November 04, 2004

Rural voters

Ok, here we go. George W. Bush completely swept the rural parts of this country, and this has focused our attention on these habitually ignored (except for marketing purposes) residents of the "heartland." Stephen Bainbridge points out how eager the left is to vilify rural voters, and also (by way of his own eager identification with them), how eager the right is to put them on a pedestal. Both sides are doing these rural Bush voters an injustice.

It is not true that rural people are all rabid evangelicals, although many of them are overtly religious. It's not true that rural people are bigots, although many of them aren't as comfortable with the wide range of cultures that you regularly see in the big cities. It's not true that rural people are stupid, although many of them are less formally educated than the cosmopolitan city-dweller.

Although Republicans have been more successful at winning the votes of rural people, the Democrats would be foolish to write them off as hopelessly-benighted slaves to AM radio right-wing propaganda. For the Democrats to make inroads with America's rural population, they need a more nuanced view of rural voters than they've shown up 'til now. Both parties could do worse than pay attention to Wendell Berry, who addresses the (often) unstated assumptions of the elites of both major political parties:

I can say, too, that, having lived both in great metropolitan centers of culture and in a small farming community, I have seen few things dumber and tackier--or more provincial--than this half-scared urban contempt for "provinciality."

The stereotype of the farmer as rustic simpleton or uncouth redneck is, like most stereotypes, easily refuted: All you have to do is compare it with a number of real people. But the stereotype of the small farmer as obsolete human clinging to an obsolete kind of life, though equally false, is harder to deal with because it comes from a more complicated prejudice, entrenched in superstition and a kind of insanity.

The prejudice begins in the idea that work is bad, and that manual work outdoors is the worst work of all. The superstition is that since all work is bad, all "labor-saving" is good. The insanity is to rationalize the industrial pillage of the natural world and to heap scorn upon the land-using cultures on which human society depends for its life.

The industrialization of agriculture has replaced working people with machines and chemicals. The people thus replaced have, supposedly, gone into the "better" work of offices or factories. But in all the enterprises of the industrial economy, as in industrial war, we finally reach the end of the desk jobs, the indoor work, the glamour of forcing nature to submission by push-buttons and levers, and we come to the unsheltered use of the body. Somebody, finally, must lift the garbage can, stop the leaks in the roof, fix the broken machinery, walk in the mud and the snow, build and mend the pasture fences, help the calving cow.

Now, in the United States, the despised work of agriculture is done by the still-surviving and always struggling small farmers, and by many Mexican and Central American migrant laborers who live and work a half step, if that, above slavery. The work of the farmland, in other words, is now accomplished by two kinds of oppression, and most people do not notice, or if they notice they do not care. If they are invited to care, they are likely to excuse themselves by answers long available in the "public consciousness": Farmers are better off when they lose their farms. They are improved by being freed of the "mind-numbing work" of farming. Mexican migrant field hands, like Third World workers in our sweatshops, are being improved by our low regard and low wages. And besides, however objectionable from the standpoint of "nostalgia," the dispossession of farmers and their replacement by machines, chemicals, and oppressed migrants is "inevitable," and it is "too late" for correction.

Berry puts his finger on something the Republicans and the Democrats have both ignored: a contempt for a life on the land. Whichever party can address this issue will make inroads into the red areas of every state. The Democrats can do this without pandering to fascism or theocracy. The votes are there for the asking.

Posted by Carey at November 4, 2004 11:40 PM