What the dudes in the diners want is simple: A time machine that will make it 1962, but with more air conditioning, internet porn, good insulin, and cable TV. https://t.co/RghsZLnjzE
— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) October 6, 2019
There has always been a strong strain of ‘Who do those snooty eggheads think they are, and why do they insist on shoving their values at us?’ in American culture… and for at least the past sixty years, the Republican party has grown fat feeding on the people most susceptible to that prejudice. Having (no doubt temporarily) exhausted its supply of Good Heartland Diner Voters anecdotes, the NYTimes permits Arkansan Monica Potts to tell the other side of the ‘rural values’ story:
… I returned to Van Buren County at the end of 2017 after 20 years living on the East Coast, most recently in the Washington area, because I’m writing a book about Clinton, Van Buren’s county seat. My partner and I knew it would be a challenge: The county is very remote, very religious and full of Trump voters, and we suspected we’d stand out because of our political beliefs.
Since coming back, I’ve realized that it is true that people here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor…
In April, a local man who operates the Facebook group, “Van Buren County Today Unfiltered,” posted the agenda for a coming meeting of the Quorum Court, the county’s governing body. The library board wanted to increase the pay it could offer a new head librarian, who would be combining her new job with an older one, to $25 an hour.
Only about 2,500 people live in my hometown. The library serves the entire county, which has an estimated 16,600 people, a marked decline from the population at the last census in 2010. The library has historically provided a variety of services for this community. It has offered summer reading camps for children and services like high-speed internet, sewing classes and academic help. I grew up going to the library and visited it often when I returned. It was always busy. I thought people would be supportive.
Instead, they started a fight. The battle began on the Facebook post, which had 240 comments by the end. The first comment came from Amie Hamilton, who reiterated her point when I interviewed her several months later. “If you want to make $25 an hour, please go to a city that can afford it,” she wrote. “We the people are not here to pay your excessive salaries through taxation or in any other way.”
There was general agreement among the Facebook commenters that no one in the area was paid that much — the librarian’s wages would have worked out to be about $42,200 a year — and the people who do actually earn incomes that are similar — teachers and many county officials — largely remained quiet. (Clinton has a median income of $34,764 and a poverty rate of 22.6 percent.) When a few of us, including me, pointed out that the candidate for the library job had a master’s degree, more people commented on the uselessness of education. “Call me narrow-minded but I’ve never understood why a librarian needs a four-year degree,” someone wrote. “We were taught Dewey decimal system in grade school. Never sounded like anything too tough.”…
I didn’t realize it at first, but the fight over the library was rolled up into a bigger one about the library building, and an even bigger fight than that, about the county government, what it should pay for, and how and whether people should be taxed at all. The library fight was, itself, a fight over the future of rural America, what it meant to choose to live in a county like mine, what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here.
The answer was, for the most part, not very much.
A 2016 analysis by National Public Radio found that as counties become more rural, they tend to become more Republican. Completely rural counties went for Mr. Trump by 70.6 percent over all, which makes my county politically average — Van Buren gave Mr. Trump 73 percent of its vote. Rural America is not a monolith, but a majority of rural counties fit perfectly into Mr. Trump’s preferred demographics: They are largely white (96.2 percent in Van Buren), and rates of educational attainment are low.
People are leaving rural areas for cities because that’s where the jobs are. According to one analysis, between 2008, during the Great Recession, and 2017, the latest year for which data is available, 99 percent of the job and population growth occurred in counties with at least one city of 50,000 people or more or in counties directly adjacent to such cities. It’s hard to generalize what’s happening to rural counties, but many are faced with a shrinking property tax base and a drop in economic activity, which also decreases sales tax revenues.
Many rural counties are also experiencing declines in whatever industries were once the major employers. In Appalachia, this is coal; in much of the Midwest, it is heavy manufacturing; and in my county, and many other counties, it’s natural gas and other extractive industries…
In other words, these rural counties don’t rely on actual farming any more; they’ve become reliant on industries that are not-so-gradually being phased out, either because the raw materials have run out or the cost of turning those materials into finished products locally is too high. (I believe the olde-tymey phrase for this practice is ‘eating one’s seed corn’, but then I’ve always lived in cities.) And, to reiterate, the Republicans are happy to cheat these voters by assuring them that there is a way to return to 1962, in return for the votes that elect GOP officials who wouldn’t live in a place like Van Buren County unless they wanted their own ‘rural retreat’ (private fiefdom).
I have every sympathy for poorly-educated, location-fixated individuals who want things to be the way they have always been (at least for the last 50 years or so), but comes a point, as Potts points out, where insisting that the world oughta change because *you* don’t wanna is… not a practical solution.