Agricultural livelihoods and voting patterns in a rural, southern state

17 March 2018

How can we support cross-cultural empathy and an improved understanding of the unique and diverse contexts from which support for authoritarian populism is gained?

This research specifically examines the rise of authoritarian populism in the United States through the 2016 presidential election of Donald J Trump. Throughout his campaign (and continued during the presidency), he used rhetorical tactics of authoritarian populism. As stated by Inglehart and Norris (2016), “His rhetoric peddles a mélange of xenophobic fear tactics (against Mexicans and Muslims), deep-seated misogyny, paranoid conspiracy theories about his rivals, and isolationist ‘America First’ policies abroad. His populism is rooted in claims that he is an outsider to D.C. politics, a self-made billionaire leading an insurgency movement on behalf of ordinary Americans disgusted with the corrupt establishment, incompetent politicians, dishonest Wall Street speculators, arrogant intellectuals, and politically correct liberals....Hence Trump’s rhetoric seeks to stir up a potent mix of racial resentment, intolerance of multiculturalism, nationalistic isolationism, nostalgia for past glories, mistrust of outsiders, traditional misogyny and sexism, the appeal of forceful strong-man leadership, attack-dog politics, and racial and anti-Muslim animus. ”

The “other” was broadly articulated as those that pose a threat to security (i.e. terrorists) and also those that take economic advantage of “us,” the elites. Specifically, this research will seek deeper insight into the driving forces of politics in the U.S. state of Kentucky, a state in which 62.5% of the voters elected President Donald J Trump (among the top 5 states in terms of greatest percentage of votes won). In addition, the context within the state of Kentucky conceptually aligns with the cultural and economic change arguments that have been previously associated with the rise of authoritarian populism. More recently than other states, Kentucky has undergone an agricultural transition away from the culturally and economically important agricultural commodity of tobacco. In the 1960s and 70s, the rural Kentucky economy was largely farming dependent and Kentucky still contains the greatest number of farm-dependent communities east of the Mississippi river. In the early 1990s, approximately two-thirds of Kentucky farms were growing tobacco as it was the most profitable cash crop in Kentucky. Tobacco accounted for al most 50% of Kentucky’s crop receipts and was grown in 119 out of 120 counties. However, the tobacco economy was based on a federal quota and price support program initiated in the 1930s and, in 2004, driven by changes in consumption, and in surrender to neoliberalism, the tobacco program was eliminated.

Federal and state policies have supported farmers through the transition via direct payments to tobacco growers that took place from 2004 - 2014 and supported farm enterp rise diversification through cost-share and loan programs. Despite these efforts, farm economic adjustments have been a challenge and cultural change in farm communities is still evolving. This research will examine economic change in the rural state of Kentucky. In order to account for farm households that have recently undergone change, this research will examine changes in net farm income data. However, median income for all households will also be examined given that most rural households are no longer dependent on farm income. In addition, as a proxy for cultural change, changes in the number of farmers will also be assessed. Last, in conjunction with economic and cultural change data, presidential election voting data from the last thirty years is assessed in order to better understand how the 2016 election compared to historical voting patterns within Kentucky counties.

Reasons among farmers and other rural voters for casting a vote in support of authoritarian populism are diverse and often embedded in complex, historical contexts. It seems unlikely that rural disaffection can be addressed solely through economic development and increased rural income, particularly if that development is neither culturally sensitive nor accounts for the lifestyle preferences of rural communities. In addition, it is important to closely examine the diverse mentalities that individuals may have held when casting a vote; was a vote cast for the party or for the candidate, himself? For a specific campaign value or idea, or the entire suite of values and ideas? Last, it is important as researchers to question the motivation for this angle of research and questioning regarding the rise of authoritarian populism among rural constituents. What do we do with this information? How do we begin to address the concerns and stressors of the rural constituency, of farmers, regardless of whom they voted for? Why do we seek to increase our understanding of the causal trigger and factors that characterize this urban-rural political divide? Is it in order to be able to affix blame and provide a clearer understanding of “us,” the self-perceived supporters of democracy and equality, versus “them?”

Already, from a hasty effort to categorize those that support authoritarian populists, a rhetoric of poor, backward, redneck, uneducated, and racist has arisen to characterize those in rural regions who voted for these political shifts rather than a concerted effort to understand the root cause of stress, demand for change, and the heterogeneity of this demand across the rural landscape. This line of investigation must be pursued with careful, internal reflection of our aims and intentions as researchers so as not to increase the urban-rural divide but instead support cross-cultural empathy and an improved understanding of the unique and diverse contexts from which support for authoritarian populism was/is gained.

This paper was presented at the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) 2018 Conference: "Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World"