White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, by Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman (Random House, 299 pp., $32)

The urban/rural political divide has been a gold mine for media and political entrepreneurs over the past decade. In their telling, urban areas signify progress and the future, while the rural heartland is yoked to a reactionary past.

In White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, political scientist Tom Schaller and journalist Paul Waldman argue that anger among whites in non-urban regions undermines the foundations of the American political system. Economic distress, mounting poverty and social problems, and a sense of political abandonment have triggered profound antipathies frequently directed not only at other demographic groups but also, more importantly, at the democratic process as a whole. This poses particular dangers to the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, the authors maintain, because rural, anti-democratic conservatives hold disproportionate electoral power, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory and his potential return to the White House in November 2024.

Waldman and Schaller further suggest that this anger is rooted in conspiracy theories and a distrust of democracy that leads to a craving for authoritarianism. Resentful rural dwellers would be better off, Waldman and Schaller argue, if they’d be more “constructive.” More tellingly, the authors contend that Republicans have orchestrated the rage for political advantage.

Waldman and Schaller claim that their book is not an attack on rural whites but a cautionary tale. Yet the book is full of strident criticisms and caricatures of white rural Americans as uncouth, intolerant radicals who view liberals, elites, and other races and religions with bitterness. The authors conclude by purporting to offer advice to these benighted souls, urging them to stop blaming America’s ills on outside forces or coastal elite liberals and instead to create a political movement that captures their genuine interests, which would include rural blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. There is some truth here; just like their European counterparts, rural Americans should channel their frustrations into something politically productive.

For the most part, though, Waldman and Schaller use cherry-picked data and mocking language to heap scorn on white rural Americans. The problems begin with their book’s salacious title. What do they mean by the “rural” in “rural rage”? And how is this rage different from the rage that stems from poverty, disagreements over values, or generational divides? Many studies show that distrust and resentment are not restricted to the countryside. Trump won more votes in the country’s 11 major cities than in all of rural America combined. Yes, place still matters in party politics, but was it the causal factor behind Trump’s rise? The authors fail to examine other elements of voting behavior, such as socioeconomic conditions—not just in the hinterland but also in urban peripheries. The relationship between place and voting behavior has become increasingly complex, and the racialized portrait of the radical right populist voter is simply a caricature.

Waldman and Schaller portray rural people as passive, unthinking agents in the democratic process. Though “rage” features prominently in their title, they use the word fewer than ten times in the text, and only to belabor their claim that Republican leaders intentionally manufactured rural voters’ anger, as though these Americans would not be concerned about their situations without external manipulation. The authors suggest that Republicans sell their voters a distortion of their own: liberal urbanites are not sitting in ivory towers, condescending to rural America.

Even granting the authors their conceit, how does white rural rage portend the collapse of American democracy? The authors lack any theoretical framework that would answer this question. Political anger in America these days certainly isn’t confined to the populist Right. Besides, as journalism professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen has written, anger has long been recognized in social theory as a potentially productive reaction to injustice. “Angry populism” is rooted in economic and cultural grievances, but more importantly, as Wahl-Jorgensen shows, it is a tool used not just by political opportunists like Trump but also by political opportunists who oppose Trump.

Finally, if rage can ultimately be the seed of a political movement, why is the white rural form of it particularly nefarious? Because rural whites’ anger has not translated into other meaningful paths of political engagement, the authors maintain. They deem white rural voters’ rage non-constructive because they politically engage themselves only by “giving their votes to the same candidates they’ve been supporting for years.” White rural residents should instead follow in the footsteps of their left-wing counterparts by filing lawsuits and holding “national days of protests.” But why are the lobbying and protests of, say, the feminist movement more productive expressions of rage than the voting behavior of rural whites?

Perhaps it would have been more helpful to understand the deep causes of rural disenchantment rather than offer a lecture. Waldman and Schaller might also have considered how perceptions of class are inevitably intertwined with geographic location. Do white rural Americans use identities rooted in place and class to understand their political predicament? How different are these identities and emotions from those of people hailing from urban areas? And what do Waldman and Schaller have to say about the failures of the Democratic Party? Mark Lilla and Thomas Frank have published works that critically assess their party's trajectory from different angles. In The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla faults the Democrats’ current obsession with identity politics. In Listen, Liberal, Frank chastises liberals who no longer represent the party of the people but instead pander to the professional-managerial elite. If democracy is indeed under threat, liberal authors need to understand their own side’s contradictions.

As America’s politics continue to shift, fine-grained analyses of the nation’s overlooked areas will continue to be of interest to academics and the public. But many factors contribute to America’s increasingly angry politics, and a patronizing analysis of a loosely defined demographic offers little insight.

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images


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