Every so often we get a glimpse into the id, as Sigmund Freud would call it, of one side of the cultural spectrum. A segment on CNN host Don Lemon’s show in 2020 told us what urban elites think of rural America.
Flanked by GOP strategist Rick Wilson and New York Times contributor Wahajat Ali, Lemon laughed when Wilson and Ali spoke in country accents to mock Donald Trump’s largely rural supporters.
That came when Ali sneered at them by saying “You elitists with your geography and your maps and your spelling.” Wilson really suplexed the point home by adding “With your math and your reading.” The exchange brought Lemon to tears.
The coastal brain trust thinks it’s shouting over the heads of people like Donna from their televised perch. But the 73-year-old docent at the Fayette County Museum in Vandalia, Illinois, (Population: 6,909) doesn’t need a degree to hear how she’s being insulted.
“They think we’re all stupid,” said Donna.
The same sentiment was picked up by Jim and Debbie Doyle, a retired couple in their early 60s from nearby Lawrenceville (Pop. 4,165). Both sport the accents Wilson and Ali used pejoratively, though they aren’t the dummies those talking heads made them out to be.
Jim may not be college educated, but he made a lucrative career working in the oil industry. Debbie was a special education teacher before leaving the workforce recently.
Mending the fences between urban and rural America might be the most important domestic effort of our time. While not as sexy of an issue as race or gender, geography has become a large indicator of how you vote.
Pew Research Center showed, historically, urban areas were largely Democratic, while suburban and rural areas were a coin flip. That changed around 2009/10 when rural areas started to trend heavily Republican. This has persisted ever since.
Understanding this shift in voter behavior is the subject of a research project by Sean Evans, the Political Science department chair at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.
The “how” is clear: Democrats, formerly a party of working-class rural Americans, made inroads into urban communities during the Great Depression. Gradually, the party shifted its political priorities to cater to those living in large metropolitan areas, which became white collar members of the “knowledge economy” and ethnic minorities, according to Evans.
Midway through Barack Obama’s first term in office, Republicans started taking rural areas under their wing and have since become the heart of their base. Figuring out why is still up for debate, but Evans has a clue.
It comes from a self-sorting that’s gone on in the country. More liberal people have moved into city centers to be around those who share their values, including from the country. Meanwhile, more conservative people have moved further away from city centers.
Evans mentioned that even the suburbs function like a political gradient, with those closer into the city being more liberal and those further on the outskirts more conservative.
“We don’t interact with people who are in different areas and we’re starting to be more likely to think the worst of them,” Evans said.
He noted that the urge for Democrats to understand rural areas only comes after an electoral defeat. For Republicans, who have lost the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 presidential elections, he concluded there’s little understanding of suburban and urban America by their rural countrymen.
“There’s no magic solution to this problem, but I think part of it is trying to empathize with people who are different from us, whether it’s urban, racial, educational, rich, or whatever else,” Evans continued.
He added there are certain things rural Americans look down on city dwellers for as well (willingness to accept handouts and permitting bratty behavior in kids were two comments by those who ScoonTv interviewed).
Making connections with non-rural neighbors has been a constant feature in the life of one 80-year-old resident in Hayes, South Dakota (Pop. 81), which is 30 minutes outside Pierre, the state capitol.
This woman, who asked not to be named, is a multi-generational cattle rancher who passed on the family business to her sons. Before it got to them the farm was run by her late husband, who regularly recruited high schoolers to work on the ranch.
As her husband phrased it, the new farmhands “Couldn’t tell what a hill of beans was,” but they learned how to mow and rake hay and even brand the cattle — all things her sons and grandson’s now do when they teach this generation of high schoolers.
Reaching out hasn’t had the same success for everyone. A separate cattle rancher in Lusk, Wyoming, recalled how a journalist reported on the town’s annual celebration, “The Legend of Rawhide,” only to focus on how insensitive the portrayal of the Indians was.
The event’s a big deal for this small town (Pop. 1,558), but the woman who spoke with ScoonTv said the published article shocked the residents. The town took this reporter in and included her in all the weekend’s celebrations; they had no sign they’d be a subject of ridicule.
This cultural split is starting to influence the educational choices of each population, further compounding this urban-rural divide.
The woman from South Dakota talked about how her two grandsons went to vocational schools: one to become a carpenter, and the other to learn skills as a welder and diesel technician. Her only grandchild that attended a four-year college went on to become a nurse.
The rancher in Wyoming, also a grandmother, talked about how her college-educated brother couldn’t stand to stay inside. So, he started a small ranch and builds fences for other ranches. She said other young people are doing the same or picking up trades because they enjoy the lifestyle.
Evans, on the other hand, believes that to be a bit short-sighted. Between the average college debt hovering around $30,000 and the potential to make millions of dollars with a Bachelor’s degree, he thinks pursuing a university education is a no brainer. But he also knows the trades can support perfectly comfortable lives. He also acknowledged his bias as a college educator.
It’s not that these country folk don’t believe in the value of education. Given some of the real-life examples they’ve seen, they just know it’s not the be-all, end-all.
Donna, the museum curator in southern Illinois, talked about how she was a mail carrier for over 30 years. Once, a former teacher was hired as her supervisor and tagged along on her route. She said he couldn’t even finish the day’s work because it was so arduous.
The woman from Wyoming talked about how a family friend, who has four Masters degrees and can speak six languages, struggled to even get around her property.
“She’s the sweetest lady you could find, but then you’d bring her out and turn her loose and realize she has no common sense. She could not tell you what’s north, south, west, what have you,” she said.
The fact that these are the people at the head of the “knowledge economy,” as Evans put it, can grate this rancher. She said natural gas pipeline companies try to buy the rights to pass through their land for pennies on the dollar thinking they could pull one over on the ranchers.
That is, until the ranchers collectively bargained in a way that left these businessmen impressed.
A suspicion that urban sensibilities guide their state’s politics is another point of contention.
Donna and the Doyle couple feel many objectives in the state legislature are done in service of Chicago, since Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is a Chicago-based businessman. The Wyoming rancher said she knows ranchers in Colorado crossing over the state line because of what they see as the outsized influence of Denver and Boulder in their legislatures.
However, Evans cited research by Kathy Kramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, to dispel that notion. Kramer wrote a whole book on Wisconsin’s “rural resentment” for urban elites, so she’s familiar with this frame of mind. She’s also researched how non-urban parts of states get their fair share of funding based on their size.
But there are no complaints from rural communities when the cogs of the state work in their interest. Evans discussed how Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is continuing the legacy of his predecessor, former Gov. Bill Haslam, of making rural development a key component of his agenda.
Members from the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development are going out to these areas and recruiting people for jobs. For example, Evans noted the recent news that Ford is building a plant that will bring 6,000 jobs to Stanton, Tennessee.
Evans cites long-term efforts like that which have brought down the number of “distressed counties.” Those are determined by the three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rate. It’s down from 60 (out of 95) to nine. It was 15 when Gov. Lee took office nearly three years ago.
Bringing opportunities to rural communities is something all levels of government should aspire for. Just like most people should aspire to treat rural Americans with the basic respect that they can understand what a map is or how to read a book.
It can be easy to dismiss these remote residents as nonfactors in most urbanites’ lives. They’ll likely never suffer any consequences for doing so. But they shouldn’t confuse not interacting with rural America as a sign that rural Americans don’t know what’s being said about them.
Subscribe to get early access to podcasts, events, and more!