Book Project

Resentment. Decline. Despair. Anger. 


These are words commonly associated with contemporary rural America. When broader society talks about rural America’s political tendencies, the predominant narrative paints a very bleak and negative picture. Rural resentment in particular has become a theoretical sticking point explaining rural tendencies toward right-wing populism and related attitudes, either as an indicator of rural white working-class economic decline or symbolic/status-based threat. While this narrative certainly yields important and notable insights, it is limited if we want to fully understand urban-rural differences in politics and more. 


First, not all rural Americans are angrily chomping at the bit to take down the establishment, nor are they all writhing in poverty and anguish. Emotions relating to resentment and deprivation are not the only ones driving urban-rural differences in politics. Many rural Americans are happy about their life circumstances and where they live. Many are positively connected to their communities and to the rural way of life.


Second, not everybody in rural America is part of the white working class. In fact, the majority do not work in mining, agriculture, or manufacturing (sectors which often contain people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds anyway); yet, the field misses an understanding of rural areas outside of these economic sectors. Further, rural non-whites, non-Christians, immigrants, and more are profoundly excluded from this narrative but they still hold political attitudes and behave politically. The overwhelming focus in academia and broader society on the stereotype of the conservative white working-class rural resident has egregiously excluded many important groups of people.


Political science, and other disciplines, need to recognize these limitations and gain a broader understanding of the prominent urban-rural divisions in the U.S. Again, I am not saying that I disagree with the work finding that negative emotions and circumstances among rural whites impacted politics in a significant way. Rather, this book presents another picture of rural political behavior that is multifaceted and that can be driven by positive emotions and motives. Further, this alternative also matters for political attitudes and participation. Using data of American adults from a range of original surveys, experiments, and public surveys like ANES, I evaluate some of these gaps in understanding. 

 

Some of my book stems from my dissertation, where I investigate why rural areas tend to support right-wing populism by looking at the psychology behind rural social identification, or a psychological attachment to rural areas. I argue that rural identifiers occupy a middling position in terms of group status in society. This middling position maps well onto a right-wing thin populist ideology, which can be thought of as group-based: a corrupt elite and their unduly favored lower status group at the expense of the morally correct “people.” Rural residents see elites as an out-group, including experts and intellectuals, as well as immigrants, who are seen as being unfairly favored by experts ahead of themselves. Elites and intellectuals, as well as immigrants, are both seen as urban-affiliated but not urban per se. Further, negative feelings toward the out-groups are driven by symbolic or status-based concerns, rather than material or economic ones. This tendency explains why rural identifiers tend to support right-wing outsider candidates among rural identifiers, while their relationship with partisanship or operational ideology is more tenuous.