There’s a recurring debate among liberal and progressive folks as to whether or not the huge shift to the right among rural and working-class people is driven by “cultural” or “economic” concerns, by hot-button social issues like “abortion, guns, and gays” or by bad economic fortunes. You can use voting patterns and survey data to make a case for one over the other, and many people do just that. Similar arguments are made regarding the role of “wokeness” in alienating people, or of race and racism in driving white folks without a college degree into resentment and anger over their loss of social standing.

While it’s tempting to say “all of the above,” research and experience point in a different direction, one that includes all of those factors but ties them together in a particular way. These are the findings of the Rural-Urban Bridge Initiative, a nonprofit organization that invites liberals and progressives to think, talk, and act differently to understand the divisions between rural and urban America and then do something about it.

There are many pieces to this puzzle, but for now, let’s focus on three of them:
First, we believe that separating cultural issues from economic issues is a foolish abstraction that doesn’t hold up in the real world.  In reality, our economic lives – what we do for a living, where we work, with whom, under what sort of stresses or obligations, and what we get paid for it – are deeply interwoven with our cultural lives, with how we talk and what we talk about, whom we hang out with and look to for guidance, what we consider to be right and wrong, important and unimportant, even what we eat, how we dress and where and how we play. The culture we come from – and our place – in turn, impacts the kind of work, job, or business we pursue, or even consider trying to do, and our expectations about what ‘work’ should be and mean. We know from the research of Kathy Cramer, Farah Stockman, the Rural Democracy Initiative, and others that work is important to many people’s identity, but central for working-class and rural folks. It deeply shapes how we see ourselves and our place in the world. 

Of course, there is no single kind of work that rural people do, any more than for city and suburban dwellers. But it’s reasonable to characterize rural work as more often involving hard physical labor, entailing more risk, danger and wear and tear, making things other people need but often take for granted (food, materials, energy, etc.), and doing all that for less money. The often profoundly different work people do in the country vs. the city shapes us, inclines us to value some things more than others. Our economic lives are inseparable from our cultural lives.

Second, the neglect of rural economies for the past 40 years and the elevating of “intellectual work” far above jobs that may not require a college degree have persuaded many blue-collar workers and farmers that their work, and with it, their lives, don’t count for much – particularly among educated elites, politicians, urbanites and the media. Put simply, if your economic life, your work, is central to who you are, and if that work has been dissed, dismissed, or down-sized out of existence, why wouldn’t you be pissed off? As Arlie Hochschild has pointed out, when you’ve experienced so much loss for such a long time, it’s not surprising that you might begin to believe that these things have been stolen from you. Understanding this pervasive sense of loss should help liberals and city folks to understand the resulting loss of trust, in leaders, institutions, the news media, the experts, and even our fellow citizens.

Finally, when our economic lives have been turned upside down, and with that, pride in ourselves, our work, our values, and our place so undermined, it is only natural that we seek to draw the line against further change and disruption. It’s true that a higher proportion of rural people hold more conservative values on many cultural questions. But it is also the case that a more vehement and uncompromising defense of these beliefs has grown in recent years as economic insecurity, loss of work, the decline of communities and the sense of cultural alienation has grown. All of us want to be respected for what we do and who we are. When we feel that’s being taken away, we’re gonna fight back and seek out the places where it’s OK to be who we already are. We’re going to choose sides, and we’re going to pick the one that isn’t telling us how wrong we are.

Overcoming the divide begins with understanding its causes, then acting from that understanding. That’s what the Rural-Urban Bridge Initiative does. We invite you to join us in that effort.

Anthony Flaccavento is a farmer, author, and rural development consultant from Abingdon, Virginia. He is a co-founder of the Rural-Urban Bridge Initiative and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in the Virginia 9th District in 2018.

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