• Jae Basiliere

Does the Rural/Urban Divide Matter?: Race, Voting Patterns, and Education in a ‘Stratified’ Country

**This text is edited from a presentation I gave at the American Studies National Association Meetings in 2017.**

The image of a rural/urban divide carries significant weight in our current political climate. In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to power, liberal commentators are quick to blame rural America for all of our social ills, and mark it as the root of the conservative base. While there may be some use value in understanding the distinctions between urban and rural America, blaming rural communities for our current political climate obscures a much greater social divide.

Headlines such as the ones below are ubiquitous, and nearly universally tell the same story. “They’re Trump-strong in rural Iowa—and not changing their minds,” from the Kansas Star (10/27/17). “Bridging America’s urban-rural divide will strengthen country,” from Dallas News (10/05/17). “How our appetite for cheap food drove rural America to Trump,” from the Washington Post (06/30/17). “Why rural America voted for Trump,” from the New York Times (01/05/17).

All of these headlines, and the articles that accompany them, carry the same set of assumptions about rural America. They talk about rural spaces as being inherently backwards, uneducated, prone to bigotry, and easily swayed by hateful rhetoric. Rural spaces are always working class and always uniformly white.

This still is from a November 9th, 2016 MSNBC video, featuring Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd, called “How rural America fueled Trump’s victory.”

This graphic, from the opening of the segment, breaks down the counties where Trump won the majority vote by the presence of Cracker Barrel restaurants and Whole Foods grocery stores. The voiceover narration of this image frames this divide as a “culture gap,” a gap which is clearly occurring across class lines. Cracker Barrel is unquestioningly a restaurant that caters to a working class clientele, while Whole Foods sells $6 bottles of water and individually wrapped, pre-peeled oranges. The culture gap here is about access to wealth, and the presumed level of education that comes along with that access.

But this is not new. We’ve been tracking this divide between the “cultured” clientele of Whole Foods and the uneducated, uncultured patrons of Cracker Barrel since Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory over Bush Senior.

The implications here could not be clearer. Positioning the rural/urban divide as a “gap” between people who eat at Cracker Barrel and people who shop at Whole Foods clearly brands the rural as poor or working class and primarily white. The shock, then, that Chuck Todd tells us urban liberals feel at Trump’s election, stems from an inability to communicate with or understand the kinds of people who eat at Cracker Barrel. Further, by using the presence of Cracker Barrel within a county to illustrate “how rural America fueled Trump’s victory,” Chuck Todd excuses his viewers from any culpability in Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat. The people who shop at Whole Foods didn’t do anything wrong. Trump only won 22% of the counties wealthy enough to support an expensive organic grocer. Another iteration of this “culture gap,” people who shop at Walmart vs. people who drink Starbucks coffee, paints the same picture.

This image accompanies a Business Insider article addressing responses to Trump’s January 27th Executive Order barring individuals from seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—from entering the country. The headline, “Trump’s base couldn’t care less about the immigration-ban uproar,” positions negative reactions to Trump’s Order as exclusively occurring among those who were already pre-disposed to disagree with the President’s decisions.

The piece supports this by opening with the following framing:

“Many of President Donald Trump’s core political supporters had a simple message on

Sunday for the fiercest opponents of his immigration ban: calm down. The relaxed

reaction among the kind of voters who drove Trump’s historic victory—working- and

middle-class residents of the Midwest and the South—provided a striking contrast to the

uproar that has gripped major coastal cities, where thousands of protesters flocked to

airports where immigrants had been detained.”

This text, coupled with this accompanying image, lay clear some of the biases inherent in many (if not most) discussions of Trump’s loyal base. The clothing and hairstyle choices pictured here are clearly coded as working class. The American flag cowboy hats and the stars and stripes backing the t-shirt of the man in the middle remind us of the unwavering patriotism presumably found in the country. The “Hillary for Prison” t-shirt, bearing a phrase that is not rooted in an actual understanding of US case law, reminds us that rural folk are largely uneducated.

The article itself, like many analyses of the relationship between rural and urban America, posits these two spaces as binary opposites. The claim that Trump’s election victory came at the hands of working- and middle-class residents of the Midwest and the South serves to excuse urban liberals from any culpability in our current state of affairs. The “striking contrast” painted between the indifference of these Midwestern and Southern Trump fans and the major coastal cities in uproar forecloses any possibility of overlap between these two, obviously culturally distinct, landscapes. Here, the Midwest and South are always rural and coastal spaces are always urban. This ignores the fact that Midwestern and Southern cities—Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, and Indianapolis, to name a few—had their own large-scale protests in response to the January immigration ban. Further, it collapses important distinctions between and among critics of this particular Executive Order, in favor of the message that urbane, liberal, well-educated people in coastal cities are the sole voices rising up against a policy so blatantly anti-Islam that it didn’t hold up in a Court of Appeals.

These are not cherry-picked or isolated instances. Mainstream media discussions of Donald Trump’s rise to power nearly universally mark a contrast between his conservative, uneducated, rural base and his liberal, educated, urban critics. Coverage of the “urban/rural divide” as a unique and easily definable phenomenon, in addition to perpetuating a number of harmful assumptions about people who live in rural areas, also serves to absolve urban liberal voters of any responsibility for Trump’s presidency. Media coverage that marks rural America as the driving force behind Trump’s election sends the message that these parts of the country as solely responsible for his election.

As a counterpoint to this overwhelming narrative, I’d like to spend a minute thinking about this 2004 image. This is an AP photo of Janice King, a country music fan, holding up a Kerry/Edwards sign at a Bush campaign stop.

This image first came on my radar when I saw it in Dean Hubbs’ book Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, and I’ve loved it ever since. J King, like the Trump fans in the previous image, is clearly coded as rural and working class. She’s wearing a sleeveless Alan Jackson t-shirt where his face appears to be airbrushed on, her bra is showing under her shirt, she’s wearing a very stylized cross necklace, her hair has been inexpertly bleached, and she has a Marlboro cigarette hanging out of her mouth. No one is going to look at this woman and assume that she’s middle-class or lives in an urban area. Even if we only saw her from the forehead up, the creases of her skin and the color of her hair would mark her as working class.

What’s so beautiful here is the way that King boldly challenges the assumptions we make about rural and working class folk. She is holding a Kerry/Edwards sign at a Bush rally, and she is clearly unashamed. Her body posture is confident and she stares directly at the camera. In his analysis of this image, Hubbs talks about the ridicule King endures in the popular press after this image is released. People made jokes about her intelligence, questioned whether she was confused about which rally she was attending, and speculated about whether or not she had been paid to hold the sign as a gag. The association between working class folk and conservative voting is so strong that the idea of a woman who is both clearly working class and favors a Democratic candidate is unimaginable. As Hubbs points out, and I’ll return to in a moment, this runs counter to the fact that working class and poor voters actually vote for Democratic candidates more often than not. The assumption that poor folk are always conservative is not based in empirical data.

This tendency to uncritically combine rural, poor, and conservative; and the subsequent blame that is assigned after that collapse, becomes evident in the increasingly popular trend on social media sites of replacing Donald Trump’s name with the hashtag #notmypresident. This trend, which originated on Twitter, has been picked up by public figures such as Lady Gaga, America Ferrera, and Rashida Jones. The phrase is now printed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, and a variety of other consumable products. While there has been some public critique of this trend, it has largely taken the form of tone policing—both from fans of Trump’s political work and liberals who find the disavowal of Trump’s presidency counterproductive and divisive.

My issue with #notmypresident doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not it’s divisive, or the process of “healing” a country which some people are just now realizing is deeply stratified. The issue here is the ease with which #notmypresident allows scared liberals to disavow any responsibility for the cultural conditions that made Trump’s platform so appealing. I don’t like it. I can work to resist it every day. But Donald Trump is absolutely my president. As a white, liberal, excessively educated voter; to say anything but is to disavow my role in creating a world where a platform based on exclusion had such a broad appeal. #notmypresident may be appealing in the ways it allows us an escape, into a fantasy world where Donald Trump is really not our president. But that escapism, while momentarily satisfying, does nothing to rectify the state of affairs we find ourselves facing.

It is true that data from the 2016 presidential election highlights a surge in conservative voting in rural areas of the United States. Commentators have been quick to speculate about the Trump campaign’s ability to make populist claims translate for rural communities, highlighting moments of blatant racism, xenophobia, and sexism originating from regions of our country understood as less cultured. There are two versions of this argument. Version One argues that rural and working class voters are duped into voting against their own interests, either through the use of sneaky language that obscures the real impact of social policy or through a centering of white supremacy above individual need. Version Two argues that Democrats brought this surge in conservative voting on themselves, by not paying enough attention to the needs of rural and working class voters. In both narratives, the rural voter is uneducated, ruthlessly self-involved, and unable to make informed decisions. This writing tells us that rural voters flock to Trump in droves because he makes them feel important and because voters are able to perceive him as on their side. Trump reached the unreachable.

However, if we look at that same voter data set through a different lens, we see a very different picture of the Trump base. As broken as our electoral college may be, the rural and working-class vote is not strong enough to drive a presidential victory by itself. In fact, 54% of white men with college degrees voted for Donald Trump, along with 43% of white women with college degrees. (Note: we don't have these final numbers for 2020 yet, but they're on track to be even more stark.)

These voters make up a significant portion of the 63% of white men and 53% of white women who voted for Trump overall. According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton significantly outperformed Trump, 52% to 41%, among voters who earned less than $50,000 a year. Far from being a symptom of under-educated and under-employed rural spaces, Donald Trump rose to power at the hands of silent white people. These voters were overwhelmingly uncomfortable with the hate-filled rhetoric of the Trump campaign, but not uncomfortable enough to cast their vote elsewhere. Rural America is not the problem here. The problem is an environment that makes racism, xenophobia, and sexism palatable to more than 50% of white voters. This is why I find #notmypresident so objectionable. To disavow responsibility for Donald Trump’s presidency is to disavow the reality that racism and sexism remain so deeply embedded in our cultural imagination that they swing presidential elections.

As an educator who teaches in a red corridor of a pink state, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past ten months thinking about how these narratives impact my classroom. Teaching politicized content in a college classroom in 2017 requires balancing a number of competing truths. First, 2016 did bring a surge of conservative voting in rural areas, including the rural counties in west Michigan that many of my students call home. I work every day with students who were raised in conservative and/or religious homes, hold conservatives views themselves, and are predisposed to discount my words as Fake News or Liberal Brainwashing when I point out systemic inequalities. These students often require different language and better buttressing as they begin to think about the role of institutional injustice. These ideas run counter to the ideologies they’ve internalized, and it requires significant support to help them see the world differently.

It is also true that my colleagues and I may experience the temptation to write some of these students off as unteachable, unreachable, or incapable of reevaluating how they see the world. Even as someone who writes and thinks in the field of rural queer studies, I have to regularly remind myself not to make snap judgements about my students based on my perception of their politics or ideologies. The messaging that rural America is universally and dogmatically conservative is strong. Approaching our students with the (conscious or unconscious) assumption that they’re dogmatically conservative and bigoted dramatically reduces that changes that we can successfully help them learn. If our students sense hostility from their educators, even if that hostility is unintentional, they’re going to experience very limited motivation to try to meet us in the middle.

Third, teaching in this particular political climate requires holding significant space for students who are scared, angry, or disillusioned with the state of the world. These students often want very badly to change the state of the world, but lack the skills and nuance to think about social change in a way that doesn’t universally flatten or make wide generalizations about those with whom they disagree. They’re learning how to see the world from a heightened state, and that creates particular challenges as they work through how to articulate a political position or reimagine a world that looks more like one that they want to live in.

Finally, it is true that our students, more than any generation before them, are consuming information at an astronomical rate. As social media becomes more subsumed into daily life, our students are constantly bombarded with news, memes, videos, and blogs that present particular political messages. The types of arguments students encounter are dramatically influenced by their existing social spheres, and the pressure to conform to peer-group ideologies is at an all-time high. Students come in to our classrooms already overwhelmed by social narratives, and may struggle to separate that messaging from the content they cover in class. This messaging overload happens across all political ideologies, and is likely heightening student struggles to make political claims in more nuanced ways.

I don’t have a perfect answer for how to balance these three truths in the classroom space. Particularly for young adults who are just coming in to a sense of political awareness, it’s easy to preface direct rhetoric over nuanced language. What I do know is that all of these students can benefit from better information literacy skills, and better tools to assess the credibility of the media they come into contact with. They, like the rest of us, have likely internalized the messaging that rural America is to blame (or credit, depending on who you ask) with Donald Trump’s rise to power—and they need support in unlearning the existence of an insurmountable divide between urban and rural Americans. To make a world where Trump really is #notourpresident, we need to train our students to make nuanced arguments, teach them to communicate productively and civilly with people who hold competing ideological values, and encourage them work towards a world where racism, sexism, and xenophobia do not hold enough power to manipulate a presidential election.

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