An Anticolonial Fight in the U.S. Heartland? No, But…

by | Jul 1, 2024 | Commentary, Featured

We focus on the fights.

The left explodes in anger when someone from the right insults gender diversity or fails to criticize a racist statement. Understandably. The right stews in rage as the left scoffs at conservatives, speaking as if all are racist and homophobic. “A lot of liberal commentators look down on people like me,” thought one Louisiana man. Another stressed liberals’ scolding: “I don’t want to be told I’m a bad person.” Understandably.

And, of course, each side has their echo chambers, amplifying their fear and rage.

Still, politics is won not by convincing everyone that your side is right, but by convincing slices of the electorate. And there is a slice that once voted for Democrats (and might again). This slice deserves the left’s attention and empathy.

Beginning around 2009, rural and small-town white Americans began sending messages like this: “I’m afraid my children and grandchildren are not going to inherit the same country I inherited.” Middle-of-the-road, not-wanting-to-offend-anyone, small-town folk are, today, facing an array of desperate challenges. One partisan struggle in this election year concerns which party can show that they empathize with the harsh circumstances these folk are facing.

In other generations, the Democratic party successfully helped this slice of the American people, and they continue to organize to do just that. Yet to many in small-towns, Democrats appear to be “talking to a different alienated group.” Part of that is real: the party seeks to build a broad coalition. But part is the media and echo chambers of the right making rural Americans feel as if they are being ignored.

This is not a small part of the electorate. Around 1 in 5 live in rural and small-town America, and large numbers of them, starting more than a decade ago, began rebelling, with some embracing the Tea Party and then MAGA. Some are full-throated in their support, and some — a key slice — are holding their nose.

Rural America has rebelled before: in the late-19th century, when railroads had a chokehold on agricultural goods flowing to the growing American cities; in the Great Depression, when the dust bowl and falling prices devastated them.

In these eras, they rebelled for commonsense reasons. When under attack and with their livelihoods no longer tenable, rural Americans reach for their proverbial torches and pitchforks.

A slice of today’s rural and small-town rebellion is likewise a commonsensical, natural reaction to the position these folks find themselves in, which is not completely unlike an exploitative, colonial relationship with the more thriving parts of America. Except . . . not.

My college town is like so many peppered through both blue and red states. Where have jobs grown most steadily? This college town, with housing prices skyrocketing far past working-class budgets. Want kale? Quinoa? A range of ethnic restaurants and a surplus of coffee shops? A farmer’s market with wine stalls, and local, organic meats? Check.

College towns, urban areas, and suburbs import the labor they live on, import organic goods and the best coffee, have more diversity than the hinterlands all around them, and just look at all the construction cranes, year after year.

Rural America and the small towns without colleges as engines of growth? Most jobs are elsewhere, luring the young away. Rural zip codes are aging fast.

Their few blocks of main street have shops closing, and doctors are hard to come by. Schools underperform, and opiates are destroying lives. Is it a family member, a close friend, or a more distant relative who is addicted (or who overdosed)? In these communities, it is someone you know, with trauma rippling outward.

Want a Dollar Store? Travel a few miles in any direction from a college town, and you won’t be far from one . . . and you’ll find few other stores except for the convenience kind.

Less tangible: where is hope? Will new shops be opening? Will doctors become more accessible in time? In more than one poll, the white working class so many living in these small towns — are the most despairing of anyone the nation.

This new world seems foreign in layers of ways. Just a generation ago, few were talking about gay marriage, much less transgender rights or defunding the police. These are things that aging, white, hetero-normed folks have to do quite a bit of work to fit within the worldview built in the 20th century.

Between a growing racial diversity on the one hand and growing proportion of the population with college degrees, the share of the electorate comprised of whites without a college degree has plummeted. From a decisive majority in 1980 (69% of the electorate), they account for only 39% of voters in 2020! For some on the left, that speed of change is a balm: the nation has become both more diverse and more accepting of more than one kind of diversity.

For others, perhaps especially in these smaller, slower-to-change, less diverse, and more traditional communities, the world has simply diverged — so rapidly! — from their inherited worldview.

That’s not easy work. Shifting a worldview to change how we put the facts of the world together into a story that makes sense to us can be jarring as we question things as fundamental as identity: who we are and how we fit into the (new) world around us.

A key ingredient to the intensity of the rural American revolt? Imagine an era when small-town America was thriving, when the future looked bright, when families believed their jobs were safe and their home (their main investment) was growing in value, their neighborhoods a stable place for the next generation. How much more accepting might folks be of change, of diversity, in such a world where the future looked brighter?

Instead, the social and cultural sea-changes in the nation over the last generation have come to rural and small-town communities when they have been ground to the bone by economic and demographic and pharmacological dislocation.

This is painful. Ask anyone — anywhere on the political spectrum and of any age or background and in any part of the world — to change their worldview, and you will likely meet reluctance.

Ask them to rethink their worldview in a time of painful dislocation, when their family’s prospects are declining rather than rising? Out come the pitchforks.

This is not an anticolonial rebellion, but it is useful to try on this perspective to bring some things into view. Colonies typically provide labor and resources to their owners, often being (in relative terms at least) immiserated in the process. America’s urban/rural divide offers some correlations there. It might help to understand the emotion, the anger, the references to tea parties and taking America back. All of these things at least rhyme with how we think of anti-colonial fights, with rural America pushed into servicing its more privileged suburban cousins and pushing back — hard.

But colonies also tend to be politically marginalized. Today’s rural areas not only have representation; our government is strongly skewed in favor of them.  Rural and small-town representation — in state houses, the House, the Electoral College, and especially the Senate — is far larger than their proportion of the population.

Politicians then skillfully deploy small-town anger and anxieties: this rural rebellion is well-funded — even appropriated — by rich on the right. It is likewise subsidized — “fomented” even — by multiple right-wing media outlets relishing any opportunity to hit liberal elites.

Rebellions can be against tyranny, or they can be against scapegoats, advancing tyranny. Tsars goaded Russians to punch down at Jews in their midst; conservative whites directed the South’s extraordinary post-Civil-War fears in the direction of repressing African Americans.

These Russian and white southern historical actors had fears and anxieties that were real to them. More, they faced legitimate downturns and dislocations: it was not easy to be Russian or a white southerner in their times.

But these historical actors lashed out with some of the worst offenses of the last few centuries: pogroms and lynchings and more. Some rebellions fight for greater justice; others very much do not.

If the left (and middle) of America does not want to see the right continue to monopolize this discontent, telling convincing stories of betrayal to small-town America, it needs to take the legitimate, long-simmering and deeply felt fears, losses, and frustrations of small-town Americans to heart. The left (and middle) need to start telling stories that more accurately address the real issues facing the persuadable slice of this large swath of the nation.

People with little hope, who fear the future, will look to those who hear them, who see them, who demonstrate that they care.

Politics is the art of compromise. What is the art of democracy? Empathy.


Postscript: replace “rural” with “urban working-class” throughout, and most of this essay likewise works. There is more than one demographic or part of the ideological spectrum in crisis today.



Michael Trotti is Professor of History at Ithaca College and author, most recently, of “The End of Public Execution: Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South.” He has also written essays on violence, lynching, and the death penalty in the Journal of American History and the Journal of Social History and a book on the press and murder called “The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South.”

Header image by Chad Peltola on Unsplash.


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