The agrarian origins of authoritarian rural populism in the United States: what can we learn from 20th century struggles in California and the Midwest?

15 Marzo 2018
Paper

Interrogating the politics of rural places in generating both support for and struggle against authoritarian populism.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president came as a surprise to many people – but generally not to farmers and rural communities. We ask: Why do the politics of the rural US seem so regressive at this current moment? What explains the rise and growth of white supremacist language, organization, action, and power? Looking to histories of small farmer and farm labor organising in two key agricultural regions – California and the Midwest – we find some answers.

California, we show, has been a principal site for honing the discourses, strategies, and tactics of consolidating right-wing power in the US. From ‘Associated Farmers’ front groups of the 1930s through Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, we follow the roots of authoritarian rural populism now re-emergent with Trump. The Midwest, in turn, sheds light on a rich tradition of rural organizing. Though often considered a bastion of right-wing sentiment, Heartland politics have successfully linked rural peoples to contest low crop prices, exploitative labor conditions, and regional disinvestments.

In synthesising lessons across cases, we provide a functional lens through which to understand contemporary prospects for emancipation. How can Othering and similar racialised constructs, that have long been used to divide the working class and undermine rural organising, be dismantled? Can we meaningfully confront authoritarian rural populism without confronting the political-economic foundations of its development: notably, capitalism, its current manifestation in hegemonic neoliberalism, and failed approaches for reform? From these kernels of inquiry, we build towards a second paper focused on contemporary efforts to define and practice emancipatory change.

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