It’s an interesting conundrum. It seems obvious that many of these regions need help. Even our most desperate and impoverished citizens, though, seem to prefer the dignity of a free exchange to the discomfort of being patronized by people with an agenda. Who is able and willing to provide the goods they want at a price they can afford? It’s McDonalds, a company so “global” that its presence (or absence) in a given place is sometimes used as a quick gauge of a country’s success in entering global markets. Even in our least-thriving regions, the invisible hand is still feeding people more successfully than its public-spirited competitors. Shouldn’t this give our nationalists pause, as they contemplate far more aggressive efforts to engineer a top-down revitalization of small-town American life?
Arnade’s chapter on racism is interesting and impressively nuanced. Naturally, he discusses the impact of anti-black prejudice, which drew American blacks to manufacturing towns in the mid-20th century. (Northerners were prejudiced too, but they needed capable workers.) But we also hear about more-recent African immigrants (especially Somalis), some of whom say that they find white communities more welcoming to them than longer-established black communities. He talks to Mexican Americans in Lexington, Nebraska, who came to the Cornhusker State to take the meatpacking jobs that white Americans didn’t want. Today, they are in turn suspicious of the Somalis, who are immigrating to the region to take the jobs that they no longer want.
Arnade doesn’t argue that rural America is rife with bigotry. He introduces us to a number of people who are not bigots, and also makes clear that prejudice can take more and less virulent forms. Not everyone who responds to Donald Trump’s racially-inflected rhetoric is seething with racial hatred.
At the same time, it does seem plausibly true that provincial people (given their strong attachment to community and clan) have a stronger tendency to attach real significance to race and ethnicity, as one criterion that distinguishes “my people” from “not my people”. What should we make of this? Is it a damning indictment of rural America, or just another form of in- and out-grouping, of a sort that all people exercise in some way or another? The political right needs to address these questions if they hope to generate a platform with broad-spectrum appeal.
For the progressive left, Dignity poses a different kind of challenge. To leftist eyes, it seems that provincial people are suffering from a closed-minded refusal to adapt to contemporary circumstances. Better job prospects are indeed part of the answer, but these need to be reached through better education, more comprehensive social programs, and a relinquishment of racist and xenophobic prejudices that have no place in our shrinking world.
There’s a problem, though. As Arnade’s narrative makes clear, most residents of back-row America have very little interest in joining the cosmopolitan party, or of being told how to live. They aren’t dreaming of relocating to Manhattan apartments, where they can win a place in our hyper-woke “creative class”. Instead, they want secure jobs, supportive families, and Jesus. This last is especially uncomfortable for progressives, so it’s nice that Arnade devotes a full chapter to it.
I once asked a Madison taxpayer supported K-12 Superintendent if they visited other, more rural districts to learn, for example Janesville? “I would never do that”.
Former Madison School Board member Ed Hughes commented on College Station, TX vs. Madison.