After the 2016 election, a new and lucrative job opened up in the American commentariat: the rural explainer. Rural white people in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest had turned out with such excitement for Donald Trump that they wrecked casual faith in polling’s predictive power and derailed technocratic liberalism’s story of where our world was headed. In a vacuum, literature and the humanities suddenly found themselves called upon to fulfill a bit of their old role, exploring truths too complicated and surprising for statisticians to capture. Writers like J.D. Vance and Arlie Russell Hochschild became minor stars and seers, coloring a world of white people in flyover states that was now so distant from the lives of so many whose supposed job it was to understand our politics. Even relatively banal conclusions began to look like revelations: many white people really were feeling abandoned and desperate; rural America is more diverse than many urbanites think; many white people were confused and angry about our new way of defining racism as a political force in society, rather than a human failing demonstrated by acts of in-person discrimination.
The brief vogue for this sort of Virgil into regular-Joe whiteness was mostly based on the idea that in better understanding the Trumpiest of voters, Democrats might win back their ballots. These voters were sometimes thought of as the White Working Class, sometimes rendered demographically as whites without a college degree, but above all they were understood as white people who live beyond a certain distance from major population centers. But the bid for their attention and respect never began to take hold. Democrats could not decide among themselves whether this sort of voter really resembled the sensitive and complicated compatriots that the Rural Explainers made them out to be, or whether they were irredeemable reactionaries, infatuated with their collective white identity.
The Democrats are going to have to decide whether or not they’re willing to try to win rural voters back, even if it means appealing to lots of people they find repugnant.
The party’s sudden acquiescence to Joe Biden in the presidential primaries was engineered in part to evade this problem. A nominee thought to have a folksy appeal to voters turned off by Hillary Clinton, Biden forswore the class populism that many mainstream Democrats view as a sop to white voters. But his supposed appeal was a stab in the dark—after the huge polling errors of both 2016 and 2020, it now seems that our priestly data class is so confused by and distant from rural Americans that they no longer know how to reach them in order to ask what they think. It is in this sense unfair to ask of Biden why he won by such a small margin against a “historically unpopular” president, as commentators keep putting it: a president who was unprecedentedly unpopular would not have won (so far) almost 48 percent of the popular vote, a higher share than he took when he won the election in 2016. It looks like Trump is very popular with a lot of people who never got asked their opinion.
Pollsters understand the issue. “Renewed efforts this year to draw in more rural voters and those without four-year college degrees—groups supportive of Mr. Trump,” wrote the Wall Street Journal, “were helpful but insufficient.” This has given some of them cause to speculate that the alienation of Trump voters from so many mainstream institutions of American life has wrecked polling too. “A meaningful number of people across many demographic groups, who in the main are conservative, decline to participate,” the Journal reported, later quoting Courtney Kennedy, who oversees methodology for the Pew Research Center: “It may be that the Republican voters you interview are on the more moderate side, whereas the ones you didn’t interview might be more staunchly part of the Republican base,’’ she said.
No one with a sense of this country could be surprised that large parts of America are becoming foreign to each other. And maybe this is what much of the country wants. I spent the run-up to the election in Idaho, working in the farm belt along the Snake River in the southern part of the state. “Why would you even want to go to a white supremacist state?” a neighbor asked my girlfriend and I as we were packing up to leave, as though visiting Idaho was an endorsement of its voting habits. And indeed I don’t think the neighbor would have liked it much where we were—a place where patrons at the grocery store were asked to remove their masks upon entering and where the only espresso machine in town was at a gun-shop-cum-café called Bullets ’N Brew, which had a waitlist for backordered pink AR-15s you could sign next to the cash register.
On the other side, I visited a farm-boy friend who spends late nights watching YouTube and scheming to separate how urban and rural America are governed. “We have to peacefully Balkanize,” he likes to say, a phrasing that has become common on the far right recently. “It’s the only way to avoid violence.” To him, a native Utahn, even the culture of Salt Lake City can feel wildly alien and inaccessible. He once told me I ought to check out the little town of Spring City, near where he grew up—“You can get good burgers like you can’t get anywhere else around here,” he told me. “It’s because some liberals moved in, so obviously the food got better.”
The problem for the Democratic party now has to do with numbers: 2020 may well have been the Democrats’ best chance in a generation to gain control of the Senate and to reshape it into a more representative institution (assuming Democrats in Georgia don’t win both of the races that are headed for runoffs there). Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are all going to be up for reelection in 2024, and if the dissolution of the bonds between the Democratic party and the last blocs of rural voters who support it keeps up at this rate, it may be hard for any of them to win reelection. The outsize power of rural voters in deciding control of the Senate means that, ironically, Democrats may find it impossible to ever accrue enough power to enact laws that might benefit poor rural voters and win them back. It’s a trap created by decades of political timidity and their own naked indifference to the feeling that rural America was being hollowed out by the consolidations of subsidized big agriculture, chain stores, and the other sweeping and deleterious effects that an era of unchecked corporate power have had on small town life. These forces, much more than immigration, are the main authors of the huge cultural upheavals in rural America in the last few decades, and it should be a mark of immense shame and political failing on the Democratic Party that they have made almost no attempt at a national level to even point this out, much less to advance a desperately needed new agricultural vision for the country.
But the problem is deeper than that. We are about to get a look at what it’s like to try to govern a country where a huge portion of its geographic extent is inhabited by people who are resolutely and overwhelmingly opposed to the party attempting to govern. There is little question at all that under a Biden presidency, after such a close election that many people on the right believe is being actively stolen, there’s going to be more political violence, part of it coming from militias with the tacit or outright sanction of elected officials in rural areas—like the sheriffs in the West who have given legal cover to anti-government standoffs.
Democrats are going to have a very hard time figuring out how to respond to this without falling into the trap that insurgents all around the world want to draw governments into—looking like persecutors, and feeding further alienation and rage. And they are at some point going to have to decide who they think all these people voting for Trump really are. “Half the country are not horrible, racist, mean-spirited people who are different from everybody else,” former Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle told the Washington Post, “It can’t be. And roughly half the country voted for Trump.” But this is more a wish than a statement of fact—there have been plenty of societies where half of a country was horrible, racist, and mean-spirited, and there’s no reason we can’t grow into one too. The Democrats are going to have to decide whether or not they’re willing to try to win rural voters back, even if it means appealing to lots of people they find repugnant. Otherwise they’re going to have to crush them in outright political conflict. Right now, they appear ready to do neither.