“Little Guy” America

By L. Benjamin RolskyMay 9, 2018

“Little Guy” America

The Left Behind by Robert Wuthnow

IF WE HAVE LEARNED anything from this past presidential election, it is this: that many of us are not adequately equipped to grasp the complexity of what is usually referred to as Middle America. Despite the cottage industry of long-form think pieces that has emerged in an effort to explain the relationship between Donald Trump’s electoral successes and rural America, authored by many of the intellectual voices of our time, we seem to be no nearer an answer to such political conundrums than we were in November. This genre of writing even has a name now: The Reaching-Out Industry. For Timothy Donnelly, the Reaching-Out Industry “has spawned podcasts, books, and TV shows. They share common traits: eschewing (tiresome, predictable) point-by-point debates and stripping things down to a basic level: help us understand you.”

While Donnelly’s ire is directed mostly at liberally authored television programs and cable news shows such as The Van Jones Show and Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America, it can also be applied to blog posts, long-form analyses, monographs, and book reviews not unlike this one:

I do think there is a genuine desire at work here […] [b]ut once the reaching-out is done, the result isn’t surprising. Biases, right wing fear-mongering, and whitelash combined with a visceral hatred for Hillary Clinton to produce Trump’s victory.

In light of such succinct, if not subtly sarcastic observations, what is left to be said? What is the collective purpose of such think pieces and monographs? To better understand their respective subjects? Or, perhaps, to enact a type of religious-political catharsis by way of academic analysis and peer-reviewed publication?

For Robert Wuthnow, much has been said about the rural America that supported Trump in last year’s election, but very little of it is worth reading because it cares little for the role of community within rural communities. While Wuthnow may appear on paper to be a liberal due to his position at Princeton University, as he admits in his epilogue, he is a native son of sorts who has returned to familiar soil in hopes of cultivating insight and perspective of those otherwise interpellated as the political retrograde. For all intents and purposes, he has achieved such a feat with The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, yet not exactly for the reasons he may think.

Wuthnow’s central argument is that in order to better understand what he identifies as the “moral cultures in rural communities,” we must first consider rural communities collectively as explicitly moral communities, and, as such, products of larger moral orders. For him, a moral community is “a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right things.” Much of the misunderstanding that has taken place in both journalistic and academic accounts of such lifeways has unfolded largely due to a lack of communal context.

Wuthnow bases most of his analysis on three fictitious rural settings, appropriately named Fairfield, Newborough, and Gulfdale, which in turn reflect larger socio-economic and demographic tendencies of uniquely rural environments. Over the course of his research, the various locales (Midwestern, New England, and Southern respectively) provided Wuthnow with upward of one thousand interviews with individuals such as town managers, clergy persons, mayors, farmers, factory workers, and homemakers. Wuthnow argues that if contemporary observers had a better understanding of rural “norms, expectations, and habits” as part of a broader moral community, then there would be less need to try and “understand them” in terms other than their own. “A first measure of understanding for those who live in cities and suburbs […] is to step momentarily inside these communities before articulating disagreements — and certainly before denouncing millions of our fellow citizens as hopelessly deranged.” What do such individuals actually think about politics, race, and American public life? Do they really vote against their own economic self-interests, as many of us have argued? What, then, are such folk thinking?

Not unlike Arlie R. Hochschild’s subtitle, Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Wuthnow’s own subtitle uses explicitly emotional diction to capture the sentiments of rural Americans: decline and rage. Other texts have recently begun to use the word resentment to describe the religious-political force animating much of today’s version of American populism, yet for Wuthnow this usage cuts in both directions. “The moral outrage of rural America is a mixture of fear and anger,” he contends. “The fear is that small town ways of life are disappearing. The anger is that they are under siege. The outrage cannot be understood apart from the loyalties that rural Americans feel toward their communities.”

While some of the rituals, practices, and beliefs discussed by Wuthnow may not be morally or politically correct (one of his chapters is titled “Bigotry”), his usage of moral community speaks to a larger sacred canopy that contextualizes virtually everything that takes place within rural communities. In this sense, Wuthnow’s intent is to reveal how rural lifeways orient their participants to the myriad worlds around them across the United States. “Understanding the variations and central tendencies of rural voters requires spending time listening and trying to see the world through local eyes,” Wuthnow argues. “As is true of any other segment of our nation, rural lives are complex.” For many, such complexity possesses very little intellectual merit because it usually sounds racist or bigoted, or at least it is assumed to sound as such. What, then, is this complexity of which Wuthnow speaks? And what are its sources?

Wuthnow first explains the current sources of socio-economic struggle for those living in rural areas, and then describes how rural communities have responded, and for what reasons. We first learn about rural communities as moral communities, followed by chapters on “Present Dangers” and “Makeshift Solutions.” In describing what he calls “the culture of small towns,” Wuthnow delves into the daily movements of those struggling to find work or commute-able employment and health care in order to better understand the conditions within which they make their lives livable. Once in the proverbial thick-of-it, all-too-familiar socio-economic similarities begin to emerge between largely white rural communities and largely black and brown urban communities. “Drugs and crime that resulted from drugs were an outlet for people in their communities who felt they were stuck and going nowhere. It was similar, they thought, to problems in inner-city neighborhoods where unemployment, under-employment, and poverty rates were high.”

Unlike much of the contemporary analysis directed at rural Americans, however, Wuthnow’s treatment is rendered thickly enough as to reveal a dense network of expectations, common-sense obligations, and relationships that are anything exclusively white or inherently racist. The fact that Wuthnow decided to name the last chapter of his text “Bigotry” speaks to his awareness of such ways of thinking, but he is much less willing to assume such characterizations as part of his academic analysis. Instead, he explores how notions of community both challenge and cultivate racist and anti-racist behavior in rural communities. In many instances throughout the book, “complex” is an understatement: “I just want to have more freedom,” one of Wuthnow’s interviewees responded, “but I don’t know how to get it.”

In general, Wuthnow’s arguments reflect much of the current and past work on the United States’s culture wars by arguing that one of the sources of rural moral outrage is the “culture gap” that seemingly separates Washington from the rest of rural America. While we know a great deal about the affluent, urban-centered cultures of certain areas of DC, New York, or Los Angeles, we know much less about the individuals to whom Wuthnow spoke, beyond the traditional hyperbolic headline. Regardless of such marketing demands, describing a “rural ethic” amid numerous “trouble with Kansas” arguments makes Wuthnow’s project more important for us to consider. “The anger toward specific policies and officeholders is nested within this larger sense of Washington being at odds with the moral communities in which people live,” Wuthnow contends. “Deficit spending is contrary to ordinary people living within their means. Government wastefulness is the antipathy of hometown thrift.” Once seen in this cultural light, one’s self-interests take on much more value than simply socio-economic value; in many ways, rural voting patterns reflect less the decisions of solitary individuals, and more the commitment to maintaining a way of life — complex as it is.

These cultural divisions have lent themselves to dual-purposes in the recent past: politicization and polarization on behalf of culture war. As Wuthnow points out, there is nothing inherent within a given topic of political deliberation that makes it an “issue” at best, or a “hot button issue” at worst. His treatment of rural lifeways illustrates how a form of cultural warfare impinges upon daily conversation in rural communities and churches.

Abortion was something they needed to talk about, most of the clergy said. And it could be talked about in church without the conversation ever having to be explicitly political. As a pastor in Texas explained, “I preach about abortion as a theological issue. I don’t have to turn around then and vote Republican.”

While much has been said about the benefits of single-issue advocacy in the public square since the 1960s, such means cut in both directions — they bring something important to the surface at the expense of virtually everything else, including one’s daily interactions with fellow citizens. In this way, Wuthnow’s interviews reveal just how corrosive American cultural warfare has been on behalf of largely conservative political expediency. “What most concerns me every day is dealing with people,” the pastor explained. “No matter what the issue is, how it affects the person is a heck of a lot more important than ‘the issue.’” As such, cultural warfare has not replaced discussions of GDP with abortion or same-sex marriage, but instead has recalibrated American politics itself to be more conducive to hyperbolic headlines and social media consumption. In fact, one need look no further than this past presidential election to see the fruits of such labors from America’s heartland.

In short, the decline and rage of Wuthnow’s subtitle can be best explained thusly: combine a severe lack of trust in the political process with calculated campaigns engineered by professional political strategists and you get what we currently have today — a populace thoroughly divided against itself for reasons largely unbeknownst to itself. A more productive direction for future commentary would be less concerned with those “voting against their self-interests,” and more with who exactly has made politics about the self-interests of those voting in the first place. In this regard, divisions between liberal and conservative would begin to lose their analytical traction in favor of investigations that foreground political alienation and apathy as the most serious of threats to a democratic polity on a mass scale.

As such, the true value of Wuthnow’s analysis is that it allows us to witness how citizens first internalize and then reflect the political directives that suffuse their daily lives to the detriment of democracy itself. “It is the socially uprooted and unattached members of all classes who support [totalitarian] movements first and in the greatest numbers,” argued fellow sociologist William Kornhauser. This means that “unattached intellectuals, marginal members of the middle class, isolated industrial and farm workers have been among the major social types in totalitarian movements.”

Thanks to Wuthnow’s rich observations, we are able to address and understand what truly confronts us as a nation: the triumph of mass society through mass politics in the name of the “little guy.” Little did we know that such a person would also have the hands to match.


L. Benjamin Rolsky is a research fellow in Religion Studies at Lehigh University.

LARB Contributor

L. Benjamin Rolsky is an affiliated fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University, and a history teacher at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey. His work has appeared in a variety of academic and popular venues, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, The Marginalia Review of Books, CNN Opinion, and the Religion and Cultural Forum at the University of Chicago. His research and teaching interests include religion and politics, popular culture, and critical theory. Rolsky’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond, was published by Columbia University Press in 2019. Rolsky is currently researching a project that will explore the history of the Christian Right as an artifact of the culture wars in the recent American past.


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