Rural America is taking a real pounding from smug urbanites who are convinced they know everything there is to know at the moment, reminding me of why I started this series in the first place. Rural America is a very large, very complicated, very diverse place, and it is not like urban America. It’s not some mysterious exotic vacuum either, but if you have never actually been in rural America, you shouldn’t assume that you have a good grasp on what it’s like. Reading about it, and watching documentaries, and talking to a broad cross-section of rural Americans, will get you closer.
But a lot of the people I’m watching opine on rural America right now haven’t bothered to educate themselves — they’re convinced they know what they need to know. After all, rural America is simple, right? It’s filled with a bunch of burnout, dead-end, uneducated, anti-intellectual, Republican, bigoted hicks with narrow minds, small worlds, and oversized trucks. They point to electoral maps with sweeping hands, dredge up random snippets they’ve seen on the news.
I honestly don’t know how to say this any more plainly, but apparently people aren’t listening, so I will say it again: Yes, liberals exist in rural America. That includes Democrats, sure, but also socialists of various stripes, and Green Party members, and people of various leftist orientations and beliefs. I can testify that this is an actual fact from direct personal experience. There are communities in rural America that are extremely liberal, in fact — more so than some big cities that like to snipe at us.
Does that mean that the archetypical conservative small town doesn’t exist? Of course not. There are tons of rural communities that are extremely conservative. There are communities where I would not feel safe and where I would not tell many of my friends to go because it would not be safe for them either. There are absolutely cities with a conservative lock on local government, with conservatives controlling most of the money. But uh guess what you guys, there are also a lot of urban cities that match up pretty well with that too, so don’t act like you’re above us all.
Rural liberalism may not take forms you’re entirely familiar with, but let’s start with those electoral maps, which do appear as though they map very closely with rural counties in America. I’m sure you’re aware of how gerrymandering works, and of the fact that there can be decidedly liberal pockets in larger red states. The same holds true in rural areas — there are counties where some communities are virulently flamingly liberal, and two towns over, people are wildly conservative. (Sports matchups are interesting.) In many ways, rural America is a microcosm of the larger country.
I could write a whole series on the policy priorities for rural Americans, including liberals, and probably will in the coming years, but suffice it to say that plenty of communities believe in equality, explicit diversity and inclusion, and supporting each other. In many, the church plays a larger role than urbanites may be comfortable with. In some, it is conservative politicians who are fighting tooth and nail for funds to keep their communities going, who are the first to lead the charge on protecting vital community resources, like the anti-choice Democrat here who spearheaded efforts to protect immigrants. In some places, things that seem like default obvious liberal causes aren’t of as much interest because of circumstances and setting.
Some have glaring gaps which are sometimes the result of ignorance or lack of exposure more than malice. Trans people look scarce in rural areas (although we are not) in part because we are still an unknown quantity, and the reaction to the unknown is fear. Local governments might make transphobic comments because they haven’t interacted with the trans community (knowingly) and they’re flustered on how to reach out. People use outdated terms for disability issues because that’s what they were told to use in the 1980s and they are trying to be polite.
Let’s be clear: Ignorance can be malice, but that holds true in urban areas as well. There are rural boards of supervisors and city councils that are extraordinarily racist and one reason why is the heavily white composition of their communities (not all rural communities are white-dominated FYI), but I’m not going to chalk their racism down to lack of personal experience. No, it’s just racist, and their racism is what keeps people of colour from moving there, and encourages them to leave as soon as they possibly come.
But give us a little credit: We know the difference between malice and genuine unfamiliarity, between bigotry and the look of someone who’s never stopped to think about it. During the Prop 8 campaign in 2008, I talked to a lot of people who were initially planning to vote yes because they didn’t see why same-gender marriage should be allowed, or what the point was. When I pressed them on it, I often found that their argument stemmed from ignorance, not homophobia, and that when they understood the stakes and why people wanted to marry, they became ardent opponents of Prop 8. Not all communities had people willing or able to bridge that gap and a big chunk of the vote came from homophobic parts of rural Southern California, but, like, give us some credit, okay?
I live in an extremely liberal rural community, with a conservative streak where it might surprise you, and when I lived on the East Coast, I lived in a similarly liberal community. That most definitely gave me a slanted view, but I am well aware that there are many rural communities in America that are not liberal paradises filled with unicorns and kittens. However, I’m really tired of hearing the adage that liberals and the left don’t exist and can’t organise in rural America. We do and we are, sometimes against tremendous odds.
Image: Abandoned Barn View, Neal Wellons, Flickr