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Get Real

What liberals like Paul Krugman still don’t understand about rural America

What are we supposed to do with rural America? This is a question that keeps Paul Krugman up at night. It bothers him because he’s both a liberal and a true believer in capitalism. He sees deindustrialization—capitalism’s logical consequence —leaving people behind in rural areas, but he doesn’t have a way to square this troubling fact with a worldview that ostensibly honors the rights and dignity of all people. So he half-asses a few articles every now and then about expanding the social welfare state and increasing governmental spending in rural areas.

Krugman has been on this kick for years. In 2015, he wrote about how the only solution for the deindustrialized wastoids still living in places like Puerto Rico and Appalachia is better social security payments, healthcare, and public services. His reasoning was that some places are sacrificed every now and then to the “shifting tides of globalization.” As a pragmatic economist, Krugman understands that it’s not wise to entirely throw these people away; indeed, you have to preserve some semblance of a labor force in the event that the tides of globalization shift back in their favor.

The thing is that Krugman is right, up to a point. Rural people do desperately need things like healthcare and social welfare benefits. Rural jobs are declining as the nation continues to deindustrialize and more young people flock to the cities. It concerns savvy liberals that people are going to be left out of these patterns of migration simply because they can’t afford to move to where the jobs are. They’ve read about these people in books like Hillbilly Elegy and in the pages of the New York Times. As good liberals, they don’t agree with their political beliefs, but they do believe rural Americans should be helped.

This paradox gives them a lot of stress. Every election, liberals watch conservatives come up big in rural areas, and it annoys them. We could help you, Krugman clearly wants to say, but you’re going to need an attitude adjustment first. But Krugman can’t say that, so instead he has to keep it real. That’s what he did in last week’s column, “Getting Real About Rural America.” He’s not so much concerned with the economic forces themselves that are ravaging rural communities. Krugman, the realist, is instead tackling the hard questions about why these stubborn provincials won’t just start voting for the policies that might actually benefit them.

Krugman would do better to skip the psychoanalysis and examine the way power is actually constituted in rural America.

This question of why the rural working class often votes against its interests has been bugging liberals for a few decades now, and you can’t really blame them. Democrats still held a lot of sway in rural America for the first half of the twentieth century, but then things started to change. Neoliberal economics tore rural regions apart. Both jobs and people left in short order. Now these regions swing predominantly conservative, and liberals are left scratching their heads.

Today, rural America is largely viewed as politically and culturally “a world apart,” when in reality the picture is bleaker: conservatives simply maintain a stronger grasp on power in rural areas than liberals do. Liberals think that the majority of people in rural areas see this as a desirable state of affairs. Many of us don’t. It’s just that our voices have been erased by the overwhelming might of power and industry.

Krugman would do better to skip the psychoanalysis and examine the way power is actually constituted in rural America: to look at why and how ideology is formed, who does the forming, and what material interests are served by it. But he knows his audience, and he knows that they don’t really want to know the answers to those questions because that would mean they would have to actually believe in and fight for something. And they’re not going to do that. They’d rather be at brunch.

As good Marxists, let’s state up front that the primary function of rural areas within the larger national economy is as a supply source of raw materials: food, oil, natural gas, coal, timber, and other resources. To keep these goods flowing out of rural areas —and profit flowing into capitalists’ pockets—freethinking dissent within the extractive regions must be squashed at all costs. Compare this with urban areas, where a greater productive capacity and larger middle classes can absorb and dilute a great deal of dissent. In rural areas, those impulses have to be stamped out before they can really take off; nothing less than the unchallenged flow of profit and resources is at stake. Conservatives understand this, and it’s why one of their foremost political strategies in rural areas is that of social control.

If you live in a rural community, extractive or not, you are likely confronted every day with an onslaught of images, dogmas, and various cultural reinforcements regarding your role within the national social structure. Perhaps the primary location for this “indoctrination” is the local school system. In many rural communities, it is well understood that while state power may be concentrated in the county courthouse, social power—the power to shape the ideological contours of the community, and therefore how it votes, prays, works, and obeys—is concentrated in the local school board.

My hometown of Hobbs, New Mexico, sits on top of the largest continuous oil and gas reserve in the United States. Growing up, we were always told things like “oil is what feeds this family.” Not your hardworking father or his hardworking coworkers, but oil, the shit you pulled out of the ground—that’s what put food on the table. The message was clear: there is a natural order to things, and it all stems from oil. To challenge that order is to risk losing everything.

But this kind of soft indoctrination at home wasn’t even necessary, because it was happening every day at school. Our school colors, black and gold, were meant to evoke the image of oil. The school song, which every student sang before every basketball game, made it clear what it meant to be a student at Hobbs High School:

In the West, ‘mid oil derricks
Friendly flares to view
Stands the best of noble high schools
Hobbs High, here’s to you
Watch the night flares send a radiance
And a grand Hello
Golden land of all that’s worthwhile
Hobbs, New Mexico!!!

Oil derricks. Friendly flares. Night flares. Radiance. The very stuff of oil was built into your identity. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that a bunch of town elites met in the dark of night, Illuminati-style, and explicitly said, “We need to find a clever and unassuming way to preserve a steady labor force for the oil fields, and so we’ll infuse the very identity of that industry with that of the community.” That would put me into conspiracy theory territory.

But there are places where there have been explicit, intentional attempts to police the contours of ideology and to enforce a rigid form of conservative social control. In the mid-1990s, school systems all across Appalachia began implementing a program called CEDAR: Coal Education Development and Resource. The point was quite literally to indoctrinate students in the benefits of coal. Teachers were awarded cash prizes and grants for developing pro-coal curriculum. “Coal fairs,” the coal industry’s equivalent of a science fair, encouraged students to create projects that bolstered support for things like clean coal and coal-to-gas liquefaction.

And perhaps most humorously, CEDAR instituted a program called Mars Invasion 2030, in which students were supposed to “discover for themselves the many similarities between space science and coal mining, as well as between astronauts and coal miners.” According to the CEDAR’s webpage about the Mars program,

The desired outcome is for the students to see not only the similarities between space science and coal mining and the astronaut and coal miner, but to see that like space science, coal mining is a very sophisticated, honorable and important profession. The students will see that the mining industry offers careers that require advanced education in science, math and technology and that it also offers the opportunity for them to stay in their home region and enjoy a career that can provide them with a very high standard of living.

This is both hilarious and astoundingly morbid. Coal mining is a violent industry that kills workers, communities, and ultimately, the planet. But the point of the program was to gloss over these facts for children at the earliest phase of ideological development. The coal industry was trying to cultivate not just a skilled work force, but a complacent one—one that wouldn’t question the many issues with coal mining.

Coal in this scenario, just like oil in my hometown, functions as a kind of signifier; it either represses or devours every form of political expression that isn’t pro-coal. You can project outwards from coal—or oil, or farming—an entire political program that squashes all dissent.

So what exactly is coal supposed to signify here? Coal is noble, masculine, important work. Coal believes in God, country, and sacrifice. It’s not queer but unrepentantly straight. It believes that All Lives Matter. The natural resource itself—the one that puts food on your table—is the pillar that upholds this edifice of belief. Coal upholds the natural order of things. Challenging it means challenging everything. This is why the school board is the most important power structure in the rural community, and why control of it is so heatedly contested: because that pillar must be maintained at all costs.

The only thing capable of breaking the conservative stranglehold on rural communities—and of breaking the power of their foot soldiers in the local school boards, chambers of commerce, and churches—is a nationwide political movement based in the actual interests of the working class: the service industry employees and care workers, the teachers and tenants. That’s because the right wing has their own institutions, programs, and forms of ideological preservation in rural areas. They have invested heavily in them for the last thirty years, and they will not stop until rural America is a useless ecological graveyard. Conservatives see their beliefs gradually losing support, and they have entered death cult mode. They want to squeeze as much profit and as many resources out of rural areas as possible, until we, too, have gone to the graveyard.

You can project outwards from coal—or oil, or farming—an entire political program that squashes all dissent.

The result is a rapidly deteriorating economic landscape that stumps writers like Krugman. When he writes about the economic forces contributing to rural America’s decline “that nobody knows how to reverse,” the “nobody” he’s referring to is himself. Krugman’s liberalism, with its focus on slow incrementalism and social tinkering, has become incompatible with rural economies that are beholden to the whims of increasingly embattled industry. In the days when America’s economy was booming after World War II, when regulations meant to safeguard the financial interests of ordinary people didn’t necessarily threaten the immense wealth that was being produced throughout society, it was feasible that pro-business ideas could coexist with liberal doctrines like human rights and social welfare policies. But in the era of post-industrial capitalism, as wages decline, jobs are relocated, and the social safety net shrinks, it’s become impossible to square that contradiction.

So the best Krugman can offer is a kind of liberal realism: progressive values are simply incompatible with the minds of backwards yokels living out in the provinces, and we need to get real about that. This allows Krugman to erase all forms of rural radicalism: he doesn’t see us as powerless, silenced by the authoritarian regime of conservative social control, because he doesn’t see power at all.

But we know that rural radicalism exists, and we know that the rural working class can exert a great deal of leverage on entrenched power structures. The statewide teacher strikes in predominantly rural West Virginia serve as the best recent example. Our power is growing. It may take some time and experimentation, but conservatives will not reign unchallenged in rural America for eternity. We’ve never stopped fighting back.