The Encircling Countryside: Breaking the Rural-Urban Divide

C.M. Lewis

When the votes were finally counted, the 2020 election looked more like the evacuation at Dunkirk than the liberation of Paris.

The removal of Donald Trump is a victory that rightly led to celebrations in the streets and sighs of relief. But everything else presages a politically difficult road ahead. Uber and Lyft’s pet proposition, which will irrevocably entrench gig workers as non-employee contractors, passed in California, while Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and failed to gain control in any state legislative chambers. In Pennsylvania, two Democrats lost statewide office, even as Joe Biden won by over 40,000 votes. There are bright spots beyond Trump’s defeat—Florida’s approval of a $15 minimum wage, California’s expansion of voting rights to parolees, and Oregon’s decriminalization of drugs. But they come in the context of a broader repudiation of the Democratic Party.

Any hope of a “blue wave” fueled by historic turnout against Donald Trump was dashed by a rural shift to the right. Some results are best explained as a result of the peculiarities of American electoral politics and the inherent advantage granted to conservatives by institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College. Building a Democratic majority in the Senate would have required holding and picking up seats in more traditionally conservative states, which was always an unlikely proposition. It’s also a result of identifiable lapses: Senate Democrats failed to tailor their message to targeted states, Nancy Pelosi bizarrely promised to run for Speaker again right before the election, and some of the major organs of the House Democrats like the House Majority PAC were helmed by incompetents like Robby Mook.

But self-criticism is—like it was in 2016—beyond the ability of many establishment Democrats, and it has taken little time for them to affix blame to the left. House leadership blamed losses on “Medicare for All,” and junior legislators like Conor Lamb pointed fingers at left-leaning members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Downballot candidates like Emily Skopov, who ran to fill the seat of the recently retired Pennsylvania Speaker of the House, Mike Turzai, blamed left-wing rhetoric for her loss in a heavily Republican district (though she had previously run and lost in 2018). Even as the country rejected Donald Trump, they failed to embrace the Democratic Party—and in the minds of centrists, socialism is the culprit.

Even aside from the downballot electoral failures of the Democratic Party, the election revealed an unsettling truth: 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, having lived through four years of his vicious, proto-fascist sideshow, and many of them are increasingly concentrated in rural counties. Some are violent reactionaries—the sort of white supremacists who appreciate that Trump, unlike some past Republicans, says the quiet part out loud. Many are the beneficiaries of his right-wing economic policies and are happy to ignore his boorishness provided their wealth grows; research has shown much but not all of Trump’s support can be found among local economic elites. Others may just be alienated from a political process that seems to care very, very little for their pain.

As the dust settles and the blame-assigning begins, one of the few clear lessons of the 2020 election is that we’re left with a real problem: a deepening rural-urban divide is creating historic levels of support for reactionary politics in rural America and structural barriers to exercising political power in the next two to four years. Centrists lack any answers beyond ditching key racial justice demands that, in their telling, undermine their electoral prospects. But if there’s a crisis, how do we name it—and more importantly, how do we fix it?

Unfortunately, election results and electoral math often only conceal the problem.

One of the reasons MSNBC’s talented analyst Steve Kornacki stole the show is because electoral politics have taught us to think of politics in terms of numbers: who can mobilize the largest share of the vote within a given municipality, county, district, or state? Who can claw out a competitive advantage? Where is movement happening? The goal is to get a larger number of people to vote for you than the other person; the endpoint of the conversation with voters is their casting of a ballot. That’s it. Viewed that way, the logic is simple: campaign where the most voters live.

Democrats have leaned into the idea that shrinking rural populations and growing, increasingly diverse cities and suburbs prove that demographic destiny is with the Democratic Party. Since 2016, Democrats have invested heavily in a suburban electoral strategy for legislative, statewide, and national elections; Philadelphia’s suburban and exurban so-called “collar counties” were one of the most hotly contested political battlegrounds in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, zeroed in on suburban white voters as a key target in a series of focus groups conducted for the House Majority PAC. When Democrats consider rural messaging at all, it’s not pretty—the party has habitually cozied up to “Big Ag.”

The 2020 results reflect that approach and speak to its apparent success: Biden exceeded 2016’s vote totals in numerous urban areas and overperformed in many key suburbs. In the latter stages of the campaign, the fight over the suburbs intensified, with Biden pushing a law-and-order message that was hardly distinguishable from Trump’s. But although Biden won crucial suburban battles, Trump seems to have driven rural turnout and vote share even higher than his historic 2016 performances. In Texas and Ohio, rural turnout sunk any Democratic hopes of flipping those states. Once the votes are fully counted, it is entirely possible that, in rural counties in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, Trump will command the largest margin of victory of any Presidential candidate ever. Had the margins been even slightly worse or turnout slightly lower in key urban and suburban counties, Trump could have stampeded to re-election.

Democrats think this is okay: after all, enough voters live in the suburbs and cities. They can afford to lose rural areas, small industrial cities, and small towns. Having had success utilizing that strategy in 2018, and after their victory in the high-turnout 2020 national election, Democrats are certain to double down on the same approach, with more focus on chasing white suburban voters rather than addressing the needs and concerns of communities of color in cities like Philadelphia.

There are problems with this reasoning, even when it’s assessed solely on the electoral math. Some analysis shows Trump making inroads among Latinx and Black voters; in fact, Philadelphia County showed a trend in Trump’s direction, and the Biden campaign received criticism for weak Latinx outreach and underperformance with Latinx voters in Miami-Dade and the Rio Grande Valley. Continued success is predicated on high turnout and wide margins in urban and suburban areas. Even mild underperformance can present potential election threats. The Democratic Party is creating a path to power that relies on continually running up numbers—and it’s unclear whether they can keep delivering.

But even aside from the dubious electoral wisdom of the Democratic Party’s chosen strategy, the problem is that focusing everything around utilitarian paths to victory isn’t real politics. It’s subordinating politics to the need to win. By chasing affluent white suburban voters, the Democratic Party is drifting further and further away from credibly claiming that they prioritize the interests of Main Street or the increasingly multiracial working class. As Noah Millman argued in 2017, geographic coalitions strengthen elites within those coalitions. Viewed that way, the stark geographic divides of the 2020 election reveal a different problem: that the only people winning are the elite.

As evidence for Millman’s argument, the deepening reaction in rural areas and the reliance on suburban votes has strengthened the hand of party centrists screaming for moderation. Exploiting geographic difference isn’t a new trick. It’s always been a bulwark of reactionary politics in the United States. The image of the so-called “heartland”—places like Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas—as the “real” America, pitted against a “coastal elite,” has poisoned our political discourse for decades. Conversely, popular images of Appalachia and impoverished rural and non-urban areas have consistently demonized, ridiculed, and dismissed a significant segment of the population as backwards or socially undesirable. The movie Deliverance played to that register decades before writing about the “white working class” became a cottage industry.

Geographic divides interact with the construction of social difference to reinforce the racialized nature of American politics. The looming rural-urban divide poses a huge challenge for any left-of-center politics—especially ones that take social class seriously. The racialization of geography and its usefulness for reactionaries is a factor of which unionists (and their capitalist opponents) have long been aware: the classic movie Matewan shows a powerful scene in which a union organizer confronts racism on the part of white Appalachian unionists as Black workers are brought in by the coal operators to “scab.” James Earl Jones’s character vociferously rebuts the charge of scabbing, saying he’s been the victim of racist epithets before and booming: “I can’t help that’s the way white folks is, but I ain’t never been called no scab!”

Unfortunately, much of the discussion of race and the rural-urban divide has doubled down on racialization, implicitly or explicitly constructing a so-called “white working class” to which we should cater. It has no basis in reality. The working class is increasingly multiracial, and rural areas (such as the Rio Grande Valley, where Biden struggled to accrue votes) are far from uniformly white. Others have pushed for more progressive solutions. Van Jones has consistently emphasized that white workers in Appalachia experience many of the same struggles as workers of color in cities. Prior to the 2020 election, Nikil Saval, a State Senator-elect in Pennsylvania, wrote about building a rural-urban alliance in The New Republic, correctly emphasizing the danger of the growing divide and the necessity of building across it.

But even in discussing solutions, there’s a danger of articulating them in paternalistic terms. Saval’s piece, while thought-provoking and encouraging, is explicitly geared toward a city-dwelling audience that assumes that rural voters are principally animated by a hatred of “Philadelphia liberals.” Rural communities themselves are rendered homogenous, and are certainly not part of the conversation. The result: a clear barrier to an actual partnership or emancipatory class politics based on the reification of the political divisions between “rural” and “urban.”

What would it look like if we changed this? Solidarity—politically constructing an alliance based on mutual respect and an understanding of interwoven fates—is part of the answer. Rather than catering to “rural” and “urban” issues, we need to identify common threads. The issues are often the same—poverty, drug addiction, healthcare, jobs—though they may be experienced differently. In spite of the flattening of the range of rural opinions in his analysis, Saval understands this. The pandemic has reminded us that issues such as broadband access present challenges for both urban and rural communities. Access to hospitals is as much a problem in Black urban communities as it is in rural Pennsylvania, with similarly devastating impacts on mortality, health, and quality of life. A lack of clean water is a universal issue, whether it’s a result of lead pipes in city housing or groundwater pollution from countryside fracking operations. We are better able to address these problems if we fight together.

Rural communities face real problems, and the decision of some of their constituents to turn to reactionary politics for an answer isn’t an inevitability—nor does it mean we can or should ignore their concerns. To both address rural issues and build a credible working-class politics, both rural and urban organizers and politicians need to shift to thinking more broadly about common problems and how they’re experienced across different geographies. We also need to more deeply recognize our interconnectedness: threats to rural communities are not threats to them alone, nor are threats to urban communities isolated within the cities. What happens to farmers can very quickly become everyone’s problem. Our lives and society are too interconnected to draw such artificial barriers.

This will not be easy. It’s not merely a problem of “messaging.” The political terrain for rural organizers is extraordinarily difficult. We’re reaching an apex of rural support for reactionary politics, built upon decades of governmental neglect and conservative outreach. There is still a path—surveys of rural millennials show support for government-driven solutions and less reactionary positions on “culture war” wedge issues—but it’s becoming increasingly narrow. All the more reason to pool our resources and redouble our organizing efforts.

The left will have to overcome and dismantle artificial reactionary divisions in order to tie together the multiracial working class and build a coalition that understands that they should stand united in opposition to both the rural and urban elite. We cannot build the political power to challenge capital or secure even the most basic of reforms if we cede rural communities to the right, and every fight for universal rights and public goods will be a fight on tilted terrain unless we expand the battlefield. To fight for meaningfully progressive reforms, we need a path that unites workers across geographies and goes beyond the narrowness of electoral math.

The 2020 election offers a grim vision of the future if we fail to act. With deepening reactionary sentiment in rural communities, threats can grow beyond the merely electoral. Reactionary ideological homogeneity tied to a conspiratorial, grievance-based politics that deeply distrusts the state leads to the formation of militias and worse. Sociopolitical trends are creating a breeding ground for potentially violent radicals convinced that they are under siege by a hostile left.

The working class—whether in rural, suburban, or urban America—can take scant comfort in the election results. Even less heartening is the elite jockeying and political blame game that has followed. But this isn’t 2008. We know the score, and we’re not waiting for the White House or Congress to save us. To fight for emancipation, we need to take the lessons of the 2020 election—and the dangers it foreshadows—and build. ♦



C.M. Lewis is an editor of the labor publication Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania.

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