This week I had the privilege of hearing Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies talk about their recent poll which shows gains for Democrats in areas where George W. was "the man" in 2004. The Iraq war is a close and personal nightmare for rural people who have sent their children off to fight it. Increasingly they don't like what they see. But even more interesting than the polling data (available from the website) was Davis' broader take on the place of rural life in U.S. reality and mythology.
According to Davis, notions of country life and country people remain important mythic features of the national psyche, even though only 20 percent of us now live in rural areas (about the same percentage that live in cores of cities, interestingly.) On the one hand, we imagine that somewhere there is an unspoiled utopia where simple, hard working people, the soul of the nation, lead good lives working the land. (In truth, only 2 percent of the U.S. population farms.) On the other hand, we believe that the country is full of ignorant, drunken, incestuous rednecks that civilization has passed by. Of course both images are cartoons, but they haunt us.
Far more U.S. people than live in the country still feel an attachment to an ancestral rural heritage. Their involvement with those feelings of attachment to and repulsion from rural life sometimes drives their political choices.
In reality, much of the countryside is simply poor. Of the 200 poorest counties in the United States, 195 are rural. The countryside is 8 percent less racially diverse the rest of the country -- and the poorest of those poor counties are the ones with most people of color.
The dominant medium for spreading information in the country is radio -- folks drive a lot. The country format holds the largest fraction of the dial, closely followed by Christian broadcasting. Both these radio forms deliver a constant diet of right wing "news," mostly without contradiction from any alternative viewpoints. This immersion in right wing viewpoints helps explain why rural voters give their allegiance to politicians who trumpet conservative wedge issues at the same time those same politicians pursue policies that let coal companies, energy companies and agribusiness trample the economic well-being of their constituents.
Half of all rural households are headed by women. These women are some of the least likely people anywhere to vote -- if they did vote, the Democrats would rapidly do much better in rural areas.
Country people know they are on the wrong end of a lot of other people's notions. Davis reported that their polling showed two almost universal characteristics of rural thought:
- people were convinced that the media never portrays them accurately;
- people easily slipped into blaming themselves for whatever they thought was wrong in their circumstances. They've been convinced whatever happens to them, it is their own fault.
Davis hammered at a political maxim I've long thought was true for most everyone:
Being "in the club" means getting signals from leaders that they can be trusted. Most of us don't feel we have to follow every nuance of policy or every byway of every issue -- we want politicians who will find the right expert to do that. We want politicians who we trust will try to enact policies for the common good.
Unfortunately in this diverse nation, it is hard for any leader to give symbolic cues signaling worthiness for trust to many differing groups at the same time. Davis argues that for a long time Democrats haven't even tried to deliver cues that would appeal to rural voters and have suffered the consequences by losing the rural vote. But can Democratic politicians give those cues and reassure the people of the inner cities that they too will be aided and respected, and reassure the harried suburban middle class that nobody is going to subvert their quality of life to take care of city people and country people?
It is no surprise that most politicians just try to pick enough segments of the population to build a majority. They offer that segment the right emotional cues to reassure them this is "their club." They implicitly promise "I'm like you -- or at least I'll respect you." We look at them and wonder, not surprisingly, can they be trusted? It's a rare pol who can convincingly promise "you too are inside the club" across the cultural and economic lines that divide us.