The Howell County courthouse square in West Plains, Missouri, is the site of many locally owned businesses and carefully maintained historic buildings. It doesn't feel like a fringe area to those who live here.

[imgcontainer right] [img:operahouse.jpg] [source]Matt Meacham[/source] The Howell County courthouse square in West Plains, Missouri, is the site of many locally owned businesses and carefully maintained historic buildings. It doesn’t feel like a fringe area to those who live here. [/imgcontainer]

On October 30, 2008, the Washington Post published “Little Hope in a Little Town: Some Missourians Think Obama Candidacy Pushes Them Aside” by Eli Saslow.  The article was occasioned by the controversy surrounding an inflammatory anti-Obama sign located near the city limits of West Plains, Missouri, where I have lived and worked as a folklorist since early 2007.  

The Washington Post article used West Plains to make a larger point, that Obama’s candidacy excluded rural America. “He is black, liberal, erudite and metropolitan — the antithesis of West Plains,” Saslow wrote. “His candidacy is the latest evidence, many residents said, that places such as this have been pushed from America’s core to its fringes, and forced to fight for scraps.”

It’s been a year since Saslow’s article appeared. The sign that spawned the article was first moved to a location about two miles south of the city limits – the same spot where a similar sign castigating John Kerry had appeared previously — and has since disappeared. But Post readers might be amazed to learn how different the West Plains of today is from the one that Mr. Saslow described just a few days before the ’08 election.

West Plains is home to a growing two-year college, a civic center with 30,000 square feet of exhibition space and a 400-seat theater where nationally known speakers and performers regularly appear, and an arts council that has been selected to participate in the NEA’s “Big Read” initiative two years consecutively and has received major grants for its efforts to conserve folk culture of the Missouri Ozarks.[imgcontainer left] [img:billboard.jpg] The billboard that brought the Washington Post to West Plains. It has since disappeared. [/imgcontainer]

West Plains annually hosts a traditional music and folklife festival attended by as many as 12,000 people and a scholarly symposium examining life in the Ozarks. It has a regional orchestra, a high school choir that has garnered international praise, an active community theater, a dance studio, several additional performance venues and gallery spaces, a regional history museum, a farmers’ market, an organization promoting downtown historic preservation and economic development….

I could go on, but a salient fact has yet to be mentioned: all of the above was as true a year ago as it is now. But Mr. Saslow’s article gives no indication of it.

I point this out not because I wish to boast about my community or pout about its portrayal, nor because I mean to lambaste Mr. Saslow, who, I’m sure, did the best he could in the time allotted.  Rather, I mention it because it illustrates a disheartening trend in reporting on the culture of rural America by national media outlets: a lack of context.

Context matters in journalism.  It matters more if the journalism is about a place or a people that most readers know little about. After all, if an article that focuses narrowly on some specific aspect of life in Washington, New York, or Los Angeles fails to provide enough context, the reader likely can draw upon his or her familiarity with the milieu in question or any of the countless relevant sources available online in order to fill in the gaps and arrive at a reasonably well-informed interpretation of the topic.[imgcontainer right] [img:MSU.jpg] [source]Matt Meacham[/source] Missouri State University is in West Plains. [/imgcontainer]

Rural communities like West Plains, however, receive less frequent and less sustained coverage from metropolitan media outlets. Consequently, when the coverage that they do receive does not include adequate context, it can all too easily lead to the perpetuation of half-truths and misconceptions, especially if it is skewed from the outset by the limitations of metropolitan journalists’ frames of reference.

Of course, it isn’t reasonable to expect a reporter to provide all the background on every topic within a brief newspaper article.  One would hope, however, that an article that purports to gauge an entire community’s reaction to the candidacy of a major-party Presidential nominee – as “Little Hope in a Little Town” does — would provide enough meat on the bones to enable metropolitan readers, whose familiarity with rural America may be limited, to interpret the subject matter intelligently.  Unfortunately, too many times it doesn’t.

For instance, Saslow’s article omits a historical fact that goes a long way toward accounting for the sentiments expressed by many of the West Plains residents quoted in it. West Plains is located in a county that has been majority-Republican since before the Civil War.  Its tendencies regarding party affiliation were determined to a great extent by regional-level political developments of the mid-nineteenth century, establishing a tradition that has remained largely unchanged.

Consequently, many residents with long-established family ties to this county see themselves as Republicans.  They are predisposed to trust Republicans’ policies and politicians and to distrust Democrats. Their policy positions are based largely (though not exclusively) on their party affiliation, rather than the other way around.

In other words, identity politics trumps other considerations – even considerations that, to an external observer like Saslow, might seem self-evidently more valid.

“Why would people who decry the erosion of the social and economic power of rural American communities – and especially the resulting deterioration of the traditional values that such communities sustain – identify with political figures whose policy decisions have contributed to that erosion?” Saslow asks. “Conversely, why would they condemn those whose policy proposals are aimed, at least ostensibly, at restoring some measure of the power that has been lost?”

Indeed, “Identity politics prevail” might be at least a partially accurate answer to that question, but it merely serves to demand another question: Why do identity politics prevail even when the stakes are so high?  [imgcontainer left] [img:westplains.jpg] [source]Matt Meacham[/source] Downtown West Plains is hardly a radical place. Nor are the people here angry. [/imgcontainer]

Other recent works have addressed much the same question in considerable depth. The most prominent is What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, which similarly asked why people don’t follow their economic self-interest in their politics. The attention that Frank’s book has received is well deserved, and many of its assertions doubtlessly apply to the circumstances described (albeit partially and imprecisely) in “Little Hope in a Little Town.”

However, the central contentions of a less renowned book, Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy by Jeff Taylor (University of Missouri Press, 2006), seems at least as helpful in elucidating the subject matter of Mr. Saslow’s article.  

Whereas Frank seeks to explain “how conservatives won the heart of America,” Taylor examines the other side of the coin: the loss of affinity between the Democratic Party and rural America since the New Deal era.

Taylor believes that most rural Americans – whether they self-identify as Democrat or Republican, as liberal, conservative, or centrist – are, first and foremost, adherents of what can broadly be called the Jeffersonian populist tradition.

That tradition, as Taylor conceives of it, emerged from the thought of Jeffersonian Republicans early in the history of the United States. But the ideological principles that define it are sufficiently abstract and adaptable as to transcend any particular political-historical context. Consequently, the Jeffersonian populist tradition, broadly construed, has persisted up to the present, manifesting itself in one form or another at various points in our political history.

Of the two major political parties existing today, the Democratic Party, with its origins in Jeffersonian Republicanism, is the one with the stronger historical ties to that tradition.  However, from the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt to the present, Democrats at the national level have gravitated away from Jeffersonianism and toward its opposite, Hamiltonianism, according to Taylor.  At present, the Jeffersonian tradition is fragmented and its definitive tenets consigned to the margins of the major parties.

Jeff Taylor concludes:

Campaign rhetoric to the contrary, [the Democratic Party’s] national leadership is antimajoritarian in its conservative economic and foreign policies (subservience to corporations, unrestricted immigration, outsourcing through globalization, multilateral imperialism) and its liberal cultural and moral policies (gun control, unrestricted abortion, homosexual activism, vulgar entertainment, coldness toward Christianity)…If the Democratic Party is unwilling to embrace either half of a populist agenda, then the Republican Party is happy to step in and pick up support by paying lip service to the moral and social half.

I’m not certain that I fully agree with all of Taylor’s assertions, myself – and Where Did the Party Go? obviously does not take into consideration the implications of the 2006 congressional and 2008 presidential elections, which occurred after its completion. Nonetheless, the broader premise underlying Taylor’s argument — that predominantly Jeffersonian rural mid-America and the predominantly Hamiltonian national political establishment are mutually alienated to such a degree that the political orientation of each often proves incomprehensible to the other — seems almost indisputable.

Democrats now refuse to embrace either half of the populist agenda. Republicans, meanwhile, pay lip service to the moral and social half of the Jeffersonian tradition while simultaneously advocating economic policies that erode the foundations on which “traditional values” rest. Both parties likely contributed to the seemingly counterintuitive, self-contradictory, and sometimes drastically misinformed political views expressed by people whom Mr. Saslow interviewed.

 Ironically, “Little Hope in a Little Town” represents exactly the kind of journalism that contributes to the kind of distorted identity politics espoused by the very people featured within it.  It does so by exacerbating the rift between rural America and the segments of American society that in many rural Americans’ minds constitutes the “establishment.”

I certainly do not mean to impugn Mr. Saslow’s journalistic ability or integrity. His article is typical of what is written by the national press about rural America. And these stories have consequences. They tend to foster malformed impressions of rural America to urban readers even as they reinforce rural Americans’ suspicion that those whom they perceive to be our nation’s “power brokers” — the media, the academic sector, and the political establishment — don’t understand them and aren’t even trying very hard to do so.

One would like to think that the rapid diversification of media sources that has occurred since the advent of the Internet would have generated outlets for reporting on life in rural mid-America from a wider range of perspectives and thus would have drawn more national-level attention to issues confronting rural Americans.

In some cases, that’s happened. Unfortunately, Internet-based communications can disseminate faulty reporting that furthers the marginalization of rural America just as readily as they can transmit thoughtful journalism that conveys something of the depth and complexity of rural American life.

Therefore, let us endeavor proactively to use the opportunities with which the technological diversification of the media presents us to promote mutual understanding between rural America and those who have the ability to exert social, political, and economic influence on a national scale, for the benefit of both constituencies.  We have so much to learn from each other, and so much to gain if we do.  

Then, contrary to the implications of “Little Hope in a Little Town,” there will be plenty of hope to go around.

Matt Meacham a folklorist with the West Plains Council on the Arts and a part-time instructor at Missouri State University-West Plains.

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