A new book details rural America’s angst and adaptation to a rapidly changing world

“You have to understand that people who live in a town of, say, 5,000 gain an important piece of their identity from living there and interacting on a regular basis.” — Robert Wuthnow, sociology professor
Frank Wojciechowski
In the age of Donald Trump, the divide between rural and urban America has perhaps never seemed more stark. Drawing on more than 1,000 interviews in small towns, on farms, and in rural communities, a new book by Princeton sociology professor Robert Wuthnow attempts to bridge that gap. 

In The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (Princeton University Press), Wuthnow challenges popular theories used to explain the growing rural-urban divide by focusing on the community-oriented nature of rural America. Some 30 million Americans live in towns of fewer than 25,000 people, Wuthnow notes. The identities of those residents — young and old, rich and poor — are tightly bound to the communities in which they live, shaping their worldview in unexpected ways.

What are some of the defining characteristics of rural America?

People in rural America live in communities. They value communities and feel obligated — not consciously, necessarily — to conform to community norms. That is a piece that everybody understands, whether you live in a small rural area or in a big area. That’s Sociology 101. 

What’s missed is that community is part of people’s identity. The way that it’s missed is by treating people in rural America as if they are separate, self-maximizing individuals. The assumption is people in rural America vote the way they do because they as individuals are resentful of urban Americans or resentful of people in Washington. That’s a view that is perpetuated by polling, and it is a view that makes sense in terms of politics because people do vote as individuals. 

But if you want to push behind the polls and experience life as people experience it in rural America, then you have to understand that people who live in a town of, say, 5,000 gain an important piece of their identity from living there and interacting on a regular basis with certain members of their community. They know the implicit ways of interacting with one another that are expected, such as knowing how to wave at somebody when you meet them on the road or knowing it’s appropriate to take a casserole to a neighbor who is sick. 

For sure, some of those same things happen, say, if you live in New York City. Maybe you identify with the New York Giants. Maybe you’re proud that you can go the Metropolitan [Museum of Art]. But you do have anonymity in urban places, and you have a much greater degree of selectivity in whom you interact with. You may well not know who lives in your own apartment complex.

What does that mean for the country as a whole today?

People in rural America feel that their communities are threatened. Threatened because jobs and young people are leaving. Threatened because the remaining population is aging and perhaps not as well off economically as they used to be. Threatened culturally — perhaps most importantly — because small towns are for the most part conservative. 

But they are also feeling threatened because the expectation is that government will understand or help. So when they see that not happening or when they experience unfunded mandates or regulations that don’t seem to make any sense in a small community, they feel threatened. Part of the anger they feel toward Washington is a reflection of that sense of feeling threatened.

An important point is that what’s threatened isn’t necessarily your livelihood or your safety as an individual. People look at the politics of rural America and say, “What can possibly explain why somebody who is a doctor, lawyer, or successful business person living in a rural community is upset?” They’re upset because it’s the community they identify with.

Who are the scapegoats for rural America’s frustrations? Is it Washington, D.C.?

Unfortunately, the scapegoat is more often racial and ethnic minorities rather than Washington. There is kind of an undercurrent. I talk about this in the book as the dark side of the community. The family that doesn’t keep up its property, or doesn’t have a job, or is of a different ethnicity — it’s very easy for the majority to look down on them.

We live in a politically polarized society. With a two-party system that is as deeply divided and entrenched as it is, it is very easy for the other side to always be the scapegoat. Clearly that has all sorts of negative implications, but one of the unfortunate aspects of that scapegoating is that specific policies then do not get discussed. We found that time and again in our interviews. People would lash out: “Washington is broken. We’ve got to drain the swamp.” Then you’d say, “What should Washington be doing?” And people would say, “Well, we haven’t really thought about that.”

You grew up in rural Kansas. Do you still recognize rural America from your childhood?

The continuities I recognize are the values people place on living in a small, familiar area. Knowing people in their community. Taking pride in their community. And, frankly, feeling fairly comfortable with rural life, including things that people in cities might not expect, like appreciating a sunset across a prairie or driving through a county that has corn on both sides of the road. Saying, “You know, it’s really quite beautiful here.”

What has changed is that it is much more racially and ethnically diverse, especially because, in many communities in the Midwest as well as the South, there is large Latino employment in food- and meat-processing plants. Sometimes also in construction and farm labor. 

Another difference is that technology has changed in dramatic ways that have also affected the local economy. Agriculture has undergone a digital revolution like no one could have imagined. We literally conducted interviews with farmers while they were out on their tractor or combine.

The tractor or combine was driving by itself, guided by a satellite, and a computer on board was monitoring the depth and amount of fertilizer or the amount of wheat that was being harvested. When the farmer was talking to us, he could be on his computer dealing in the futures market. 

So, things have changed. That’s why people in rural areas say, “Why do you look down on us?”

Interview conducted and condensed by Alfred Miller ’11. Miller covers city and state politics for The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky.