As I noted yesterday, sociologists and historians tell us that economic insecurity and inequality provide fertile soil for racial and cultural resentments. Economic stresses don’t create those resentments, however.
Like everything else, economic conditions are experienced through a cultural lens–that is, how we interpret economic circumstances and react to them depends upon the value structures and worldviews of the people doing the interpreting. When an observer says “those people are voting against their own self-interest,” for example, that observer is applying her own definition of “self-interest”–a definition that may not be shared by the voter.
In other words, although economic conditions often trigger socially undesirable behaviors, efforts to draw a straight line between cause and effect can lead us astray.
Two recent Washington Post articles focus on some stark differences in values between urban and rural America. The first, titled “Rural Divide,” reports on a study of rural voters.
The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans — including more than 1,000 adults living in rural areas and small towns — finds deep-seated kinship in rural America, coupled with a stark sense of estrangement from people who live in urban areas. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are “very different.”
That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities: About half of urban residents say their values differ from rural people, with about 20 percent of urbanites saying rural values are “very different.”
Alongside a strong rural social identity, the survey shows that disagreements between rural and urban America ultimately center on fairness: Who wins and loses in the new American economy, who deserves the most help in society and whether the federal government shows preferential treatment to certain types of people. President Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans.
The rural/urban divide was dispositive in the 2016 election, given the way in which the Electoral College favors rural states. Hillary Clinton won urban counties by 32 points, while rural and small-town voters backed Trump by 26 points. But the percentages of rural and urban voters who were economically distressed was the same.
Although rural voters expressed concern about jobs and economic growth, researchers determined that the “largest fissures” between Americans living in cities and those in less-dense areas were based in “discomfort about the country’s changing demographics.” Rural residents were far more likely than urban dwellers to believe that immigrants are a burden to taxpayers, and that African-Americans receive undeserved government benefits.
That sense of division is closely connected to the belief among rural Americans that Christian values are under siege. Nearly 6 in 10 people in rural areas say Christian values are under attack, compared with just over half of suburbanites and fewer than half of urbanites. When personal politics is taken into account, the divide among rural residents is even larger: 78 percent of rural Republicans say Christian values are under attack, while 45 percent of rural Democrats do.
Commenting on that survey and its conclusions, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin was blunt: She began by dismissing the widespread belief that rural inhabitants voted for Trump because he paid attention to their economic plight.
We’ve never really bought that explanation, in part because Trump voters on average were richer than Hillary Clinton voters. Now there is powerful evidence of a disagreeable truth: Trump’s base was far more motivated by cultural provincialism and xenophobia than by economic need…
Trump magnificently exploited the resentments of white Christians and their anxiety about cities, which he falsely portrayed as experiencing a crime wave…
As we reenter a national conversation about anger, polarization and rhetorical excess we should expect more diligent, reasoned behavior from both politicians and voters. It is a gross exaggeration to tell rural voters that Christianity is under assault because they cannot dominate societal rules (e.g., businesses cannot discriminate against LGBT customers, official organized school prayer violates the First Amendment). It’s flat-out false to say we are being swamped by illegal immigrants. This sort of propaganda lacks a grounding in reality and amps up the already dangerous political environment, which in turn paralyzes our democracy.