“Can Anything Be Done To Assuage Rural Rage?” That was the title of Paul Krugman’s NY Times column on Thursday. He described the problem but wasn’t sure how to solve it. On Friday, Brian Beutler made a suggestion in his Big Tent newsletter. First, some of Krugman:
Rural resentment has become a central fact of American politics — in particular, a pillar of support for the rise of right-wing extremism. As the Republican Party has moved ever further into MAGAland, it has lost votes among educated suburban voters; but this has been offset by a drastic rightward shift in rural areas… But is this shift permanent? Can anything be done to assuage rural rage?
The answer will depend on two things: whether it’s possible to improve rural lives and restore rural communities, and whether the voters in these communities will give politicians credit for any improvements that do take place.
Katherine Cramer, the author of The Politics of Resentment … attributes rural resentment to perceptions that rural areas are ignored by policymakers, don’t get their fair share of resources and are disrespected by “city folks”.
As it happens, all three perceptions are largely wrong….
The truth is that ever since the New Deal rural America has received special treatment from policymakers. It’s not just farm subsidies, which [in 2020] accounted for around 40 percent of total farm income. Rural America also benefits from special programs that support housing, utilities and business in general.
In terms of resources, major federal programs disproportionately benefit rural areas, in part because such areas have a disproportionate number of seniors receiving Social Security and Medicare. But even means-tested programs — programs that Republicans often disparage as “welfare” — tilt rural. Notably, at this point rural Americans are more likely than urban Americans to be on Medicaid and receive food stamps.
And because rural America is poorer than urban America, it pays much less per person in federal taxes, so in practice major metropolitan areas hugely subsidize the countryside. These subsidies don’t just support incomes; they support economies: Government and the so-called health care and social assistance sector each employ more people in rural America than agriculture, and what do you think pays for those jobs?
What about rural perceptions of being disrespected? Well, many people have negative views about people with different lifestyles; that’s human nature. There is, however, an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to seek rural votes by insulting big cities and their residents, but it would be unforgivable for urban politicians to return the favor. “I have to go to New York City soon,” tweeted J.D. Vance during his senatorial campaign. “I have heard it’s disgusting and violent there.” Can you imagine, say, Chuck Schumer saying something similar about rural Ohio, even as a joke?
So the ostensible justifications for rural resentment don’t withstand scrutiny — but that doesn’t mean things are fine. A changing economy has increasingly favored metropolitan areas with large college-educated work forces over small towns. The rural working-age population has been declining, leaving seniors behind. Rural men in their prime working years are much more likely than their metropolitan counterparts to not be working. Rural woes are real.
Ironically, however, the policy agenda of the party most rural voters support would make things even worse, slashing the safety-net programs these voters depend on….
But can they also have a positive agenda for rural renewal? As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent recently pointed out, the infrastructure spending bills enacted under President Biden, while primarily intended to address climate change, will also create large numbers of blue-collar jobs in rural areas and small cities. They are, in practice, a form of the “place-based industrial policy” some economists have urged to fight America’s growing geographic disparities….
But even if these policies improve rural fortunes, will Democrats get any credit?
Prof. Krugman is skeptical. Brian Beutler is too. But he has a suggestion:
By certain measures, we’re living through a brighter morning in America than the younger half of the population has ever experienced. Not by all measures. [But] unemployment has never been lower. The inflation crisis you heard so much about wasn’t imaginary, but it was more than offset for most workers by higher wages, and in any case, it appears to have ended months ago. A greater percentage of Americans have health insurance than ever before. And the economy is poised for huge investments in domestic manufacturing, infrastructure, and clean energy.
Plug it all into some of the tidier theories of American politics, and you’d expect us to be living through an era of calm and good feeling, a fallow season for demagogues who fan mass grievances for personal enrichment and political gain.
And yet…. Right-wing madness doesn’t seem to have receded, at least as a temptation for Republican politicians….The reality of our strong economy has not defined perceptions of it, which have tended to resemble doom-laced political reporting and outright propaganda, rather than raw data gathered by government agencies and other researchers. A huge percentage of Americans believes that the country is in the midst of a recession. Inflation remained a major, stated concern for voters long after prices had stabilized….
The prevailing orthodoxy continues to hold that the best way to head off a MAGA takeover runs through the pocketbooks of Republican voters, or by conceding to their cultural grievances….
What if elections were instead about the things that most disgust voters about Republicans? The things that just cost Republicans so dearly in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere? What if the best way to defeat the fascist threat isn’t with a bottom-up approach of deradicalization-through-industrial-policy, but a top-down approach of exposing and revolting against the GOP’s corrupt, medieval politics? Or at least, why not try both?
… In a world where concerted messaging can persuade most people that a good economy is actually bad, and where issue salience is often a function of passing propaganda campaigns and media fixations, it’s … strange to assume that Republican-coded cultural issues are the only ones that might preoccupy voters ahead of an election. Especially after 2022. I think we have enough experience by now to understand what MAGA really is, and how to make Republican politicians regret clothing themselves in it.
Back in 2015 and 2016 the centrist political establishment … were at pains to explain the effect D____ T____ had on his rallygoers—the way they’d thrill to his attacks on Mexicans and Muslims and others—as an artifact of their “economic anxiety.” Journalists needed a way to explain what everyone was seeing without appearing biased against Republicans. Conservatives wanted to paper over the pathologies of the GOP base for brand-management purposes. Progressives wanted to go to bat for the salutary effects of egalitarian economic policy.
I had this gag at the time that admittedly got a bit out of hand, where a T____ supporter, rich or poor, would do something capital-D Deplorable on camera, and I’d say he was simply anxious about wage competition from low-skilled immigrants or whatever. Point is, it was clear even then that the appeal was the fascism itself… Voters don’t dislike Democrats for principally economic reasons. They prefer Republicans because they are swamped with right-wing rhetoric and ideas and lies that they find appealing or presume to be true, and the best way to disrupt that dynamic is to alter the informational stew with new ingredients.
The principal reason to build a more egalitarian polity is that you think it’s important for people to lead fulfilling and secure lives….. If you want people to embrace the promise of liberal democracy, you have to persuade them of its inherent virtues, not fatten their wallets and hope they can be made to believe the extra cash came from liberalism. If you want voters to abandon politicians who are corrupt, dishonest, menacing, you have to convince them that their corruption and dishonesty and menace outweighs anything else about them that might seem appealing. You have to put real effort into making their fundamental faithlessness a liability for them. And we know voters will respond to that effort, because they just did [in the 2022 election].