I first joined the Daily Yonder team as a paid fellow almost one year ago, and launched a newsletter called Path Finders not long after. Through the Yonder and Path Finders, I’ve been able to interview my favorite Americana artist, closely read a lot of beautiful rural fiction, and study tons of rural academic works that are about to come in handy for my final papers. Donations from readers like you help the Yonder open the door to more fellows and create more projects like Path Finders.
For the most recent edition of Path Finders, I interviewed Bill Bishop, the author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, as well as a co-founder and contributing editor of the Daily Yonder. I spoke with Bill because support from NewsMatch means that now is a good time to reflect on what the Daily Yonder has accomplished and where it came from. Every dollar the DY team receives in donations from now until the end of the year can be matched, effectively doubling the impact of each gift.
In honor of the campaign, we’re sharing this excerpt with you. You can read the full version by subscribing to Path Finders. Enjoy my conversation with Bill about the beginnings of the Yonder, the Obama visit that wasn’t, and the transformative potential of polka, below. And if you feel so inclined, consider supporting our work today.
Olivia: Can you describe your role in the early days of the Daily Yonder?
Bill: It was 2007, just as we were about to enter the long presidential primary season. And there appeared to be no willingness nor interest among the candidates to talk about rural America. Either party. We decided to crank up a website that would push rural into the campaign. We wanted candidates to feel an obligation to talk about rural places. Heck, maybe even to visit.
Dee Davis, Tim Marema and the others at Rural Strategies did their magic. Julie Ardery (my wife) came up with the name Daily Yonder and off we went. Thanks to Missouri farmer and writer Richard Oswald, we fell in with a group of farmers and ranchers who were pressing the candidates, too. They looked at the economy of agriculture and saw monopoly. Everything — from seeds to fertilizer to milk. Farmers and ranchers were contract-signing serfs of big business. We (i.e., Richard) wrote about this. There were meetings and conferences. And sure enough, the Democrat in the race (Sen. Barack Obama) made promises to address these issues should he win. Obama won, of course, and we thought things might change.
I’ll stop there because, as Richard and the Yonder documented, things didn’t change at all. President Obama held hearings across the country on ag monopolies, ending with an incredible anti-monopoly meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado. And then… nothing. He didn’t even visit.
But at least the theory of the Yonder proved right: Rural communities are ignored but it is possible to force national candidates to address our places. Tim Marema and Tim Murphy did this again in the last year as they showed the rest of the country that Covid-19 has affected rural areas more than the cities.
OW: It seems like your work on The Big Sort coincided with the beginnings of the Yonder. How do you view the overlap between those projects? In that book, you actually had to make the case that American polarization existed, and that values, lifestyle and geography can be more predictive of a person’s politics than class or income. At this point, both of those claims feel pretty obvious. How has it felt watching those conversations develop in the public eye in the past decade or so?
BB: I had just finished The Big Sort with demographer Bob Cushing in 2007. Your description is good. Bob and I started by trying to discover why America was separating economically. What we found was a much larger division. Places were growing apart in all sorts of ways. People were moving and when they did they were segregating — not by race, but by ways of life, education, income, beliefs and, in the end, politics.
And, yes, those divisions were fairly stark between the central city and rural places. I was living in central Austin then, but I had spent my last year in college interviewing coal miners in Kentucky (Harlan and Bell counties); I had worked at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky; and Julie and I had owned the newspaper in Smithville, Texas, a ranch and railroad town. Doing the book helped me see how the places we cared about had been forgotten by my quite liberal Austin neighbors. It wasn’t just politicians who were ignoring rural communities. A good portion of the Democratic base could care less.
What Bob Cushing found in the data back in the early 2000s has only continued in the years since. In a way, watching this play out is boring, depressing. We revel in our divisions, finding meaning in who we dislike rather than in our work, communities, families or faith.
OW: Was your own decision to leave a homogenous Austin neighborhood for the small town of La Grange, Texas a political one? What were the best and worst outcomes of that decision?
BB: It would be dramatic to say we moved to La Grange, Texas, as a political statement, but really it was about polka. We went to an afternoon of polka at the Broken Spoke in South Austin. There was a Conjunto band, a Polish band and a Czech band. We met the editors of the Texas Polka News and as well as telling us about this exciting new politician, Ted Cruz, they described the polka scene in Central Texas. They suggested we go to the big picnic and dance on July 4 in St. John, south of Schulenburg.
We did. And then we found ourselves going back weekend after weekend, to High Hill, Dubina and Praha. We were enveloped by good music, wonderful people and a sense of community we realized we hadn’t felt since we lived in Smithville. At the same time, Austin was becoming intolerable — the life of consumption, the LACK of diversity (at least in the way people thought), the absence of community. We went to one “pitch in” dinner at the park near our house and there wasn’t any pitch. The local grocery chain brought the chicken, but that was it. People brought their own food, for themselves. I recall seeing one neighbor eating out of a Whole Foods box he had brought while reading a New York Review of Books.
We thought, give us the Shiner Hobo Band.
We looked for a place to live in or around La Grange. We started going to St. James Episcopal Church and were sucked into a community of friendly and very active people. We bought an old house near the center of town and couldn’t be happier. Yes, the county is overwhelmingly Republican (80%) and we aren’t. But we spend most of our time doing things, not talking about them or gabbing on Facebook. Last weekend at our community thrift store run by 10 churches, we did over $25,000 in sales in just 12 hours. All profits will go to social service groups. As we worked, nobody asked which party we supported. The lesson is, don’t talk, do.
(The other lesson is that when you travel, don’t go to the cities. They all have museums, cathedrals and wonderful restaurants. Cities are incredible. Spend a day looking and then get out of town. We’ve been to a sheep shearing festival in Sardinia, a breakfast with firefighters in northern California and we ate part of the biggest apple galette ever in a small town in France. And there was that night in a little Japanese town when we were asked to sing Tennessee Waltz at a karaoke bar.)
Worst outcomes? I can’t think of any. We’re just sorry we didn’t do it long ago! We went to a pitch in dinner the other night and there was enough food for twice as many people. I had three different kinds of dessert and felt like a slacker.
OW: Lastly, what are you reading these days?
BB: I’m finishing Bill Turner’s excellent The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns. Highly recommended, and not just as Appalachian history. A friend suggested The Overstory, by Richard Powers. And, of course, I read the Daily Yonder. Tim has an incredible cast of writers who are bringing so many people, places and ideas to life.
Make Your Donation
Contributions from individuals are eligible to be matched up to $5,000 per individual from November 1 to December 31, 2021, to a combined total of at least $15,000. The Daily Yonder is a project of the Center for Rural Strategies, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Gifts may be tax deductible; consult your tax adviser for more information.