Passed up by the rapid pace of demographic and cultural change over the past several decades, rural white Americans also feel like their worlds have shifted from underneath them. Allow me to provide a few illustrations of recent cultural transformations that have unsettled much of rural America.

In the 2000s, seemingly overnight, the country embraced LGBT rights. In the past few years, members of the progressive movement have now taken to affixing their preferred pronouns to their names.

Religion is another, related matter. As many urbanites have outgrown religion, many rural citizens remain devoted to Christianity, which to them is important for family values.

As cultural change unfolds at breakneck speed in urban areas, the divergence between urban and rural culture in our country only grows wider.

Most recently, in the midst of the apparent societal epiphany around racial justice that followed George Floyd’s death, many institutions have decided to begin capitalizing “Black” while not capitalizing “white.”

As cultural change unfolds at breakneck speed in urban areas, the divergence between urban and rural culture in our country only grows wider.

Because cities hold the source of power, much of rural white America is left feeling that its culture and status have been progressively eroded. This perception, combined with economic decline, feeds a bleak worldview.

Again, as I described from the beginning of this treatise, my aim here is to tell the human experience.

I recount the feelings of rural white America not because I believe they necessarily accord with beliefs that are objectively correct, but because they represent real human experience — that is, experience that cannot be delegitimized or dismissed.

While progressives tend to express incomprehensibility toward the appeal of Trump to his supporters, it is no wonder why his lip service to the “forgotten men and women of America” resonates so deeply with rural white Americans.

Nevertheless, I happen to believe in a universal moral truth that transcends space and time.

I also believe that while we must establish laws to enforce the moral truth (at least as we currently know it), imposition alone can be a counterproductive method of promoting this truth.

However, on the other side of many cultural transformations in our country, the progressive movement has moved to immediately impose newfound moral values on the entire population and has taken to denouncing anyone who is not in conformity with the change.

This pattern of behavior exhibits three problematic ironies, which only serve to widen our country’s cultural divide.

The first irony is that many progressive citizens themselves, just a short time before each transformation, held conflicting moral beliefs — but then instantly became zealots for spreading the new values.

Perhaps these individuals benefited from the level of exposure and pace of cultural change in cities (or from any number of other factors unique to their individual lives), which enlightened them to the moral truth. But could we reasonably expect rural citizens to move at the same pace? How would rural Americans react when we then suddenly imposed the new values on them, which may run contrary to many of their deeply held beliefs?

Considering the former versions of progressive citizens from the period just preceding a given moral transformation, the process of cultural imposition amounts to a double standard.

The second irony of the dynamic of cultural change has been that the very educational attainment that has helped to enlighten many progressive citizens with the moral truth has been inaccessible for many rural Americans.

Rural Americans systematically attend poorer schools and achieve lower educational outcomes than their urban counterparts. Thus, in essence, educated cosmopolitans have taken to berating uneducated rural citizens for not seeing the world in the same way that they do.

In essence, educated cosmopolitans have taken to berating uneducated rural citizens for not seeing the world in the same way that they do.

Akin to an individual with a PhD in mathematics faulting someone with a bachelor’s degree in literature for not knowing how to do matrix algebra, this social behavior amounts to a textbook case of classism.

The third irony of the process of cultural change has been the dehumanizing way in which progressive citizens have sought to apply their newfound moral views on the rest of the country.

As I highlighted above, this process has typically occurred through imposition. Demanding immediate conformity with new moral values, the progressive movement sanctimoniously denounces anyone who does not jump on its bandwagon.

When change in some places appears to be moving too slowly, we then hear statements such as, “They want to remain backward,” or “They’re just stupid,” or “That’s white trash.”

Such responses dehumanize anyone who disagrees with progressives. In other words, progressives violate their opponents’ rights to dignity and respect — some of the same inalienable rights that progressives purportedly hold so dear.

All the while, many of these cultural dramas have felt increasingly irrelevant to rural households as they have instead struggled with matters like education, healthcare, economic collapse, and the opioid epidemic.

All of the attention paid to seemingly insignificant moral issues — or matters of “political correctness” — have felt like a luxury that snobbish elites could afford to meditate on since the rest of their lives were perfectly secure.

This attitude toward elites has likely been related to a broader, cross-partisan disdain for elites in our society, which has arisen as working-class wages have stagnated and social mobility has become elusive across all of America over the past several decades.

Keeping in mind all of the foregoing observations, it is no surprise that progressive America’s typical approach to cultural change breeds resentment from many individuals who may not be as fast to jump into the progressive boat — not only rural Americans but Americans of other communities as well.

With a seeming intolerance for disagreement, the progressive movement has attempted to establish a moral purity that has been off-putting to many. For all of the progressive movement’s emphasis on tolerance and inclusion, this moral purity prioritizes near-rigid conformity, making progressives into an almost exclusive group.

The exclusivity of the progressive movement has been one of its greatest weaknesses, for members of the population who would otherwise share substantial common-ground have been excluded from the group.

No doubt, these dynamics have been exacerbated by social media, which creates an echo-chamber of groupthink in every segment of the population and, through the practice of shaming as well, reinforces conformity.

The exclusivity of the progressive movement has been one of its greatest weaknesses, for members of the population who would otherwise share substantial common-ground have been excluded from the group.

To be clear, nothing that I am arguing suggests that we should slow the pace of progress. Nor am I suggesting that we should not call out injustice wherever it exists.

Justice is long overdue, and I share the urgent desire to undo our society’s racial, patriarchal, and economic hierarchies of power that oppress some groups while elevating others.

Therefore, my critique is not of the moral values we pursue. My critique is of the strategies we employ to pursue them. These strategies suffer from deficiencies in multiple dimensions that ultimately threaten not only the success of social justice causes but also the unity of our society.

My critique is not of the moral values we pursue. My critique is of the strategies we employ to pursue them.

To remedy these deficiencies, we must firmly ground our strategies in a humanistic approach. The overarching task is to pursue social justice in a fashion that is and that feels inclusive for all groups in society — so that we do not achieve justice while simultaneously creating a disunity that threatens our very existence.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Josh Greenberg

Written by

Human, activist, scholar. Physician-Economist-in-training @UMich. CEO @proghealth. @FulbrightPrgrm Awardee. I work on anything that matters, locally & globally.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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