Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Kal Munis, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Utah Valley University. His research analyzes political polarization, political violence, and electoral campaigns in American politics. As a multi-generational Montanan, Munis’ rural roots inform his writing. His family has always consisted of loggers, miners, and ranchers, and he considers himself a rural, “thoroughly working class” person, a trait that sets himself apart from many of his academic peers and gives him a special lens through which to understand the rural-urban divide.

Enjoy this interview about rural resentment and political polarization. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Melotte, The Daily Yonder: Before we jump right into talking about your research, can you introduce yourself and where you’re from? I think this has an important influence on your work today.

Kal Munis: I am from Philipsburg, Montana. I’m a fifth generation Montanan on all sides of my family. My entire family history is rooted either in agriculture or in natural resource extraction. I still consider myself a rural person even though I live about half of the year in a decidedly nonrural environment.

My own life experiences definitely bear on my research agenda. I think I was in the right place at the right time. In political science, no one cared about the urban-rural divide or rural America up until Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. I had written a thesis [prior to this] about place-based narratives and political campaign advertisements. So I was already sort of on this beat. I was on this beat back in the days when this was incredibly obscure and nobody cared.

DY: In February, you authored a report for the Gary R. Herbert Institute for Public Policy about political polarization and the rural-urban divide. Can you explain what political polarization is, and why it is important to pay attention to?

KM: There are a lot of different ways to think about polarization. In general, when we’re talking about polarization, we’re talking about a large divergence between two or more camps. Within the U.S. context, we’re usually talking about Republicans and Democrats. And you can consider polarization in policy terms. For example, how different is the median Democrat view from the median Republican view on a given issue?

You can also think of polarization in more of an emotional, or, what political scientists often refer to as affective, polarization. So, essentially, how much do you dislike members of the opposite party relative to your attitudes toward your own party? 

We are now starting as a discipline and as a society to appreciate that there’s also a pronounced geographic polarization. Geographic polarization refers to a deepening divide or disagreement between relatively more urban areas and relatively less urban, or more rural, areas. There’s this place-based partisan polarization.

I have one thing to note on that. These geographic polarizations are not necessarily new within the context of the United States. There was, historically, a really pronounced and deep regional divide within the country between the North and the solid Democratic South. But the most important geographic divide now happens to be urban and rural, [as opposed to North and South].

DY: That’s exactly what I wanted to bring up next – geography. Can you expand on how place matters to rural voters? How is that different from how place matters to urban voters?

KM: Place seems to matter for rural people across the board, not just in terms of politics.

I think the main reason for that is that most rural people are quite rooted. You see higher levels of rootedness amongst rural populations [as opposed to] nonrural populations because a lot of people in nonrural areas have moved there themselves or maybe their parents moved there. Whereas most people living in rural areas, by and large, are probably in the nth generation of folks that have been living in that area. 

 And so the longer you spend in an area, the more attached to it you are, it’s gonna become more central to your identity. Rural folks tend to really think about politics in a fundamentally geographic way, whereas urbanites do not. Urbanites have other concerns. Rural people see geographic inequity, urbanites, by and large, do not.

DY: People kind of assume that rural voters are more Republican because they’re older, less educated, and white. And while that is part of it, you’re saying that’s not the whole story, right? You’re saying place plays a role as well, even when you account for all of those other factors?

Kal Munis, Assistant Professor of Political Communication and Political Behavior in the Department of History & Political Science at Utah Valley University. (Photo provided)

KM: That’s correct. It is certainly true that, on average, rural areas are whiter, older, etc. All of those groups you just mentioned are drawn to the Republican Party. So that helps explain some of the rural-urban divide.

But, statistically, we can account for all of those factors. And when you control for them, you see that rural folks are still significantly more likely to support the Republican Party.

And a big piece of that is this perception of geographic inequity, which some scholars, including myself, refer to as rural resentment. What this rural resentment entails is the belief that rural areas are not getting their fair share of resources and help from the government. It entails a belief that [Democratic] politicians and bureaucrats do not spend enough time focusing on rural concerns.

And there’s another belief that elites denigrate or ignore and look down on rural life, rural customs, and the rural way of life. Rural folks will point to depictions of the countryside in American media as an example of [these elites] not being charitable. For example, rural people are often portrayed as violent and less intelligent. In other words, there’s this rural resentment that compounds the rural-urban divide.

And there’s something about the lived experience of living in a rural community that I think contributes to the rural-urban divide in the sense that it makes rural people more inclined to vote for Republicans. If you’re a rural person like me who moved to the city, what I think really jumps out to all of us, is that you have high levels of anonymity in urban areas. And that’s quite powerful when you start to think about the implications.

It is quite risky in a rural area to challenge conventions and norms. When you are going up against the conventions, people will notice. You don’t have any anonymity. Everyone knows who you are, everyone knows who your parents are, your grandparents. Everyone knows your business. If you’re going to be challenging those societal norms, you can be pretty sure that it will be noticed and that you will likely face some sort of social sanction for that behavior. Because of those dynamics, rural areas are kind of inherently socially conservative on certain issues.

DY: That anonymity piece reminds me of what it feels like to get behind a computer and be anonymous online and feel like you can challenge things or say things you wouldn’t say in person. But when everyone knows who you are, you might not want to attach your name to all of that.

KM: Absolutely. I think that’s a great analogy or parallel.

DY: This is kind of switching gears a little bit, but you talked about nationalization in politics in one of your papers. Can you describe what that means? What role does it play in deepening the divide?

KM: When we’re talking about the nationalization of politics, it looks like how the issues being taken up in Georgia’s legislature and North Carolina’s legislature and Iowa’s legislature all look the same, which is a bit troubling given that state legislatures exist to legislate on issues pertinent to their state. I think that so many of the legislative agendas across the country are starting to look more and more alike. And we’re seeing things like nationalization of state party platforms. The Montana Democratic Party used to stand for something quite different than the New Hampshire Democratic Party versus the Alabama Democratic Party versus the Washington Democratic Party. But you’re starting to see those platforms look more and more similar. That’s the way politics are nationalized.

Our communication diets as citizens consist of ever more national political communications. We are not being exposed as much to what is happening in our state, in our localities. And the information we are consuming has a national flair to it because these national issues are getting shoved downward. This contributes to polarization by making all of our political discourse more abstract and thus more divisive.

DY: I have experienced this personally. I’m the Vice Chair of the Democratic Party in a rural Western North Carolina County, and Democrats don’t win elections around here. And I think it’s due in part to the nationalization of politics. It wouldn’t matter much to conservative voters here whether the Mitchell County Democratic Party is very different from a progressive west coast city. Local Democratic parties are increasingly more alike. So Republicans win by landslides around here.

KM: There’s so many consequences to this nationalized political polarization. One of which is that if you’re someone who supports a political minority in one of these places, after a couple of cycles, you have no internal feelings of political efficacy anymore. And so people just don’t even participate. It’s such a sad thing.

DY: Switching gears here again – I want to give you the opportunity to touch on how polarization and rural resentment relate to white in-group identity, which you analyzed in your most recent study.

KM: Theoretically, you have to be a rural person to have a rural identity, right? But what we find is that people will express attitudes similar to rural resentment, but they’re not rural people in any sense, including in how they identify. So that’s kind of curious, which is why we had to come up with this concept of rural empathy. I think that’s the most important contribution of the paper.

But the second thing that we’re doing is trying to investigate how racial attitudes play in. There’s a quote at the beginning of the paper from Tucker Carlson: “Rural Americans wouldn’t seem to have much in common with anyone from the inner city. These groups have different cultures, different traditions, and political beliefs. Usually, they have different skin colors. Rural people are white conservatives mostly.” [This quote appeared in Munis’ most recent paper, “Place, Race, and the Geographic Politics of White Grievance.” It’s included here for reference.]

When [Carlson] was at Fox News, he was the most influential pundit in the country. The point being there is that Tucker’s audience, the millions of people who tuned in to watch him every day, most of those people were not rural. So how do these people come to harbor these beliefs about rurality and geographic inequity, and rural people being treated poorly? Well, it’s pretty obvious where they would get this. It’s part of our nationalized political discourse. 

Because of the linking that Tucker Carlson and others have done to link place and race together, nonrural people who have high levels of white identity and who believe whites are being discriminated against in American society also have higher levels of rural empathy.

DY: It’s not surprising – but really weird – that Carlson is broadcasting from New York City and is trying to appeal to a rural consciousness when most of the people who watch Fox News are not rural.

KM: Tucker Carlson is one of the types that would like to tell you he’s a rural person because he bought a house in Maine. But that quote is really great at illustrating this point because he’s drawing all these contrasts between rural people and nonrural people.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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