February 27, 2022
Who should speak for or about rural Americans is perennially up for grabs. For a while, it was J.D. Vance, whose best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” was set partially in the Appalachian hinterlands. Suggesting that the rural poor were often to blame for their plight, Vance found a receptive audience. (Now a US Senate candidate in Ohio, Vance has been doing the Republican two-step, trying to woo and repudiate Donald Trump at the same time.)
More recently, former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, offered a rejoinder in “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” They argued that broader forces are breaking rural America. (Kristof, a son of rural Oregon, has also been seeking office, but his quest for the state’s governorship has been thwarted by a residency problem.)
“Tightrope” turns to Kristof’s hometown of Yamhill, where hard times and limited opportunity have destroyed many of the people he grew up with. Among them is Stacy Mitchell, a popular cheerleader who wound up homeless and froze to death at 48.
Though they visit other parts of the country, Kristof and WuDunn are mostly focused on Yamhill, treating it as a microcosm of rural America. Unfortunately, like many analysts, they tend to conflate rural experience with broader working-class struggles. The two overlap, certainly, perhaps most tellingly in resentment of perceived freeloaders (immigrants and minorities especially). Such attitudes are skillfully plumbed by Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.” Otherwise, though, important differences are lost.
For more than a decade, sociologist Robert Wuthnow has been studying rural experience in the United States. Himself a product of small-town Kansas, Wuthnow brings empathy and insight to his project. “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-town America” is an elegant distillation of his findings. For readers who would understand rural America, it is hard to think of a better overview.
While not all rural communities are as challenged as Yamhill, they are bound by similar concerns. Drawing on thousands of interviews, Wuthnow stresses how deeply rural Americans are tied to their towns, which function as places of mutual obligation. To a profound extent, and in concert with religion, these communities shape people’s outlook. Knowing when to hold one’s tongue is often the price of getting along.
Wuthnow’s subjects simultaneously view the federal government as too intrusive and oblivious to rural needs. Above all, they fear (and resent) being looked down upon by the rest of the country.
Wuthnow is especially sensitive to anxieties about change, and the feared loss of a familiar way of life. As communities shrink in the face of declining economic opportunity, promising young people leave. Wuthnow estimates that some 30 million Americans live in rural areas with diminishing populations. (What counts as rural depends on who is doing the counting. Yamhill, with about 1,000 residents, fits well within Wuthnow’s definition, which is towns of 25,000 or fewer people. The small cities portrayed by Vance and Hochschild do not.)
Wuthnow’s subjects often blamed rural America’s relatively higher teenage birth rates on TV and the Internet. Kristof, lamenting a pregnancy that derailed a fellow top student, points to prudishness that thwarts adequate sex education and access to birth control.
The drug problems he witnessed firsthand are unfortunately not peculiar to Yamhill. As Wuthnell notes, methamphetamines viciously took hold of rural America in the 1990s; later, heroin addiction brought higher death rates to rural communities than to more populous areas.
Deeply frustrated rural voters embraced Trump in far greater proportions than suburban or urban voters did. Attitudes rooted in religion, particularly toward abortion and gay marriage, apparently played a strong role. Yet ideas concerning sexual orientation, at least, appear to be softening.
In her warm-hearted travelogue “Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States,” Samantha Allen finds activism — and acceptance — rising outside of major cities. In Texas, she meets Jess Herbst, a transwoman who in 2016 became the mayor of New Hope (population 673). At the time, Herbst was transitioning, and dutifully made note of it in a letter to the community. She discovered that New Hope was more interested in addressing cars left up on blocks than her sexual identity. Herbst’s county went solidly for Trump. She carried on with the business of New Hope.