Saturday, June 29, 2024

"How 'Rural Studies' is Thinking about the Heartland" in the NYT

That's the headline for a feature story by Emma Goldberg in the New York Times.  The subhead is "What’s the matter with America’s rural voters? Many scholars believe that the question itself is the problem."

Goldberg's story leads with a mini profile of Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.  Goldberg tells of how Lunz Trujillo, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, felt alienated culturally when she headed off to Carleton College as a college freshman.  (And a lot of scholars who grew up in rural America have probably had similar experiences; I'm reminded of this 2006 essay, "Farming Made Her Stupid.").

Some excerpts from Goldberg's feature story follow: 

A Rural Renaissance

There is an obvious reason for academics’ neglect of the political urban-rural divide until recently: It barely existed.

From the 1970s to the early 1990s, rural counties resembled urban ones in their presidential choices, including supporting the Republicans Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan and the Democrat Bill Clinton. It’s only since the late 1990s that there has been a marked gap between rural and urban voting patterns in presidential elections, and it has widened ever since. In 2016, Mr. Trump won 59 percent of rural voters. Four years later, that climbed to 65 percent, according to Pew. And in the 2022 midterms, Republicans won 69 percent of the rural vote.
* * *
[R]ural communities can be wildly different socially. “When you aggregate to the national level, you lose so much,” said Zoe Nemerever, a political scientist at Utah Valley University. “I get frustrated especially when people talk about rural America as white America. In some states, it’s Latino America. In the Deep South, it’s Black America.”

Traditionally, political scientists argued that measuring the effects of place was just a proxy for looking at other parts of identity, like race or education. And because many did not come from rural areas, growing up rural didn’t tend to strike academics as a salient part of political identity.

Maybe because so few people fashioned themselves as “rural political experts” until recently, the few high-profile explanations for the rise of rural Republicanism were widely embraced by the chattering classes.

Goldberg discusses how Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas (2004) fueled some of the current generation of political scientists who are creating more nuanced narratives about rural voters based on carefully designed empirical research.  

Michael Shepherd read the book in high school, college and again in graduate school, and never changed his opinion. “I felt like it was pretty snooty,” said Mr. Shepherd, now a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, who grew up in Bardstown, Ky., the heart of bourbon making. “It really missed a lot of what was going on in communities like mine.”

And here's a great quote from Nick Jacobs, co-author of The Rural Voter (Columbia University Press 2023), a book that has attracted considerable attention.  

We contribute to the further denigration of expertise when we say, ‘This is what the experts say about these rubes and bumpkins.'  Who’s going to trust the experts when that’s what the experts have to say about you?

Importantly, Goldberg picks up on one of the key points Jacobs made following publication of Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman's White Rural Rage (and Paul Krugman's columns also using the word "rage" to describe rural white folks):  the distinction between resentment and rage. 

My beef with this Goldberg article:  she conflates "rural studies" with political science scholars who focus on rural voters.  That completely ignores the very robust discipline of rural sociology.  

You'll find lots of commentary on The Rural Voter and White Rural Rage (2024) here and here, among other posts on this blog. 

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