The Urban-Rural Divide Is A Product Of Imagination And Misplaced Fear

Leftists Don’t Hate Or Look Down On Rural Americans, But The Right Is Happy To Exploit That Idea

When I was growing up in Queens, my mom’s best friend had three nieces who were all close to my age. We all went to the same elementary school and we lived six blocks apart. We hung out all the time, swam in each other’s pools, played sports in the park, played video games and had birthday parties.

In 1994, their mother remarried and the family relocated deep into the Catskills near Margaretville, about halfway between Kingston and Oneonta, located alongside a branch of the Delaware River close enough to its source that it can only be described as a rushing stream. Their home was as rural as rural gets. The closest pharmacy was 20 minutes away. There was a small market in the nearest town (Fleischmanns) that was smaller than a corner bodega in the Bronx and only open until 7 p.m. If you needed to do an actual grocery trip, there was an A&P in Margaretville, but once it ran out of milk, you were shit out of luck for another week. Often the family would drive an hour to Kingston to go to a large Waldbaum’s to do two weeks worth of shopping; no ice cream or frozen food though, they would not have survived the trip home, especially in the summer.

The town of Margaretville, New York, located in the Catskills more than a hundred miles from New York City, where I spent much time as a teenager. Photo by Daniel Case via Wikimedia Commons

My friendship with the girls did not end when they moved – in fact we’re still friends today. As a teenager, I would go up to their house on weekends regularly, for birthdays or just to get away. We would go sledding in the winter (you haven’t seen snow until you’ve seen Catskills snow), and go tubing down Esophus Creek in the summer. Eventually their family built an inground pool on their large property. I made friends with their classmates in tiny Margaretville High School – the entire school had an enrollment of 29 students – and that’s how I met Tommy.

Tommy’s Dreams Unfulfilled

Tommy and I had some common interests; No Doubt, MTV Unplugged, Super Mario Brothers video games and disaster movies among them. Kelly, the middle girl of the family, whom i was closest to, moved to Brooklyn for college. For the next few years, we hung out and bar hopped in Manhattan and had parties in Kelly’s Brooklyn apartment. Tommy would tell me his goal was to graduate from SUNY Delhi in the Catskills and move down to the city and escape what he called “the wasteland” where he lived.

In the mid 2000s, no one was more negative about life in rural America than Tommy. He often called the town he came from “a rusty old dump” and complained that there was nothing to do but “drugs and tractor racing.” He joked about “hillbillies” and made off-colored comparisons to the movie Deliverance. I didn’t join in. I would sometimes remark that I found the Catskills charming and enjoyed escaping the city, away from traffic, noise and pollution. Though my allergies would explode, the smell of the pine air and the chilly summer nights were a welcome treat from the smoggy, grimy city air.

“You would never want to live there though,” he said to me once.

He never finished college. Once I graduated and our mutual friends went into the workforce, the gatherings got fewer and fewer and I didn’t speak to Tommy except on Facebook for several years. He proudly voted for Obama in 2008 due largely to his opposition to the Iraq War. Many of his friends back home moved away; one to Schenectady to marry his college sweetheart, another to Florida to work fixing boats at a marina near Tampa. By 2009, Tommy had married and moved to a small house somewhere between Margaretville and Delhi, working at a hardware supply store in the former town. The next time we spoke was after Hurricane Irene in 2011, which badly damaged Margaretville when the stream that was the Delaware River turned into a rushing torrent. I noticed a slight change in attitude from him as we spoke. He seemed gloomier, angrier, a bit resentful even. He complained about President Obama and Obamacare and threw remarks about how people look down on folks like him and everyone was more concerned about New York City than his town. “All Obama cares about his own people,” he said. I heard the dog whistles. I got reflexively defensive, noting that Obama was approving aid to his town and how Obamacare helped fund community hospitals like Margaretville’s.

“You would never be able to live here,” he said again, suggesting I did not have the ability to survive in a tough, rural society.

He was right, of course, but I had conceded as much years earlier.

By 2016, the tide had turned even further. My one interaction with him that year was when he attacked New York City as a “lawless, godless place of thugs and crime.” I took issue with his remarks, reminding him that crime was low in New York City and even he once wanted to live there.

“I don’t know what I was thinking of I said that,” he said. “If I never set foot in that hellhole again, it would be too soon.”

It was shocking to me, because it was a completely different take on New York City than I had heard from him a decade earlier, when the city was a far less safer place to be. I asked him where this attitude came from all of a sudden.

“Well, you think so little of us,” he said. “Look at how you guys put down rural Americans.”

He began to list off arguments such as “rural people are uneducated” and “rural people are all drug addicts” and “rural people are racists,” which are all things I’ve never said, nor has anyone I know ever said. I even reminded him that some of these slurs against rural culture are ones HE himself used many years earlier.

“Yeah but you agreed,” he suggested. I did not, and to the extent that I might have, it was an acknowledgement of problems in these communities that I, as a liberal Democrat, would like to fix, and added that I am happy to acknowledge problems (poverty, affordable housing, pollution) that exist in cities as well.

Over time, he shared pieces justifying his anger and resentment. Prager U; Townhall.com; Newsmax; Human Events, you name it. Tomi Lahren, Ben Shapiro, Mark Levin, a laundry list of conservative grifters and noisemakers who fed him an unhealthy diet of resentment politics.

What was clear to me was this:

Donald Trump made himself popular in rural America by exploiting the resentment in these communities toward what they see as being looked down on by educated rich urban Americans and animosity toward their culture and traditions.

Tommy, who grew up in a rural, forgotten part of the country, had big dreams – ones sold to him by a media environment that taught him living where lived made him inferior and he had to get an expensive education, move to or near a big city and get a big fancy job around powerful rich people to “make it.” In his teens and 20s, that seemed possible, but circumstances; lack of opportunity, lack of money, or just lack of dumb luck, stood in his way. For whatever reason, financial obstacles, personal obstacles, obligations, he wasn’t able to achieve the life he dreamt about and was sold as the definition of success in America. While the people he grew up with moved to Brooklyn and Florida and other places, he was stuck back in the Catskills, selling wrenches for just enough money to feed his children and keep the lights on.

The Conservative Bait And Switch

Some will read that and say “You see, you are passing judgement” and it’s true, I am. But I what I’m trying to get across is that I understand where he’s coming from and I understand why he feels so frustrated, why he needs to lash out.

I don’t feel superior to him. I’m certainly not. I’m not trying to look down on him. I don’t believe Tommy is a failure. I believe Tommy’s experience and his place in our society is important. He is raising his children in a place in America where schools are as underfunded as they are in our cities and where opportunities are limited. His libraries are only open a few days a week. He has no high-speed internet access and needs to stand in his attic to get a cell phone signal (which is better than 2013 when he didn’t have a signal at all). Despite a boost from Medicaid reimbursements from Obamacare, Margaretville Hospital is small and underserved and has only 15 beds, yet serves an area spanning four Upstate counties. He’s living a third world lifestyle in a first world country, and we’re allowing it to happen, because conservatives are telling him the people who want to help are actually just being patronizing.

My worldview is one in which we must make life better for him and his family, such that he doesn’t feel reflexively defensive about living in a place that he rightfully feels devalued or looked down on. It wasn’t liberals who devalued rural America, it was Capitalists who constructed a view of the American Dream that was unrealistic for most. A view that told folks who were happy enough to live simple lives in both rural and urban America that their idea of success was actually failure. It isn’t enough to be a working class hardware supplier from the Catskills, raising three kids in a small house with no amenities like a pool or central air conditioning, taking vacations to the lake. You needed the suburban mansion or pristine condo, the fancy cars, the luxurious dinner dates, and trips to the Caribbean or Europe. This is what defines success and this is the type of success that seems to only exist in and around cities. So we’re left to look down on Tommy as someone who failed, just as we look down on a black or brown family in the South Bronx or Compton the same.

But here’s the catch. It was Capitalists, and their Republican and conservative defenders, who created that narrative. The concept of the “American Dream” was meant as a preemptive strike against any socialist or communist uprising in America. The working class, conservatives figured, are unlikely likely to join any left-wing revolution if it appeared wealth and power was within reach for any or all of them. It also made them dedicated worker bees – like Boxer in Animal Farm – but for Capitalism. They would work, work, work with wealth and power eternally just barely out of reach.

The concept of the “American Dream” was meant as a preemptive strike against any socialist or communist uprising in America. The working class, conservatives figured, are unlikely likely to join any left-wing revolution if it appeared wealth and power was within reach for any or all of them.

But what happens when that aspiration never comes to fruition? Where does that resentment go? Republicans knew it would backfire on them, so they gave working class rural Americans another target.

Cultural Appeals

Tradition and culture is how the Republican inoculate themselves from the fact that their economic policies are what destroyed the simple rural working class life. Despite the fact it was 20th Century conservatives who encouraged young people to get out of their small towns and make it big, they have managed to turn the narrative on its head by blaming the media, colleges and other institutions that they recruited to help with their pro-Capitalist initiatives decades ago. It is the entertainment industry, the media and the colleges, Republicans say, that brainwashed young people into abandoning their traditional rural lifestyle for a more cosmopolitan life in big cities and suburbs. What they don’t say is that it was them who originally encouraged it.

It is true that what we think of as the “American Dream” does not consist of a tiny house or trailer on the side of a rural road, laundry hanging from a haphazardly hung rope between trees. It doesn’t include working a blue collar job that leaves your hand with callouses. It does not involve having to go to the market everyday for fresh food because you don’t have room enough to store or keep food fresh. It does not involve hospital bills and mountains of debt and wearing hand-me-downs from your older siblings or relatives or neighbors. It involves fancy new cars, big houses or condos, dining out regularly and fancy clothes.

There is nothing wrong with small cottages by the side of the highway, jalopies and callouses, but our society has taught us that they’re a sign of failure, a sign that you haven’t worked hard enough to earn wealth and power, so of course those, like Tommy, who live the traditional rural life feel like they’re being judged and looked down on, or at best, have their way of life threatened.

Republicans are happy to oblige in this, lamenting “elitists” looking down on working class Americans, while also mocking them as well. You see this in how they respond to Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), criticizing her policy ideas, many of which will go a long way to helping folks like Tommy, as “elitist,” while also mocking her previous job as a bartender, and then appealing to their own barely-tangible working class roots when she fights back.

After New York Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez called out Republicans to mocking her previous job as a bartender, Republican Rep-elect. Marianette Miller-Meeks of Iowa appealed to her own working class roots; evidence of how Republicans appeal to, and also run again, working class populism depending on when and where it serves them.

The is the odd paradox laid out in J.D. Vance’s novel Hillbilly Elegy, where he bemoans how he was looked down on by Ivy League folks when he left his rural Ohio town to go to college, while at the same time joining them in admonishing the folks back home as having succumbed to “social rot.” The “rot,” he blames on welfare and social programs that have taught rural Americans to be dependent on government rather than self-sufficient. In that narrative, we see how conservatives managed to turn the blame from them, the folks who told working class Americans they had to strive for something more that is out of reach for most, onto progressives, who want to just help them survive in a cruel Capitalist world.

Attacking Rural Pride

Not long after the 2016 election, I read a profile piece of an Obama-Trump voter in rural Ohio. He was retired and he said he voted for Trump because of his stances on trade and the economy, though the article quickly veered off into a discussion about immigration and rural resentment. In the piece, the interviewee explained that his town, located near the Ohio River in what used to be a deeply Democratic area, used to be a vibrant manufacturing town, but the jobs left and his children also left to find work elsewhere. He explained that all of his children went to Ohio State and his daughter moved to Philadelphia to work in public relations, his eldest son was a software engineer in Boulder, Colo. and his youngest son was a trainee at an investment bank in New York City. The distance caused longtime family traditions, like summer trips to Lake Erie and birthday parties, to cease. He explained that if his children were able to find jobs close to home, they would have come home. At the end of the interview, he laments about the “Mexicans” working as busboys at the Cracker Barrel, blaming them for “taking jobs my children couldn’t get.”

It struck me that this father felt his children, who had all from my view gone on to successful lives – just not in Ohio, would be better suited to bus tables at Cracker Barrel, than work in high-paying industries like public relations, computer programming or banking.

But for him, what matters is that they were in Ohio, putting down roots and raising a family in the town where he and his ancestors put down roots. Tradition took precedence to what we deem to be “success,” and that reflex I had reading this story, that the children are living better lives than they would in Ohio, is exactly what makes rural Americans like Tommy feel they’re being looked down and cast aside. What they built in rural America, what their ancestors built, is no longer enough or worthy. It’s too poor, too racist, too ignorant, too low class, and liberals – the father noted that his children were all “liberals” now – were destroying our towns by invoking a brain drain, enticing young people away with promises of tolerance and wealth, like a political Sarah Sanderson from Hocus Pocus. Trump and the modern GOP was more than happy to oblige this narrative to win their votes, and it worked.

Election Results- Middletown, NY (Margaretville)
2008Obama 54%McCain 44%
2012Obama 52%Romney 46%
2016Trump 51%Clinton 42%
Election Results in Middletown, New York, which includes Margaretville, show how the town, like most of Rural America, swung to Trump in 2016 after voting for Obama twice.

I don’t exactly know how to fix it. I feel like the resentment has festered too far now that its gone beyond just wanting to be recognized or respected, to a cruel place where what drives many rural conservatives is a desire to make everyone as miserable and forgotten as they are. There are certainly ways to make the lives of rural Americans better. We can bring new jobs and industries to these areas, but when a friend of mine ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates in 2008 on the promise to replace lost coal jobs with jobs at a hydroelectricity plant on the Big Sandy River, he lost in a landslide and was told by a constituent “to go back to liberal New York City with your tree-hugging bullshit.” His opponent smeared him as an “elitist big city type” who didn’t understand “true rural values.” My friend grew up in a trailer outside Huntington, WV, and moved to New York to attend college, before moving back to West Virginia, but those four years on the East Coast tainted him and his ideas forever in the eyes of his community. He has since left Appalachia for California.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton suggested expanding broadband web access to rural areas after she we asked why she thought she was struggling politically in rural parts of the country. The economy there, she said, hadn’t grown as fast as elsewhere after the financial crisis, so Trump’s message of change resonated. She suggested she could help them with rural broadband, which would attract business and jobs, as well as educational opportunities.

In response, she was accused of being an “elitist” who blamed her political problems on the fact rural Americans didn’t have high-speed internet and thus weren’t “educated.”

Similar attempts by progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who tanked in rural areas in 2020 after winning many of these areas in 2016, and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, have also been waved away. Progressive candidates have barely gotten anywhere politically in rural America, succeeding almost exclusively in cities and suburbs.

And that is the odd position Tommy is in. Is he happy in his life? No, it’s pretty clear he isn’t, but he’s defensive of it, and resistant to any attempt at changing it. Why? Because to people like Tommy, it’s better to be miserable and defend a broken system than swallow your pride and admit your community needs help and that the people you think look down on you, might actually be right.

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