With the rural-urban divide overtaking the national conversation, Ross Benes knew what he had to do: go home. In Rural Rebellion, Benes explores the shifting political landscape in his home state of Nebraska to better understand what’s plaguing America. He clarifies how Nebraska defies red-state stereotypes while offering readers insights into how a frontier state with a tradition of nonpartisanship succumbed to the hardened right. His story is also a personal one about the dissonance of moving from the most rural and conservative region of the country to its most liberal and urban centers as they grow further apart at a critical moment in history.
Because no one in my immediate family had lived outside Nebraska, I initially felt uneasy about moving so far away. I enjoyed Nebraska’s quietness, the friendliness of its people, the joy of riding my bike down a crushed-rock trail through unincorporated villages dotted along the prairie, the regularity of Huskers football on Saturdays and church get-togethers on Sundays, and the ease of finding my way around familiar places. “Such accessories, and the dust and the winds and the ever-calling train whistles, add up to a ‘home town’ that is probably remembered with nostalgia by those who have left it, and that for those who have remained, provides a sense of roots and contentment,” wrote Truman Capote in his blockbuster book In Cold Blood, which tells the story of how a rural Kansas family fell victim to murderers.
As hard as moving was, technology made it easier. I never had an internet-enabled phone when I lived in Nebraska, but that changed when I moved to New York because of the constant demands of my digital media job. My smartphone made it more difficult to tune out work, but constant access to social media and messaging apps helped me stay in touch with friends and family. To keep tabs on what was going on back home, I read the Omaha World-Herald or Lincoln Journal Star on my phone whenever I got stuck on the subway. Apps made it easier to book cabs or flights when I felt the need to return home. They also made it easier for me to find new apartments whenever my relationships with the rotating cast of strangers that I lived with frayed. During my first five years in New York, I lived in six different apartments with a combined eighteen roommates, not including the Airbnb guests who stayed illegally or the hidden roommate in one apartment that I found out about a week after I had moved in. I also didn’t have an address for months at a time because, after getting fed up with the overcrowded places in my budget, I’d travel and stay with people I knew while storing my few possessions in friends’ closets. It was the millennial equivalent of living in a suitcase.
Technology reduces resistance for mobility and makes it easier for a kid from the heartland to relocate to a coastal city. It also contributes to self- reinforcing social divisions. Instead of being a left-of-center kid in Nebraska, where I’d respectfully disagree with my conservative friends over a few Bud Lights as we called into question each other’s assumptions, I became just another moderately liberal young guy living in New York City who hung out with people who shared many of the same beliefs. When I was a high schooler in Nebraska I was so strongly against illegal immigration, partially because I didn’t really know any immigrants or witness their experiences, and since everyone around me was so intent on shipping undocumented people away, my beliefs on the matter were never scrutinized. My thoughts about immigration changed after I formed relationships with immigrants. Likewise, I’m probably developing biases right now that I’m not conscious of. My biases are further fueled by the disproportionate number of New York media people I follow who are very active on social media and who tend to perpetuate the same opinions among themselves (and antagonize anyone who dares disagree) with such an intensity that I ponder if they belong to a community-wide hive mind like Star Trek’s Borg. I’d be challenged more thoroughly if I hung out with conservatives more often in New York, but I haven’t met all that many conservatives in New York. I didn’t have politics in mind when I moved. But with thousands of people in similar positions making similar moves, the cumulative effects of these migrations are consequential.
“As people seek out the social settings they prefer—as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable—the nation grows more politically segregated—and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups,” wrote Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing in their influential book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, which concludes that the United States became more polarized because people increasingly decided to move to neighborhoods that align with their beliefs and lifestyles. They added: “Like-minded, homogeneous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong. As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.”
In Nebraska, the continual loss of young college-educated people, like myself, who tend to lean further left than the rest of the state, reduced resistance for the GOP as it marched ever rightward. This has been the case throughout the Midwest, which has suffered worse population losses than any other U.S. region since the turn of the century. With the Democratic share of voters declining, the feedback loop keeps telling the majority who vote for Republicans that they’re on the right side.
Ross Benes is the author of Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold. You can follow him on Twitter @RossBenes and reach him at rossbenes.com.