hose people up there in Washington, they think they know more than we do. They treat us like second-class citizens, like we’re dumb hicks, like we don’t know what’s going on.” That was the complaint of Reverend Ralph Patterson, who presides over a Protestant church in a small town of 3,000 people near the Gulf of Mexico. Patterson, who was one of the subjects interviewed by Robert Wuthnow in his new book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, also had a warning for his fellow Americans a few years ago: “I think they’re going to have a rude awakening up there in Washington in the next few years. People are just fed up. They want to put some other people up there that’s got some common sense.”
Was it this sentiment, one that Wuthnow reports as fairly common in the rural parts of America, that brought us Donald Trump? Wuthnow cites exit polls showing that 62 percent of the rural vote went to Trump, compared with 50 percent of the suburban vote and 35 percent of the urban vote. In fact, “the smaller a county’s population and the farther it was from a metropolitan area, the more likely it was to have voted for Trump.” Moreover, the divide between rural and urban seems to be growing. Rural voters have become “increasingly Republican” in each of the past two elections.
Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton who grew up in a small town in Kansas and has spent much of his career wisely observing the nation’s religious trends, has turned his attention in the past several years to rural life. His 2013 book, Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future, was a dense academic study based on thousands of qualitative interviews with residents. The Left Behind is a shorter, less ambitious work that aims to look back on his previous research and determine whether or not he (or the rest of us) should have seen Trump coming. More broadly, Wuthnow tries to explain one part of America’s population to another.
Many have observed that the conceit of dividing America into Blue and Red states masks deep divisions between rural and urban populations inside those states. The result is that our cultural and media elite think that when they visit Kansas City they understand farmers in Missouri or when they spend time in Tulsa they understand factory workers in Oklahoma. Of course this ignorance works both ways. When a man I was interviewing in Little Rock found out that I lived in New York, he asked me if it was true that all New Yorkers are rude and eat a lot of hot dogs.
Wuthnow’s first observation about small towns is that they are “moral communities.” He explains: “I do not mean this in the vernacular sense of ‘moral’ as good, right, virtuous, or principled. I mean it rather in the more specialized sense of a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right thing.”
When people who live in cities think about small towns, they often focus on the idea that everyone knows everyone else, that other people are in your business, that your past is never fully past because everyone around you remembers it. But these factors can also change the way people behave—for the better. Not only because someone is always watching but also because if you have to have encounter the same people over and over again, there are certain accommodations you will make. It may seem like a cliché, but people from small towns generally have to take a pragmatic approach to life. Of course there are long-running feuds and people who have isolated themselves from the community, but for the most part, people who desire anonymity have left.
And so, for that matter, have a lot of other people. Small-town populations have been in decline for decades now as farm work has become mechanized. The middle-class men and women of small towns generally encourage their kids to get a college education, and those who do rarely come back. There are simply not enough opportunities for them.
People who do stay in small towns often have to curb their ambitions. Wuthnow notes, for instance, that when a couple inherits a family farm and moves back home, a woman (usually) will have to give up her career in the process. Wuthnow writes: “The interviews we conducted were interrupted frequently by people pausing to get a grip on their emotions as they described goals they knew they would never achieve and the attendant frustrations. They were on the whole content with the knowledge that life was what it was, whether that meant having given up a career, suffering from job loss or the failure of a farm, or growing old without children nearby.”
Even the churches that provide comfort and guidance to the people of rural America are emptying out. (Given Wuthnow’s interest in religion, one must assume the title of the book is a winking reference to the apocalyptic novel series Left Behind, a bestseller among evangelicals.)
There’s a certain melancholy that pervades these communities, and it seems a stark contrast to the kind of pioneering spirit one imagines was responsible for the founding of these towns. Of course there are economic factors that have led to this situation. But Wuthnow argues that what distinguishes small towns and what explains the way that they vote is largely the result of culture.
Residents of small towns are particularly anxious about the culture. “The odds of being against abortion under all circumstances with only the exception of rape or incest rises steadily as town sizes decreases.” Similarly, people in small towns find homosexuality to be immoral, though (as with the rest of America) as more and more people are likely to know someone who is gay, their opposition has waned. Rural Americans are not particularly concerned with what we might think of as traditional gender roles. Sure, women are often taking care of children and the elderly, but they may also be driving tractors and keeping the books for family businesses. Pragmatism usually wins out.
The cultural concern goes beyond hot-button social issues. Rural Americans feel that they have less control over the moral order of their communities than they once did. The Internet has brought the seediest aspects of urban life right into their homes. The scourge of drugs in these small towns has also left people feeling anxious—indeed more anxious than if they lived in a larger city because “a family moving away or a teenager on meth becomes a community problem, rather than only a personal one.” And individuals in a small town feel especially responsible. “You may not be affected personally but you are part of a failing community.”
This sense of personal responsibility has plenty of positive effects, such as the fact that there are likely to be many more voluntary organizations per capita in small towns than large ones. The value placed in small towns on self-reliance means not simply that people want to see their neighbors pulling themselves up by their bootstraps but also that there are plenty of ways they can get help. Wuthnow notes that people in small towns are much more likely to associate with one another across class lines than are people in cities. They attend the same schools and churches, and the lines between blue-collar and white-collar workers in farming and manufacturing are often blurred.
But what about other sorts of associations? Are rural Americans more likely to hold racist views? Certainly they are torn about the issue of immigration. While many welcome immigrants to towns where the population has been declining for some time, a clear majority wants more national restrictions on immigration. This was no doubt part of President Trump’s appeal to the rural population. Whether racism is a more serious problem in rural America than elsewhere, and whether that also led to Trump’s election, Wuthnow is not ultimately willing to say. He hears a lot of “implicit prejudice” in his interviews. People complain about “riff-raff” who were not “pulling their weight” in a town with a small population of poor blacks, for instance. Or they launch into invectives about President Obama’s being a socialist.
In a recent “interview” with the website Vox, Wuthnow’s interlocutor lectured him: “We can talk all we like about the sanctity of these small communities and the traditional values that hold them together, but, as you say, many of the people who live in these places hold racist views and support racist candidates and we can’t accommodate that.” Wuthnow does not suggest accommodating such views, but he does suggest that these views alone are an incomplete picture of rural America. “My message for fellow academics and ‘producers of knowledge’ in the liberal elite is that rural America is not crazy.” He goes on: “Some of them participate in rallies where people scream invectives at Democrats and the media. Some of them publicly condone racial slurs and homophobia. Most of them do not. Their outrage is quieter. It remains hidden most of the time.” But after 2016, we can’t be surprised by it anymore.