“A good deal of the strain and the sense of anxiety in Populism results from this rapid decline of rural America.” — Richard Hofstadter, 1955
Recently the New York Times published an article in which an English sheep farmer proposed the romantic notion that farming should be thought of as “more than a business,” by which he means — well, it’s not really clear. He seems to imply that our general refusal to think of farming this way is the real reason Trump was elected, which is a remarkably specific contribution to that popular contemporary pastime.
The author also makes the not very original observation that rural America is in decline. “[T]he world I am seeing evolve in front of my eyes isn’t better, it is worse. Much worse.” His evidence? On his first visit to rural America, here’s what he saw:
… shabby wood-frame houses rotting by the roadside, and picket fences blown over by the wind. I passed boarded-up shops in the hearts of small towns, and tumbledown barns and abandoned farmland. The church notice boards were full of offers of help to people with drug or alcohol addictions. And yes, suddenly I was passing cars with Trump stickers on their bumpers, and passing houses with Trump flags on their lawns.
The openness about drug use and the presence of Trump stuff aside, this reminds me of my own reaction, on my first visit to rural America — in the early 1980s. I grew up mostly living in small cities in rural Canada myself, and both my parents were raised in farming families, so I was more or less familiar with at least one version of North American rural life. But I had never encountered anything like the unique and weirdly consistent forms of dilapidation and abandonment, and the general sense of menace I picked up, just from the sights along that American highway.
Even the substance abuse and its terrible impact on people is in a sense not new as a rural phenomenon. In more than one way, including easy recourse to the violent application of the law as a means to solve a social problem, it’s no accident that prohibition was a movement led by rural activists.
Was the general dilapidation I saw in the 80s a sign of decline? I am not so sure. It struck me as a pretty stable situation.
What I saw, and what the English sheep farmer saw, and what the rest of us city folk are seeing, now that we’re really looking, might need a narrative besides that of decline: rather, it may be more productive to view it as a return to a very difficult form of normality.
I agree with what almost everyone is saying about the effects of inequality and stagnation in middle-class wages. But if post-WWII American rural industrial development represented a temporary, one-off set of conditions, then, unfortunately, what we are seeing in some parts of the country may be better understood as characteristic of an inherently difficult situation — one only exacerbated by technology that replaces the need for rural and factory labor.
It’s worth at least considering the idea, because if it’s true, then we need to face reality and what it means squarely, in order to fix it.
On the pop culture side of things, one thing everyone seems to repress when they contemplate the loss of Smallvillesque peace and prosperity in rural America, is the fact that so many Western movies that depict the historical origins of these places are pretty close to being in the horror genre. (If you don’t like horror movies, don’t watch this.)
Just think for a moment about the way of life these movies depict.
The way Americans represent their own past in Westerns, and the delight they take in all the gunfighting and conflict in the streets (something which I share, when it comes to the movies — I am a fan of violent Westerns), might actually tell us something about how people have always lived in the rural areas of the States. It speaks to the historical origins, and the specific nature, of what we might call the “emotional inheritance” characteristic of white rural American life, that people are currently at such pains to understand and explain.
To pick just one example of the effect of emotional inheritance, consider why it is that so many Americans base the justification of their need for guns to kill people with, on their declared fears of what are often elaborate, and unbelievable, imaginary attack scenarios, particularly on their homes, targeting their families.
Is it possible that rural America has always been more hole-in-the-head “Reap it, Murphy!”-ish, more “They call me Mister Tibbs!” racist, more Twelve-Years-A-Slave brutal, more Deliverance-y, more No-One-Sees-A-Problem-With-Dennis-Hastert’s-Armchair, than it has ever been, I don’t know, more like Pleasantville? Is it possible that the American conservative view, that people will only work if they are subject to some kind of threat or danger, has its roots in their country’s unique rural history?
If you don’t think a culture’s representation of itself in its most popular forms of entertainment is a good way of understanding its way of life and its history, then by all means let’s take a look at some more formal representations of the American rural past.
In the Dirty Thirties, things weren’t so hot for a lot of people in cities too, but anyone visiting places like rural Oklahoma would have seen a lot of rural misery. Here’s a good description of a very serious novel you may have heard of set around the time of the Dust Bowl:
…the novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. Due to their nearly hopeless situation, and in part because they are trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California. Along with thousands of other “Okies”, they seek jobs, land, dignity, and a future.
Incidentally, one thing you learn living in a region where farming is important to the economy, is just how much people’s lives are dependent on seasonal chance, with the looming threat of years-long drought. There is a pervading sense of ever-present economic risk and danger. (Not that it’s a real justification, but just keep this in mind when you hear rural people complaining about government employees with permanent jobs funded by the giant and diverse national economy.)
Compounding this aspect of their uncertainty about the future, farmers are often in debt to banks in a way that puts their livelihood at risk, not the more familiar situation people have with debt from their student days, which delays the purchase of their first car or house. By saying this, I don’t intend to diminish the terrible impact of the university tuition and student debt catastrophe. Rather, my intention is to elevate our sympathy for the day-to-day feelings of struggling farmers, and all the people in their communities whose livelihoods depend on what those farmers produce.
Farmers are often also benefiting, sometimes existentially, from subsidies, a situation which, like debt, creates a contradiction with the representation of the farmer as a rugged individualist, and thereby lays the foundation for the continual contest to merit one’s own projection of personal pride, that characterizes so much of rural life.
It is a pretty hard life, and the memories of just how much harder it used to be in some ways are ever-present, in both anecdote and individual memory. This is another reality all around us that we repress when we talk narrowly about decline.
I remember once when I was young, my father was picking me and my brother up from a friend’s house in winter. We were complaining about the cold; it was something like -30° Celsius outside. As we were getting bundled up, my dad took a look at us and said, not in a joking manner, “When I was your age, in the morning, I had to go out onto the ice and cut a hole in it with an axe, so the horses could drink.” I was just about to make a snarky joke about old people and their uphill-both-ways exaggerations, when my friend’s father got a surprised look on his face, and said excitedly, “You had to do that too?” They chatted longer than usual, that time, before we left and got into our nice warm car, that had been running outside the whole time.
Pardon my digression. Here is a passage from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on the Roosevelts, No Ordinary Time, that is a reminder how persistent some problems in rural areas can be:
During Eleanor’s first summer as first lady, Franklin had asked her to investigate the economic situation in Appalachia. The Quakers had reported terrible conditions of poverty there, and the president wanted to check these reports…. In one shack, she found a boy clutching his pet rabbit, which his sister had just told him was all there was left to eat.
Unfortunately, we are still hearing about “the economic situation in Appalachia,” a phrase which might almost be elevated at this point to being a tragic byword.
Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Evangelical Spirit,” in his book Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, gives a striking account of life in the early days of rural America, including contemporary accounts of the economic blight, savagery, and violence that characterized much of rural life, especially on the frontiers.
More sympathetic to the plight of the country folk than some of the itinerant ministers whose accounts he quotes from, Hofstadter explains something important about what life was like for rural people, especially those on the frontiers:
But men and women living under conditions of poverty and exacting toil, facing the hazards of Indian raids, fevers, and agues, and raised on whisky and brawling, could not afford education and culture; and they found it easier to reject what they could not have than to admit the lack of it as a deficiency in themselves.
These examples of how life in rural America has never been great everywhere at once are pretty obvious, but at this moment of cultural panic it is important to remember that things have always been hard to some degree in rural America, and what we are witnessing may be a return to the way things really used to be. It is not a nice thought but these are not nice times.
We need to remember that from the beginning, rural American life sucked for everyone, given the predictable hardships, and especially given the ferociousness one had to accept into one’s heart, and the life one had to live, to engage in a genocidal campaign of occupation against the native people, and to whip, chain and rape those whom you treated like property, for the sake of individual gain. How much worse it was yet to be one of the subjects of that genocide, and that slavery, it is perhaps not my place to say, but of course there is emotional inheritance for those rural communities and their descendants that also merits everyone’s serious attention, in addition to the current preoccupation in the American news media with rural whites.
Ditching the idea of rural America as a static idyll, when in truth it has always been rapidly changing and going through dramatic ups and downs, and where dilapidation, difficulty making a living, racism, economic uncertainty, threat, risk, danger and violence, might in fact be normal conditions in the long run, helps us to remember the hardships that have always been borne and inflicted, and in some cases, at least for some time, overcome.
Some people enjoy it, but farming and rural living is not for everyone. As I understand it, my grandparents on one side liked it, and my grandparents on the other side did not. For some people, of course, the city-suburb, chained-to-a-desk life would be torture. But the range of available people and things to interact with in rural areas is just too limited for some styles of mind. All too often, to feel at home in places like these, you have to fit right in, living within a very narrow and exclusive range of possible, and acceptable, activities, views, and occupations.
I have some friends from back home who still make a point of saying it was pretentious of me to patronize a plain old Irish bar when I started drinking beer. Where I grew up, the Irishness, and especially the act of drinking a beer from a pint glass, rather than a bottle, were exotic things, and people reacted to the differences as a kind of rebuke to their own ways.
This kind of micro-policing of other people’s behaviour is one of the worst aspects of rural life, because there’s often so little privacy, and people can be so presumptuously interfering. If you don’t like the media supposedly “telling us how to live” (according to Trump), good luck living in a small town that venerates “an old way of doing things,” and then doing anything that is even slightly outside the normal range of things people do there. You won’t need to wait for a newspaper article or TV show segment to hear people tell you exactly how you should be doing things.
Try something as simple as not liking football. Try something as basic as not giving a shit about cars or other mechanical things. Like many other people from rural North America, I have no personal experience with this myself, but I venture to add to this list, try not being white. That is about as politely as I care to put it, because I am describing a way of relating to others that is so often joyfully brutal, especially to people who do not fit in to the dominant local forms of life, or who are essentially subjects of a ruling group.
In his article for the big city paper, the English sheep farmer on his international book tour, extolling the virtues of an isolated rural life, boasts that where he lives, he is “surrounded” by a community. Surrounded is perhaps an apt word to use. I have not been to his local village and I have not met his neighbours, and I’m sure in many ways it’s a fine place to live and they are very fine people themselves, but before you take that invocation of community to be the straightforwardly positive thing it is presented as being, and move to rural England yourself to enjoy its bucolic pleasures, I suggest you watch this movie.
If we city dwellers are all going to be presumptuously exhorting each other to start paying special attention to white rural America and help fix its peoples’ problems, and reporting back on what we find there like Eleanor did so well at the request of Franklin, then we should stop characterizing all the negative characteristics of the present as a profound decline from some natural, normal, permanent, stable, positive state of affairs. This happened less than 60 years ago during that very time we’re all supposed to hearken back to so fondly. Rural romanticism is a poor response to rural reality.