Dairyland in denial: Red states & the myth of the real American

Unless or until progressives start to recognize the cost of losing the underpopulated red states in Middle America, ultra-right-wing Republicans will continue to have power in Washington all out of proportion to the popular will.

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Image Credit: Lee Jin-man / AP

“I definitely do not want to see rural Wisconsin become as empty as rural Iowa.”

Travis Tranel, Wisconsin Dairy Farmer

If you’ve ever wondered why rural America is a sea of red or how God-fearing, flag-waving Americans can vote for an unhinged president who excuses and incites extremist behavior on the right while railing against peaceful protestors on the left, go spend a little time in most any dying small town in Middle America. That it’s condition is perilous will be obvious the moment you arrive on Main Street where the most of the buildings still standing are shuttered and the word “desolate” best describes the scene. 

When Thomas Frank’s bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, first appeared in 2004 the United States was at war and Al Gore was not the president despite having won the popular vote. Fast-forward to 2016 when the loser at the ballot box becomes the winner in the White House—again. 

To understand how and why something so deadly to democracy keeps happening, it’s necessary to ask, What’s the matter with rural America? Don’t expect to find answers in Washington, D.C. Democrats in Congress don’t have a clue. Neither do liberal think tanks. 

To cite one recent example, a Brookings Institution analyst asked the right question—“Why did House Democrats underperform compared to Joe Biden?—in an eponymous piece published on December 21, 2020. Read it and you will get plenty of statistics proving what everyone already knows, namely that Biden got more votes than many Democrats running for Congress—a lot more votes in some key races. But the article, incredibly, offers no insights, thoughts, ideas, or even hints as to why and where that happened. It’s as if it never occurred to liberals to look at the political geography of election results for clues and connect the dots! 

A cursory look at any political map of America in 2020 is all it takes to see that the heartland is solid red. “Heartland” refers to geography, but the problem for Democrats is demographic, not geographic. Virtually all of rural America is a deep shade of red—not only the Midwest, but also the Deep South and the Rust Belt.  Why?

Thomas Frank argues it all comes down to authenticity. If you live in Kansas (or South Dakota, where I grew up) you are a “real American”.  That’s a myth, but the problems red states face ARE real. Not identical to the ills of city life, but real.

Take the problem of poverty, for example. In cities it is often associated with race and crime and homelessness. In rural America poverty is more often manifested in various forms of relative deprivation—poor nutrition, substandard housing, unpaid bills.

Or crime. Reducing crime rate is not perceived as a priority in many the reddest parts of rural America. Neither is police brutality. Or guns. Guns are used for hunting, not committing crimes. In rural America, abortion is a moral and religious question, not a social problem. 

Even the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) looks different to soybean farmers in Kansas and dairy farmers in Wisconsin. The problem in rural areas is not only the cost of medical care, but also the even more pressing problem of proximity to doctors and dentists, hospitals and clinics.

People in red states often share a suspicion of outsiders, defined as anybody who is different. It’s a kind of tribalism Republicans in power have cultivated and encouraged. Members of the tribe all know each other, went to school together, go to the same church. Everybody who is anybody is white, conservative, and, chances are, watches Fox News. 

The myth of the real American grows out of this homogeneity. It’s an idea that comes easily and naturally to people who are being marginalized, who want to believe they are better than people who are moving up. People whose ways they don’t like and can’t understand. 

If you live in a red state, understand that your grievances, however real, are not the fault of Democrats, gays, or Blacks. Understand, too, that Republicans are NOT looking out for you. Here, for example, is Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at a town hall in Wisconsin:

“In America, the big get bigger, and the small will go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America for any small business we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”

Wisconsin Dairy farmer Jerry Volenec, who was in the audience that day, found Perdue’s comments “unnerving”: “…he [Perdue] said it to our faces. They’re not trying to hide it anymore. They’re telling us flat out: You’re not important.” 

Facts are facts. The problems country folk face are no more real than the problems of other struggling Americans. They are also no less real. That is the reality. There is no alternative reality. We are all real Americans.

Unless or until we can get to a point where we all recognize we care about many of the same things, America will remain a deeply divided society with dysfunctional government. And one day soon we may wake up and realize it’s too late to save this embattled republic. And we will all be the losers.  

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