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.