Was it rural populism? Returning to the country, “catching up,” and trying to understand the Trump vote

17 March 2018
How does the sense of collective devastation resulting from changes in upper Midwest farming communities contribute to a political “empathy wall”?

American manufacturing continues its long death spiral. Development policy favors burgeoning, urban, creative classes. A racist, misogynist, Christian and/or heteronormative political class lashes out against the perceived gains of women and minorities. The Democratic Party now privileges urban elites with presumed intellectual superiority. These narratives would be but a few on an over-long list of common diagnoses of a tide of alleged populism across rural America. While these claims may have purchase, they also require urgent interrogation, as many contribute to an Othering discourse that renders the country as backwards, hick, redneck, uneducated or mystified by religion. In this context of toxic and divisive politics, this paper looks for ways to scale what can be understood as a political “empathy wall”.

Building upon literatures including rural sociology and political science, this paper details a mixed methods project that began in a quasi-autobiographical fashion: semi-structured and unstructured interviews by a left-progressive researcher among classmates, teachers, churchgoers, farmers and others in his rural Midwestern hometown. This personalized micro-case study is then read through and against multi-decade trends observed in U.S. census and voter data for rural Midwestern counties. These data are complemented by a remote sensing analysis of land use and cropland obtained from 20 years of Landsat imagery. What emerges is a multi-layered story of farming communities where agrarian and neoliberal political economic change (and a lack thereof) have contributed to a kind of “desiccation” in the supposed heartland. This research explicitly looks for what Scoones et al. (2017) have described as emancipatory rural politics. In doing so, this research complicates stark narratives of populism and finds underlying politics and worries in the country that may have resonance in the city. And vice versa.

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