You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

An Honest Assessment of Rural White Resentment Is Long Overdue

We say very clearly that rural America is hurting. But we refuse to justify attitudes that some scholars try to underplay.

Supporters of Donald Trump listen to him speak at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in Wellington, Ohio
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Supporters of Donald Trump listen to him speak at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in Wellington, Ohio, in 2021.

Something remarkable happened among rural whites between the 2016 and 2020 elections: According to the Pew Research Center’s validated voter study, as the rest of the country moved away from Donald Trump, rural whites lurched toward him by nine points, from 62 percent to 71 percent support. And among the 100 counties where Trump performed best in 2016, almost all of them small and rural, he got a higher percentage of the vote in 91 of them in 2020. Yet Trump’s extraordinary rural white support—the most important story in rural politics in decades—is something many scholars and commentators are reluctant to explore in an honest way.

When we wrote White Rural Rage, we knew that our provocative argument and book title would arouse ire on the far right. We were not disappointed. But we have been surprised by the ferocity of the criticism we have received from scholars of rural politics. Their response has made clear that there are unspoken rules about criticizing certain Americans—rules that get to the heart of the very case we have tried to make about the deep geographic divisions in our politics at this fragile moment in our nation’s history.

Pillorying Donald Trump is fine. Thundering against the MAGA movement is acceptable. Deep-dive analyses of the votes and voices of “downscale” whites? Sure. But if you dare to criticize the rural whites who are among Trump’s most devout followers, you’ll be met with an angry rebuke.

And so we have, in an article in Politico by Nicholas Jacobs, a political scientist who co-authored his own book, The Rural Voter, that was released a few months before ours; and another in The Atlantic by Tyler Harper, an environmental studies professor who has made it a personal crusade to attack us and our book. These pieces illustrate some of the very pathologies so common in the way scholars and pundits alike treat rural whites.

Shouts and Whispers

In recent years, research from political scientists showing some disturbing patterns of opinion among rural voters, especially rural whites, has begun to accumulate. But there is a clear discomfort with the implications of that research, even among some of these researchers. For instance, consider this quote: “Clearly, though, even when we account for composition effects related to race [i.e., the fact that rural America is whiter than the rest of the country], we see that racial resentment is higher in rural than in urban America.” That appears not in our book. It’s found on page 296 of Jacobs’s The Rural Voter.

Soon after, Jacobs and his co-author write, “On a range of race-related questions, responses from rural residents veer from those of other Americans—and even from other Republicans—in significant ways.” As you might have guessed, “veer from” is the euphemism they deploy to say that rural whites express more racist attitudes. “And yet,” they go on, “for many rural residents, attitudes about races are intimately linked to perceptions of hard work, self-reliance, a disdain for government handouts, and the dangers of elites.” What they’re arguing, then, is that it’s not that many rural whites (to reiterate, not all, but many) are racist per se, it’s just that they think nonwhites don’t work hard, aren’t self-reliant, and are the clients of nefarious “elites.”

Given the important place hard work holds in the rural ethos, we find that result to be troubling, and we believe it deserves further discussion. In fact, as Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, the most oft-cited book about rural politics of recent years, told us when we interviewed her, if she were to write her book over again, “I would have written more about how racism is present even when people aren’t talking about it.”

Here is another quote, from a journal article that appeared after our book was finished: “We find that, contrary to popular belief, rural Americans may actually be less likely to support political violence [i.e., against fellow citizens] than their non-rural counterparts. Importantly, however, we find that some rural individuals—namely those who harbor higher levels of rural resentment—are more likely, on average, to support violence against the state.” The lead author of this piece is Kal Munis, another of our vocal critics. To our knowledge, nowhere outside this journal article has Munis mentioned this finding about rural support for violence against the state. With Donald Trump making clear once again that he will not accept an election he does not win, a position that led to a rather notable incident of violence against the state that took place on January 6, 2021, this seems highly relevant.

We call this phenomenon the “shouts and whispers” approach to social science discourse about rural whites. Find no difference between the political attitudes of rural whites and other Americans, or show that they have admirable values? Shout it from the rooftops. Uncover transgressive political beliefs among rural whites? Whisper it at a conference panel with a dozen people in attendance and no media to be found.

We wonder what would happen if rural politics scholars took to the online pages of places like Politico and The Atlantic to describe their more troubling findings. Actually, we don’t have to wonder: Their inboxes would be filled with the hateful and threatening emails we are receiving.

When it comes to rural resentments, again and again these scholars insist that if rural whites are mad, it’s only because they have good reason to be. We are hardly unaware of the sufferings of rural America, many of which are born from late-stage capitalism. In fact, we dedicate the second chapter of our book to the causes and consequences of declining economic opportunities, outmigration of ambitious young people, hospital and pharmacy closures, and other very serious problems that pervade rural American communities, white and nonwhite alike. In our reporting, we heard many moving stories about the challenges rural communities face.

What isn’t said enough is that rural whites are being told to blame all the wrong people for their very real problems. As we argue in the book, Hollywood liberals didn’t destroy the family farm, college professors didn’t move manufacturing jobs overseas, immigrants didn’t pour opioids into rural communities, and critical race theory didn’t close hundreds of rural hospitals. When Republican politicians and the conservative media tell rural whites to aim their anger at those targets, it’s so they won’t ask why the people they keep electing haven’t done anything to improve life in their communities.

And yet, the response to our book has been not just angry but personal at times. Harper delivered a torrent of abuse at us on social media, calling us “idiots” and “intellectual lightweights who wrote a dumb screed.” He also called us “soft-handed elites” and claimed that our book says that “white rural people are evil scum,” which of course it does not; that was one of many distortions of what we wrote that he sent out to his followers before penning his Atlantic article.

The positively obsessive attention our critics have given to one chapter in our book has located a few errors, which we’re happy to correct in future editions. Unfortunately, their legitimate criticisms are buried in a pile of personal insults, factual inaccuracies, and apologetics for rural whites.

Most importantly, our critics refuse to seriously grapple with rural whites’ place in Trump’s movement as it grows increasingly authoritarian. In rising to the defense of their subjects, the scholars discount or ignore the disturbing beliefs many (though not all) rural whites hold and work hard to justify and validate their resentments. Not unlike how journalists trooped to “the heartland” after the 2016 election to give a respectful hearing to every Trump voter they could find, scholars of rural politics bend over backward to avoid saying anything that might reflect poorly on rural whites—even when it means downplaying their own research.

Rather than explore Trump’s rural white support, they offer facile explanations for it, preferring instead to blame liberals for rural resentments whose roots date back decades. They insist that Democrats must do more to cater to rural whites, while giving Republicans compliments for their political skill (“Republicans are the political party that has figured out how to speak to that rural identity effectively,” writes Jacobs). And they don’t acknowledge one of our core arguments: Republicans are winning rural votes but doing almost nothing to improve rural Americans’ lives.

There Is No One Definition of “Rural”

“The most obvious problem with White Rural Rage is its refusal to define rural,” a less bellicose Harper wrote in The Atlantic; Jacobs also criticizes us on this score. But the reason we didn’t offer a single definition is that there are many (various federal agencies use more than a dozen), and we cited polls employing a variety of definitions. Some polls sort people by county; others ask respondents to self-report what kind of community they live in. Some analyses use two categories (metro/non-metro), while others use as many as nine. Jacobs uses census blocks to sort each county by rurality, which is a good approach, but even his definition leaves huge numbers of people who live in rural areas within urban-designated counties and vice versa. And there’s still the matter of those who were born and raised in cities who retain their urban consciousness despite, say, retiring to a rural community, or young rural folks who retain their rural consciousness despite leaving home after graduation to live in a city. Even Jacobs and his co-author write of their own definition, “We are not arguing that ours is the best—just the best for our purposes.”

This is a problem with no perfect solution; that’s why we included a lengthy author’s note in the book explaining the methodological challenge that varying definitions create. The best evidence for the problem may come from Harper himself: He admits that though he always thought of himself as a rural person, once he looked into it, he found that the place where he grew up is not considered rural by many standards. We appreciate his candor on that point.

Because we gathered together a variety of polls and studies from many different organizations and scholars, we were careful to note that it’s usually the comparisons that are most important, the places where rural Americans diverge from the rest of the country or make up a disproportionate share of those who hold a particular belief. For instance, Harper quotes the Chicago Project on Security Threats’ director, Robert Pape, who claims we misrepresent findings from CPOST’s study of Americans who express “insurrectionist” attitude profiles. But we correctly stated that according to his research, rural citizens are over-represented in this group: He pegs them at 30 percent of those with insurrectionist attitudes, but rural Americans comprise at most 20 percent of the national population, and rural whites no more than 15 percent.

What’s really going on here? Our critics claim they’re critiquing our methodology, but their real objection is to our message. We anticipated this defense of rural whites and their virtues, knowing that they are routinely described as more “real” than other citizens and therefore deserving of greater deference. In fact, Jacobs reports in The Rural Voter that 80 percent of rural citizens say they’re more likely to encounter the “real” America in rural spaces; so pervasive is this insult to other Americans that even 66 percent of suburban and urban dwellers say the same thing. To his credit, Jacobs agrees with us that no group of Americans is more “real” than any other. If only the conservative politicians and media figures who work so hard to stoke rural resentment concurred.

Our critics also say we “misrepresent” their work. We do not; we’re guilty only of assembling in one place a composite picture of rural white politics that shows worrying strains of opinion. Our critics want to believe—and worse, want others to believe—that sentiments in the places Trump enjoys his most overwhelming following have nothing to do with his racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, and valorization of violence, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary. The more charitable view is that our critics failed to pull back the lens to notice that larger picture; the less charitable view is that they’ve seen it but prefer to obscure it from public view.

The Real Ignored Rural Americans

The problems affecting rural America are deep and profound. But those travails do not justify or explain away rural whites’ transgressive attitudes, precisely because they enjoy electoral power that far outstrips their numbers. Providing excuses bestows on them a privilege that others, including the nonwhite Americans who make up 24 percent of the rural population and rising, are rarely afforded.

Those nonwhite rural Americans are almost invisible in the national media, as well as in the work of many scholars. Because we thought their stories are important, we traveled to rural communities with large nonwhite populations, including in the Albemarle region of North Carolina and Arizona’s “Copper Corridor.” The experience of people in those places—who are mostly ignored and enjoy little of the deference and political power their white counterparts do—only highlights the privileging of the white rural experience.

We would ask rural scholars to confront this question: How is it that rural minorities, who by most measures face even greater challenges in health care access and economic opportunity than their white counterparts, do not express weakened commitments to our democracy, or the anti-urban, xenophobic, conspiracist, and violence-justifying attitudes so many rural whites do? The Rural Voter dedicates just five of the book’s 414 pages to examining rural minorities, and it spends most of that limited space comparing the attitudes of rural minorities with urban minorities, thereby avoiding any deep consideration of how rural whites and nonwhites differ in their views or their experiences.

Those who have risen to defend the honor of rural whites insist that they have good reason to feel resentful; Jacobs even elevates resentment to a kind of virtue (“Resentment is rational, a reaction based on some sort of negative experience,” he writes). But if the rural experience justifies resentment, should not rural minorities be equally if not more resentful than rural whites? Why aren’t they threatening their local elected officials, or marinating in conspiracy theories, or supporting demagogues eager to tear down American democracy? Too few scholars of rural politics confront these questions.

Unfortunately, in our critics’ zeal to insist that we are the problem, they can’t stop themselves from reading into our book things we never wrote. “It is baffling why these new, self-proclaimed saviors of rural America cannot see that their gross mischaracterization of rural life feeds into the resentments driving” the increasingly right-wing tilt of rural areas, Jacobs writes. We never proclaimed ourselves anything, let alone the saviors of rural America. In another article attacking us, he writes, “Schaller and Waldman simply want us to write off rural America as the land of radical extremism,” when nothing could be further from the truth; we call rural whites “the essential minority” because of their central political role, and the last thing we want anyone to do is “write off rural America.” We argue that the return of political competition to rural areas is vital, but that will take not only Democrats making more of an effort but rural people demanding more from the Republicans who take their votes and give so little in return.

Since our book came out, we’ve had many conversations with rural Americans—journalists, activists, and ordinary people—who have told us that it accurately reflects what they see in their communities. Christopher Gibbs is a case in point. A Maplewood, Ohio, farmer who raises corn, soybeans, and alfalfa hay and supervises an 85-head cow/calf operation, Gibbs is the board president of Rural Voices USA. A former Shelby County Republican Party chair who, remarkably, is now the county’s Democratic Party chair, Gibbs interviewed us for his podcast. He doesn’t agree with everything we write, but he told us that he “lives this book every day” in his rural county. He concluded our interview by saying our book may not provide an easy foldout “road map” to revive rural America, but “it’s chock full of clues” for those interested in “helping rural folks get what they deserve in policy.”

As we confront a presidential election in which one of the candidates is counting on white rural support to return him to the Oval Office so he can begin dismantling our democratic system, we can’t turn away and say everything in rural politics is fine.

We respect much of our critics’ work, which is why we cited their findings in our book. We have not launched any personal attacks against them. But we encourage everyone concerned about this issue to curb the impulse to reflexively protect the sensibilities of rural whites. The conversation our book triggered is long overdue, and at this vital moment, the last thing we should do is bury it.