American sociologist Arlie Hochschild garners immense praise for her articles and book detailing the reasons for Trump support among rural whites in Louisiana. Along with J.D. Vance’s acclaimed Appalachian memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Hochschild’s work was used as Exhibit A in the case that A Lack Of Empathy For Rural Whites Caused The Cataclysm of 2016. This has become the standard mainstream media line to explain what happened last autumn.
I don’t understand this idea that the rest of us lack empathy for rural whites. I’m a middle-aged suburban Southern white man, and the cultural and political influence of conservative rural whites was everywhere when I was growing up. A quarter of my state’s resident’s lived in my county when I was a teenager, but it took me an hour to drive 6 miles because the rural whites in my state refused to allow us to spend our tax dollars on mass transit and highway funding. The music and literature of rural whites was mandatory in my school and my home. My school had inadequate sex education because of the power of rural whites. I lived in a group home for awhile, and the rural white version of religion was mandatory. The staff used punishment to try to force me to adopt evangelical Christianity.
In the intervening years, the influence of Southern rural whites was, if anything, even greater. We had a teen pregnancy and STD boom for several years because rural whites imposed a ban on real sex education for suburban and urban youth. Rural whites imposed tax cuts and unnecessary wars that have burdened the federal budget and starved vital public services. How comfortable are you with that bag of pre-washed spinach right now? We’re still fighting the same battles over textbooks that we fought 40 years ago. We failed to restrain climate change to two degrees, very largely due to the political power of rural whites. Rural whites who work in agriculture are the recipients, directly or indirectly, of huge federal aid.
Compare all that to the national response to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem. Do you remember how the media treated the case of Tamir Rice? How about how the media treats any attack by a brown person as terrorism, but if the same act is committed by a rural white, he’s just a troubled person? Ask rural whites to sympathize with ANYONE else. If you think rural whites are struggling to cope with deindustrialization, ask the people of Detroit or Flint how they are doing.
While I understand the tactical purpose of this point, it makes no moral or political sense. The excessive deference to the preferences of rural whites is a major contributor to the dysfunction of our nation. I fail to see how doubling down on that particular error is going to fix anything.