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FILE – A cow grazes with wind farms in the background in rural Solano County, Calif., Aug. 30, 2023.  (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez, File)
FILE – A cow grazes with wind farms in the background in rural Solano County, Calif., Aug. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez, File)

What is cultural identity and why is it so important?

We’re grappling with that question in the United States, and the implications of our national culture wars are being felt in every sector — from politics to labor to entertainment.

The latest example of this intensifying strife came after the publication of “White Rural Rage,” a book taking aim at white rural voters, who the authors call a threat to democracy itself. The writers say white rural citizens feel irrational anger at immigrants, progressives and minorities, and say that conservative politicians weaponize that hatred to fuel electoral gains. They argue that despite Democratic policies intended to help rural communities, rural anger fuels a rise in authoritarianism and sympathy for politicians like Donald Trump who show authoritarian leanings.

But in a powerful counterargument published in Politico by a political scientist whose findings were used in the book — or misused, as he says — Nicholas Jacobs points out the inconvenient fact that even female and nonwhite male rural voters are turning to the GOP in greater numbers. If bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia — were the sole, or even the main, driver of the Republican Party’s increasing hold on rural America, why are the oppressed siding with their oppressors?

The answer, Jacobs argues, is in culture.

Jacobs lays out, quite convincingly, that the reductionist attitude among progressive and Democratic elites that mislabels all rural outrage as bigotry makes liberals unable or unwilling to see that rural American culture is more geographic than demographic. It is their rural identity that informs their political choices, not their racial, sexual or gender identity.

It’s GOP understanding of that rural culture — not an appeal to bigotry — that has done the heavy lifting in winning over voters. The GOP understands rural Americans’ tendency to see themselves as independent, self-reliant and, most importantly, abandoned by an out-of-touch political class that is increasingly corrupt and entrenched.

“On immigration, [changes to Democratic viewpoints on rural America] would mean accepting the fact that, in some communities, particularly those with financial challenges, concerns about the social burden of immigration is not always an expression of hate,” Jacobs writes. “It would look at a data point on distrust in media and seek out a reason — perhaps a self-critical one — for why rural people are the most likely to feel like news does not portray their communities accurately.”

In the stories liberals tell themselves about the way our country works, Democrats are the superheroes, fighting for Black people, for women, for transgender and gay people, while the GOP merely uses hatred as jet fuel. What rural voters have seen, though, is that governmental intervention (from either side) has done little over the years to raise anyone in this country out of desperate straits, to make schools better or to improve anyone’s physical or financial health.

Whether they vote Republican or Democrat in the presidential elections, rural residents’ lives remain the same.

Meanwhile, over the years, the GOP has been busy learning rural American culture, at its root, a fierce desire for freedom from manipulation at the hands of Congress and educators and Hollywood. Like anyone else, rural Americans believe in their choices, and they resent being told that the only reason they don’t vote Democratic is that they’re too stupid to do so. There’s outrage, yes, but it’s at the continued insistence from liberals that rural people are ignoramuses who don’t understand the value of Democratic policies and who are too stupid to even realize how bigoted they are.

As it turns out, “Let politicians make all the decisions, you racist jerks,” is a message doomed to fail.

To succeed, liberals must come to terms with the fact that rural culture cannot be changed by pressure from outside forces. They must see that prejudice co-exists with rural (and small-town and religious) culture but does not define it.

Most importantly, Democrats must display an honest respect for rural Americans’ desire for independence.

We, as liberals, can get there. We can arrive at that respect, if we travel the road we’ve made for ourselves. We are liberals because of our respect for diversity — of beliefs, lifestyles, experiences.

Awaiting us now is only our desire to travel that road to reach our enemies.

When we respect their differences, then they become our compatriots. And then we may find that they were never enemies at all, merely friends who spoke a different language.

Georgia Garvey is a syndicated columnist.