Robert Wuthnow is that rare academic who still keeps a foot in the heartlands. Wuthnow is a respected Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University but he’s as apt to talk to you about his native Kansas as he is the cultural capitals of DC and New York.
I caught up with Wuthnow a few weeks ago after reading his book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. He didn’t disappoint…
You say in the book that people in small communities still “believe that the heart of America still beats in small communities.” Does the rest of America still believe that?
No. If you think about the population that lives in big cities and suburbs–no. They think about rural America, if they ever think about it, as part of flyover country. You can easily find columns online or even sometimes in The New York Times or The Washington Post that basically say, “Those areas ought to just depopulate and turn the prairie back to prairie and let the buffalo take over.”
I was doing a podcast a couple of weeks ago and the woman who was hosting it only half jokingly said, “Isn’t it true that in 20 years there just aren’t going to be any people in rural America because all the tractors will be driving themselves?” So, yeah, there is that impression out there.
One of the things that’s spurred me to do this blog is this sense that what the heartlands mean is really different than it used to be. It used to be that, even if people lived in urban areas, they would look to the rural areas as being an inspiration or holding the essence of what it means to be America. I agree; I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
I’d like to ask about your subtitle: Decline and Rage in Rural America. It’s a catchy phrase, but do you think that those are the predominant dynamics that you run into in talking with folks or are there some other more nuanced words that maybe are better?
The sense of decline is pretty widespread, despite the fact that the total number of US citizens living in rural areas is not declining, and has actually increased. It is a relative decline because the suburbs have grown in population or held their own. So there is that sense of relative decline as people talk about population or as they talk about where the jobs are or where their kids have moved to.
Also there is that sense of a declining cultural influence related to what we were just talking about. You don’t feel that rural America is regarded as the heartland anymore of whatever values they hold dear in terms of small, local community or traditional values. They feel the nation has moved away from all that. So, in that sense, decline is pretty widespread.
My publisher said they wanted a short book that would answer some of the questions that people have about the 2016 election. It’s harder in a smaller book like that, than it was in longer books I wrote out of the same research, to capture the diversity.
What I always try to do, in interviews and podcasts and so forth, is to emphasize diversity, because there’s the regional diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and then a huge amount of difference between what’s happening in a town of 5,000 people versus a town of 25,000 people, which is still within the definition of the small town. But a town of 25,000 people has a lot going for it that a smaller town doesn’t. Then certainly the differences between a town that is out in the boonies about 100 miles from the city versus a town that’s within easy commuting distance of a city. Especially in my book called Small Town America, I try to get into all of those differences and try to point out to people who haven’t thought much about small towns that there’s is a huge amount of diversity.
The rage part of it really only pertains to the views towards Washington and toward politics. They’re not going around just seething all the time. They’re not really mad at their neighbors. That not really that mad at urban people either. Occasionally they are because they feel urban people don’t understand them or disparage them. But most rural people have friends and family that live in the city that they’d like to go visit .
They are mad at politics. On the political side, it is true that some of the time there is anger toward gay people or racial or ethnic minorities or toward immigrants or toward Muslims. So some of that conversation that happens all the time on Fox News and is coming out of the Trump administration does filter out and it gives people ways to vent some of their anger on groups that they might not have thought about. They may be perfectly ok with the Muslim family that happens to live in the town or the Hispanic family that is working on their farm but then still they get incensed and say, “We need stronger borders. We need to restrict immigration.” and all of that. It’s in that sense that the wider political culture gets refracted in interesting ways at the local level.
You’re making me think, as you describe it that way, whether some of that emotion is related to the cognitive dissonance of trying to hold together things that seem so opposed. To put it in the simplest sense, “Immigrants—bad. But my neighbors, who happen to be immigrants, they are excellent and they’re helping our community survive.” Or “Washington neglects us but Washington interferes too much.” You know, just the kind of the things that we’re trying to hold in our heads.
Our interview with Robert Wuthnow continues here.