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Divided We Stand

Divided We Stand
New book about the 2020 election.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Resentment, Not Rage, in Rural America

In Defying the Odds, we talk about the social and economic divides that enabled Trump to enter the White House. In Divided We Stand, we discuss how these divides played out in 2020.  

Nicholas Jacobs at Politico:
Academics can and do disagree on what is motivating non-college-educated whites to vote for Donald Trump. I don’t pretend that we have settled on a single answer. I do know that there is something particular about Trump’s appeal in rural America and that demographics alone do not explain it. In rural America, women are more likely to vote for Trump; so are young people; so are poor as well as rich. Place matters.

But ruralness is not reducible to rage. And to say so is to overlook the nuanced ways in which rural Americans engage in politics. They are driven by a sense of place, community and often, a desire for recognition and respect. This, as I have recently argued in a new book, is the defining aspect of the rural-urban divide — a sense of shared fate among rural voters, what academics call a “politics of place,” that is expressed as a belief in self-reliance, rooted in local community and concerned that rural ways of living will soon be forced to disappear.

In recent years, that rural political identity has morphed into resentment — a collective grievance against experts, bureaucrats, intellectuals and the political party that seeks to empower them, Democrats.

Yes, such resentment is a real phenomenon in rural areas. But words matter; rage and resentment are not interchangeable terms. Rage implies irrationality, anger that is unjustified and out of proportion. You can’t talk to someone who is enraged. Resentment is rational, a reaction based on some sort of negative experience. You may not agree that someone has been treated unfairly, but there is room to empathize.

Research both by me and by others has illuminated how resentment is driven by the complex rural identity that, while occasionally intersecting with national political currents, is rooted in the unique context of rural life. Rage, both as a soundbite and as presented in the book, oversimplifies and misrepresents these debates. And so does the assumption that all the holders of these views are white, and that this rage is motivated by racism. Racism exists in all parts of the country and is embedded in American politics. But what the research shows is that while there are deep and persistent racial resentments in rural communities, despite a slight correlation between the two, rural resentment is an attitude distinct from racial prejudice.


 Taken as a whole, rural voters are not merely reacting against change — be it demographic or economic. They are actively seeking to preserve a sense of agency over their future and a continuity of their community’s values and social structures. Some might call this conservatism, but I think it is the same thing motivating fears of gentrification in urban areas, or the desire to “keep Portland weird.” Place matters for a whole bunch of people — but especially for rural folks.