*  *  * 
Across a state with the highest proportion of millionaires in the nation, 1 in 5 hospitals are now at risk of closing, according to a study released earlier this year by the California Hospital Association. Many serve the state’s rural redoubts, whose populations are often disproportionately poor and underinsured, and inner-city neighborhoods such as south-central Los Angeles.
Wilson quotes Carmela Coyle, chief executive of the California Hospital Association, a lobbying group that represents some 400 hospitals:  
We find ourselves at a time in health care, and for hospitals in particular, where finances are very fragile.  Like a family living paycheck to paycheck, that works until there is a financial shock. That’s what our hospitals face today — and the pandemic was that shock. They spent everything and now have nothing to fall back on.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Child care crisis in rural America, and the federal government's response

Kaiser Health News reported this week on child care shortages in rural America, featuring a story out of the eastern Montana town of Jordan (population 356), in Garfield County.  (I saw this story in WyoFile, a non-profit news site) Here are some of they key data points from a national standpoint.

The dearth of child care in many rural communities exacerbates workforce shortages by forcing parents, including those who work in health care locally, to stay home as full-time caregivers, and by preventing younger workers and families from putting down roots there.

Eighty-six percent of parents in rural areas who are not working or whose partner is not working said in a 2021 Bipartisan Policy Center survey that child care responsibilities were a reason why, while 45% said they or their spouse cared for at least their youngest child. Staying home to care for children is a responsibility that disproportionately falls on women, affecting their ability to participate in the workforce and make an independent living.

A report from the rural health advisory committee shows that when center-based care is readily available in a community, the percentage of mothers who use that type of care and are employed doubles from 11% to 22%.

According to the Biden administration, pandemic emergency funding increased maternal labor workforce participation, stabilized employment and increased wages for child care workers, tempered costs for families, and helped providers afford their facilities.

That funding included $52 billion in emergency aid allocated by Congress for child care program owners and low-income families.

It then mentions that the day care of Candy Murnion, in Jordan, was one of about 30,000 recipients in rural counties to get the federal grant.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

New podcast examines links between far-right militias and law enforcement in rural upstate New York

Read more about the series from North Country Country Public Radio
Far-right extremism is thriving in small, rural communities across the country, gaining the support of mainstream voters and local law enforcement. In this podcast from North Country Public Radio, reporters Emily Russell and Zach Hirsch investigate extremist groups and militia movements in northern New York State, why they’re drawing support, and what kinds of threats they pose at a pivotal moment for democracy in the United States.
The episodes will be available on January 15.  

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Who is the rural voter? Book builds on old themes to create new understandings

The following book review by Olivia Weeks was published by the Daily Yonder.

In their new book, The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America, Colby College political scientists Nicholas F. Jacobs and Daniel M. Shea set out to describe what differentiates the politics of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan places. Drawing on the largest survey ever conducted with the specific aim of understanding rural voters, they seek to explain the recent rightward shift of the American countryside.

While rural voters only make up around 15% of the American electorate, their emergence as a reliable conservative voting bloc has redrawn the maps of electoral politics. In 2008, Barack Obama won 43% of the rural vote. In 2016, Hillary Clinton claimed just 30%, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. Since then, the politics of the countryside have remained staunchly Republican. In response to that change, The Rural Voter asks two related questions: Why did the swing happen? And about which issues do today’s rural voters care most?

The latter question is easier to answer than the former, especially with the aid of such comprehensive survey data. The first thing the authors make clear about rural voters is that the extent of their conservatism is not explained by their being older, whiter, and less college-educated than the average American. Rural people are more likely to vote for Republicans, even when you control for demographic characteristics.

If you’re from a city and you’ve consumed much media about the countryside, that might not surprise you. You’ve probably seen a lot of images of homemade Trump signs standing high above vast cornfields and heard plenty about the Bible-thumping, gun-toting culture warriors who emerged from their villages to storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021. But, as our reporting here at the Daily Yonder shows, and Jacobs and Shea affirm, those images are dramatic misrepresentations of the politics of the countryside.

On hot-button social issues, partisanship is actually far more powerful than geography. According to The Rural Voter, ideologies of patriotism, evangelicalism, xenophobia, transphobia, anti-intellectualism, and anti-cosmopolitanism are not overrepresented in rural places. And rural Republicans are 10 points less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to agree with the idea that “abortion should be ILLEGAL under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.”

So, in some ways, rural Republicans are less conservative than their urban and suburban counterparts. But in other ways, they’re more conservative. On most cultural issues, rural Democrats think just like metropolitan Democrats and rural Republicans think just like metropolitan Republicans (the latter of which represent most GOP members, to be clear, since the metropolitan population is 6 to 7 times larger than the rural population). That said, we know from the Rural Voter Survey that the politics of the countryside are unique, even once we’ve controlled for demographic overrepresentation.

So what makes rural voters different? Jacobs and Shea found that four sensibilities separate the rural populace from the rest of the electorate. These are 1) an “overwhelming sense that their ways of life are discounted, mis-portrayed, and dismissed;” 2) an individualistic belief in hard work and its ability to outweigh the “discrimination faced by racial and ethnic minorities;”​​ 3) a deep sense of “economic anxiety, which translates into a collective grievance toward government, experts, and outsiders;” and 4) a “heightened sense of civic pride.”

While the first two features – perceptions of belittlement by outsiders and commitments to a bootstrapping mentality in the face of a highly unequal society – comport with broader media narratives about rural people and places, the latter two are less intuitive.

What could economic anxiety have to do with a rightward shift in rural America? Isn’t there just as much economic precarity in cities as there is in small towns? Wasn’t it a myth that Trump voters were blue collar? And what could it mean for outsized hometown pride to sit alongside such economic distress?

Culture or Class?


There were two main responses to rural America’s outsized support for Donald Trump. Some coverage decried the Clinton campaign’s disinterest in the economic hardships of sparsely populated places. Others in the media claimed that resounding rural support for Donald Trump was more a result of a backward looking cultural politics in the countryside than of material anxieties or Democratic neglect.

As historian Keith Orejel tells it, some journalists stressed culture over economics because of a deep and widespread misunderstanding of heavy industry’s importance to rural economies. Contrary to those who emphasize a static and backward-looking rural politics, he argues that rural voters have always been responsive to economic shifts.

According to Orejel, many political commentators don’t acknowledge that the type of agricultural work urbanites often attribute to small-town Americans had already been hollowed out by 1960. Farm work was being rapidly replaced by factory work as companies fled the higher labor and land costs of rust belt cities. Industry in the countryside was volatile after the mid-1970s but remained a crucial contributor to rural economic vitality through the year 2000.

In the first decade of the 21st century, however, rural industrial employment dropped by over a third. Unlike in cities, workforce participation and unemployment rates in nonmetropolitan areas never recovered to pre-Great Recession levels. So, Orejel’s economic history shows that, in the run up to 2016, there was plenty of reason for economic angst in rural America.

But political scientists like Diana C. Mutz have argued that such angst can’t explain Trump’s performance among white voters who don’t have college degrees. In 2018 she told The New York Times that there were a couple initial reasons to doubt the notion that Trump’s supporters were reacting to being “left behind” by the globalized economy: First, she says, that economy was actually improving for Americans in 2016. And second, according to past research, personal financial hardship rarely inspires shifts in individual voting behavior. Instead, “It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel,” Mutz said.

Do these claims apply to rural America? On the first point, we already know that economic recovery was less straightforward in sparsely populated places, even if the overall trends were positive. On the second, it’s worth asking whether individual “pocketbook concerns” are the only valid causes of economic anxiety. What of rural voters whose communities have undergone deep economic transformations in recent decades? Well-documented cases of depopulation and economic decline are not merely “symbolic.”

Other scholars have argued that Mutz’s widely covered study erred in its data analysis to begin with, and that “status threat” and “economic anxiety” are more difficult to untangle than Mutz acknowledged. But for our purposes, we don’t need to disprove all of Mutz’s claims to show that they don’t accurately describe rural Trump voters, who have only ever represented about a fifth of the former President’s total vote share. With the publication of The Rural Voter, proving that is easier than ever.
 
Linked Fates

By asking rural people – in more detail than usual – how they’ve metabolized recent changes in American life, Jacobs and Shea find that even rural voters who are doing just fine financially are politically motivated by a profound sense of economic anxiety, and not irrationally so. This finding rests on the importance in rural places of what the authors call “linked fates.”

To understand their concept, let’s consider depopulation in rural America. Trump won 90% of counties that lost population in the 2010s. Imagine you’re a small business owner in one of those places, and you’ve benefited from high rates of consumer spending in recent years. You’re flush, but your hometown went from 8,200 residents in 2010 to 7,300 in 2020 (like my own did). A loss of 900 people might not sound like a lot to some, but that’s an 11% drop. Does the fact that you’re still making money invalidate your looming sense of precarity? Jacobs and Shea show that, because rural voters understand that their fates are linked to their neighbors and their towns, they don’t think so.

As the authors write, economic deprivation does not distinguish rural Americans from urban ones. There is unbearable poverty in every American landscape, and if you’re asking whether city or country has it worse, you can make a defensible case on either side. On the other hand, to a greater extent than among other demographic groups, rural Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds experience economic hardship on the communal level, not just the individual. This is because, in small towns and on their outskirts, the poor live among the wealthy. “Unlike city dwellers or those living in suburbia, rural residents are especially attuned to inequality and economic progress in their immediate communities simply because those are more integrated places.” In this way, the precarity of the neighbor, town, and county are transmuted into individual anxieties, even among those with sturdy financial foundations.

But it’s not only socioeconomic integration that makes neighbors in rural communities feel like their fates are linked – on average, those places are also less diverse in racial and industrial makeup. The demographics of rural America are changing, but it’s still disproportionately white. For this reason, the authors write, “the racial and ethnic lines that define other political communities are simply not as visible in rural areas.”

Economic homogeneity, or the extent to which a place’s residents are dependent on one type of employment, is also greater in sparsely populated places, meaning that industrial shocks are felt by entire communities, not just one sector of the economy.

Since 1970, rural places have lost 48% of their jobs in agriculture, forestry, mining, construction, transportation, and production. While urban areas are not so far off, at 44%, the difference is that even 50 years ago there were many more urban Americans working outside these industries. Back then, less than a third of workers in metropolitan areas held these blue-collar jobs. That’s in comparison to roughly half of the rural workforce. At the same time, urban places have been better compensated by a larger and faster-growing knowledge economy.

So, while real rates of decline in industrial work were similar in rural and urban locales, the impacts of those changes on rural places in recent decades were nothing short of transformative. The shape of life in rural America changed, and it changed in towns and small communities nationwide.

When that shift happened, Jacobs and Shea write, fates were linked not only among the rich and poor within small towns, but also between small towns across the country. The political coalescence of rural America – the tendency for less populated counties from the Deep South, Appalachia, the West, or New England to all vote similarly – shows that a distinctive rural political identity has emerged all over the nation, among rural voters of all stripes.

This wasn’t always the case. As the fickle rural voter was rocked by late 20th century booms and busts in the globalizing economy, she bounced back and forth between the Democratic and Republican parties: “Country values, with their emphasis on self-reliance and social conservatism, often worked to the political advantage of Republicans. But that was offset, at least in some rural areas, by a sense of unease with the economic status quo.” In the meantime, as presidents from both parties pursued welfare retrenchment and neoliberal trade agendas, Democrats cast themselves as the party of progress, and GOP operatives wove together the backward looking “myth of real America.”

Jacobs and Shea write that, between the financial shocks of the 1970s and the Great Recession, “rural Americans were told [by Republicans] that the earth below their feet was giving way due to ignorance and the indifference of coastal elites.” That conservative story came to resonate with the many Americans who say their towns were better off in the 1970s than they are today. But Republican-spun narratives about the progressives that sought to replace small-town values with big-city mores didn’t produce a decisive political shift in rural America until Donald Trump’s election.

Conveniently for the Right, the progressive archetypes they’d emphasized for decades were embodied by no Democrat more thoroughly than Hillary Clinton. In the wake of her historic 2016 loss in the countryside, the former Secretary of State cheerily declared her party’s identification with places that are “optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” Jacobs and Shea show that, whether rural voters are personally cash-strapped or not, they are not optimistic. Conservatives cultivated the countryside’s swing to the right over many decades. Trump’s rhetorical empathy for those (especially white) Americans who felt left behind by the global economy, paired with Clinton’s unapologetic indifference to them, solidified it.
 
Why Don’t You Leave?

That story is surely incomplete, but it begins to explain why rural voters are likely to channel their uniquely place-based sense of economic precarity into mistrust in government bureaucracy and elites – often represented by the Democratic Party.

When it comes to the media, mainstream pundits earn the ire of rural Americans when they argue that people from struggling towns should be “more responsive to [geographic] differences in labor demand” (read: pick up and move), and express frustration that federal investments haven’t made sparsely populated places self-sufficient yet.

Those perspectives make two key mistakes. First, they frame the countryside as a dependent of the city – when in fact rural and urban economies rely on one another in countless ways – and fail to acknowledge that rural America is also a site of massive urban wealth extraction. Second, they assume that economic angst turns people against their towns.

As The Rural Voter shows, intense feelings of civic pride and place-based economic anxiety can sit side by side. While rural people are more pessimistic than urbanites about the futures of their towns, they’re also more attached to their often struggling communities than are urban and suburban residents, and less likely to want to move. That may be a counterintuitive combination of feelings, but – as it’s one of the key identifiers of rural voters from across the political spectrum – it’s a crucial one for urban politicos to understand.

Frustration with the direction your town is heading could produce a wide variety of secondary feelings – not exclusively a desire to move to a bigger city. To suggest that rural residents should flee their towns in hard times could thoroughly alienate them from mainstream media and politics.
Learning to Listen

As polling conducted in affiliation with the Daily Yonder recently showed, and the Rural Voter Survey affirms, rural people (like the nation as a whole) don’t think the economy is working for them, or for their towns. That’s despite its relatively good marks on traditional indicators like rates of inflation and unemployment. It also runs contradictory to the president’s claim that “Bidenomics is working.” The disconnect has many possible explanations. A simple one is that, despite inflation’s slowed growth, consumers remain keenly aware of recent price jumps for goods and services like fuel, groceries, housing, and childcare.

The Rural Voter offers another explanation, and it’s worth restating: in sparsely populated places, community-level decline is experienced individually, even in the absence of personal hardship. That type of economic anxiety was routinely minimized by progressives and other elites after the 2016 election. Over the next four years, the national rural vote only swung further to the right.

But that shift isn’t inevitable, and treating it that way undermines democracy. Competitive elections aren’t just good for Democrats. Having a real choice between candidates encourages genuine accountability and representation, two things severely lacking in communities losing local newspapers at a rapid clip.

In the conclusion of the book – with examples like Washington Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, and Maine Representative Jared Golden – Jacobs and Shea argue persuasively that, when Democrats show up in rural places, they don’t need to abandon their progressive values to be competitive. They do, however, need to understand what actually unites rural people of all colors, classes, and creeds. Reading The Rural Voter is a good place to start.