When I go home to South Dakota to visit my family, I speak two languages.
One is the language of my new home in California, of my job in the national media, a freewheeling speech that blends irony and academia and weird jokes. You’re probably familiar with this language if you read a lot of left-leaning internet sites.
The other is the language of my youth, and its hallmark is a sincere, aching tone that longs for salvation and worries everything is about to crumble. We talked a lot about the end of things when I was growing up, about the last trumpet and Armageddon. But when I sit and talk with family, it sounds almost as if the apocalypse came and went in the form of government regulation.
When did this regulation happen? It’s never clear. The government has just gotten too big, too all-encompassing. Aren’t you angry about that? goes the unspoken question. Well, you should be.
I don’t say anything. I don’t want to upset the precarious balance between old life and new. I just listen and laugh and nod.
If you want to understand the anger rippling through rural, white America, especially among older folks, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has written the single best book you can read. Called Strangers in Their Own Land, it concerns Hochschild’s visits to rural Louisiana, far from her home in Berkeley, California.
Hochschild’s deepest insight stopped me dead in my tracks. I went back and read it four or five times. She writes that the people she interviewed in Louisiana felt as if they were being made to feel certain ways because the media wanted them to.
They believed that if they found marriage equality to be a step too far, or if they didn’t entirely understand the meaning of or need for “Black Lives Matter,” or if they didn’t want to see sex depicted on TV, or if they thought owning a gun could be a lot of fun, well, they weren’t feeling the “right” way, and they would be mocked for doing so.
Try to set aside, for a second, your political feelings on all of the above. Think only of how rarely people who feel any or all of the above are presented by mainstream mass media as sensible. There’s nothing wrong with owning a gun. There’s nothing wrong with being cautious about sex. There’s not even anything wrong with not immediately understanding the ideas behind Black Lives Matter. But how often does progressive pop culture treat any of the above cultural signifiers as the signs of a person with a rich inner life?
People who believe the above are often presented as dumb yokels on TV and in movies, and if you push further, racists and sexists are presented as outright villains or “behind the times” in period pieces.
Even Mad Men, which flirted as much as any project recently has with endorsing casual racism and sexism, made sure to signal to the audience that it knew all of this was Not Okay through carefully chosen directorial and writing decisions. HBO’s Vice Principals, perhaps the only show on TV that truly tries to understand Trump’s America, prompted much fretting over whether the show recognized that its white male heroes — who were trying to tear down a black woman who had the job they wanted — knew what they were doing was Wrong, even as they were burning down her house.
Look back to the 1970s. Think of popular, Best Picture–winning movies like The French Connection, where lead character Popeye Doyle is an unrepentant racist but gets the job done. Think of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, a racist and sexist who, nonetheless, is fiercely loyal to his family and willing to admit when he’s underestimated someone based on the color of her skin.
These characters rarely exist in modern film and TV, or they’d be the butt of the joke, not allowed to make jokes of their own. Left-leaning culture doesn’t attempt to understand; it attempts to isolate that which says “the wrong thing.” It too often embraces easy moralizing over complexity — and even if you agree with the morals, that’s disappointing. National Review’s Henry Olsen even pointed to an Archie Bunker factor when he predicted a Trump victory was more likely than most other pundits believed.
The online multicultural left is too often intent on making sure our entertainment, our news sources, and our political heroes send the “right” messages, that everybody learns the right things. But we’re increasingly only talking to ourselves.
Hochschild notes that the people she spoke to in Louisiana emphasized what they believed to be a fundamental contradiction in liberalism: It was tolerant of everything but their views, which it called intolerant.
That’s true on both ends — conservative and progressive. Certainly, I’m not going to step back and say, during an argument about trans bathroom rights, “Wow, you really have a point about how trans people are just making up their identity so they can sneak into places where they don’t belong.” Trying to empathize with that point of view rejects the lived experience of every trans person I know. But I also immediately snap, too often, to calling such views intolerant, instead of trying to figure out where they come from.
Older rural whites usually express their frustrations in some variation of “I’m sick of political correctness,” which I find maddening — since political correctness in my view just means treating people politely. What’s wrong with calling someone by their preferred pronouns? Nothing, if you’re steeped in ideas about antiquated gender binaries and the like. But if you’ve never even met a trans person, the existence of trans people, much less the idea that they have inherent rights, can be a big leap to make, as is the case for plenty of older rural whites. (See also: the close cousin to “I’m sick of political correctness,” “Why do people hate white men all of a sudden?”)
To be clear: I do not want to advocate for giving an inch on any of these issues. Ending racial, misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ, and classist power structures is essential to the future of this country, as is ending the enormous levels of income inequality. But I also think progressive America has become too quick to leap to crying racism or sexism — even when talking about genuinely dangerous, racist, and sexist ideas — instead of trying to unpack what’s motivating those ideas. The rise of the alt-right shows that these dark ideas are not going away without a fight. That’s what makes it so important for progressives to get better at communicating what they mean and fighting for what they believe in.
I say “racism” and mean “a system, built up over centuries of American history, that privileges white people over everybody else.” Many rural whites hear “racism” and think it means, “You’re a bad person who hates black people,” when they believe they’re not actively discriminating against anyone because of race. And that goes for plenty of other terms as well — “privilege” or “rape culture” or even “feminism.” There’s a communication gap, and there has to be a way to bridge it. Much of that is on rural white America, yes, but some of it necessarily is on urban progressives, as well.
Because if the 2016 election has made anything clear, it’s that older rural whites are now acting like an interest group, who will vote for any party that even pays lip service to their desires. And though their demographic power is waning, there are still a lot of them.
And they watch TV. They believe they know what progressives think of them.
Okay, yes, this is another article about rural white people.
Amid the rise of Trump, trying to understand his supporters has become something of a cottage industry. There have been profiles, good and bad and satirical. There have been attempts to understand their plight via economic means and via racial anxiety.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Rural America has been hollowed out by a ruling class that no longer has much use for it. The Democratic Party sometimes pays lip service to rebuilding manufacturing communities via new job training and the like, but never seems to make doing so a priority — a bitter irony for those who remember when the Democrats were the party of labor.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify two things. The first is that this is not a piece about progressivism winning back rural America. I’m not sure such a thing is possible, en masse, and there are no easy answers to this problem.
Progressive economic policy might not be as redistributive as many (including myself) would like, but it is, on average, better for rural America than conservative economic policy. (See my colleagues Ezra Klein and Dylan Matthews for more on that point.) And over the course of my life, I’ve spoken with many people in rural America who know conservative economic policy won’t benefit them but care much more about deporting undocumented immigrants or ending abortion rights.
But there are also some rural whites — a minority, I think, but some — who are receptive to progressive messages on all sorts of economic and social policy issues but don’t feel heard or understood. There is a performative aspect to life in rural areas (which I wrote more about here) that too often gets overlooked, and I have had many, many conversations with rural whites who say Democrats just don’t hear them or understand them.
Again, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this, but I think an answer does exist, and we ignore those who are receptive to it at our peril. But even if there isn’t an answer, empathy is a good thing, whether or not we still condemn rural whites’ various deeply held beliefs. Understanding where those beliefs come from is vital to crafting messages that will beat them back.
The second thing I want to clarify is that what I’m saying might seem like a rough gloss on Emmett Rensin’s excellent, earlier piece for this site “The smug style in American liberalism.” And while my argument shares several points with Rensin’s — particularly when it comes to how progressives express themselves online — it’s more about how progressive America presents itself as the de facto face of all of America, often through its pop culture.
The whole of progressive America doesn’t have a lot of control over that, because progressives don’t all work in the entertainment industry. But rural America rarely sees itself reflected back in pop culture. That might seem like a silly complaint, but it’s creating alienation, as I’ll dig into below.
To grow up in rural America is to know that your odds of financial success are lower than ever before. Even a state with 2.9 percent unemployment — like my home state — struggles with how wages have not risen at the same accelerated pace as the cost of living. To many of South Dakota’s children, finding success means leaving their hometowns, as I and some of my friends have, whether for urban areas within the state or other states entirely.
I don’t want to understate the racial component here. It’s probably the most important part of understanding the rise of Trump. The forces driving Trump’s most fervent supporters are almost all racially based, from anti-immigration positions to Trump’s proposed plan to ban Muslims from entering the US. (Read more on this topic from Matthews right here.)
And even states with populations as monochromatic as South Dakota’s — it’s just over 86 percent white — can be driven to distraction by fear of a racial other. (For more on this topic, a recent This American Life episode is essential.)
But Trump didn’t just win South Dakota. He crushed South Dakota by around 30 percentage points. And I can’t help but feel as if the attempts to paint Trump supporters with the broadest possible brush — sometimes because they deserve it! — miss a fundamental part of his appeal, one that’s almost entirely cultural.
I was once one of those rural conservatives who would have voted for Trump gladly, a South Dakota boy rolling my eyes at how often the mainstream media missed the mark, turning us all into broad stereotypes.
And yet pop culture also seeded progressive ideas in my brain. I was a teenager when the first rumors that Ellen DeGeneres might be a lesbian, and that her sitcom character on the show Ellen might come out of the closet too, began to circulate. I bought the week’s Entertainment Weekly, which featured her, and read it carefully.
Everything I’d been taught in church and from friends and family suggested that being gay was a terrible choice that some people made. But here was living proof that if you were going to “choose” to be gay, it probably wouldn’t be worth the hassle. DeGeneres’s name was being dragged through the mud endlessly by members of the religious right, and still she persisted with her plan to make her character the first gay lead character in American TV history.
Well, I thought, she probably just is gay. She probably isn’t doing this for attention. It’s probably really important to her that she be allowed to be herself on her TV show.
Still, I didn’t meet an out gay person until college. I lived in an incredibly small, incredibly homogeneous little town in South Dakota. I loved it, and love it still, but it didn’t present the best view of what the world is actually like.
I didn’t really get to know a black person, or someone of Latino descent, or a Muslim, until many, many years later, when I moved to Milwaukee and later Southern California. My wife frequently remarks on how she, another small-town native, didn’t meet anyone who was Jewish until she was 25.
I grew up in an environment that was kind, supportive, and nurturing. It was also incredibly cloistered. And as the 2016 presidential election approached, I saw friends from back home darkly ruminating on easily disproved rumors about how, say, the state of South Dakota was bringing in large cohorts of Syrian refugees and keeping them hidden in abandoned state facilities.
Progressives understand but still underestimate how ensconced we are in a progressive bubble — and how all-encompassing the conservative bubble on the other side is as well. Can those bubbles be popped? I don’t know, but I’d like to hope so.
Yes, we know Facebook is driving this isolation, but we can’t really contend with what it is to be someone who deeply believes himself to not be racist or homophobic or what have you — even if the policies he supports are racist or homophobic — and then feel as if everybody in America thinks that’s who you are. And we’ve barely begun to realize how much geography plays into this, how the diversity we see in America’s great urban centers has barely begun to spread into many rural areas.
There’s nowhere to meet anymore, and progressive culture too often acts as if those who disagree with it are weird anomalies, not a major section of the country.
Near the end of his terrific new book The End of White Christian America, Public Religion Research Institute CEO Robert P. Jones points to a quote from Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne calling white Protestantism the “civic and moral glue” that has held America together throughout much of its history.
[White Protestantism] spun a coherent national narrative, cultivated a common vocabulary, served as an institutional intermediary between whole sectors of society such as business and government, and curated symbols of national life, all of which created a sense of strong civil solidarity. ...
The passing of White Christian America presents a unique challenge, analogous to the death of the patriarch who served, for good and ill, at the center of family life. Standing beside the resting place of White Christian America, amidst unprecedented diversity and renewed racial tensions, it’s unclear what could provide a similar civic glue again.
But on the left, at least, there’s an increasing attempt to create just that sort of civic glue sans religious affiliation. I call it progressive fundamentalism. (I’ll just state upfront here that progressive fundamentalism, by and large, is the province of upper-class white folks. It’s more diverse than your average Trump rally and getting more so every day — but probably not yet by as much as your average progressive fundamentalist would like.)
Here’s how I define progressive fundamentalism: It’s the idea that a sort of mildly diverse, cosmopolitan near-liberalism has essentially “solved” society. It traffics in feel-good optimism about multiculturalism, nods toward forms of diversity that don’t actually confront what it means to make an equal society, and emphasizes broad cultural signifiers of what it means to be “good.” For much of the country, it’s best known through its pop cultural output, not what it really believes or stands for.
Progressive fundamentalism’s primary defining characteristic is its urban cosmopolitanism, which means it includes a good number of economic conservatives who are socially moderate. But it at least flirts with real, open socialism every once in a while. (It maybe didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders, but it sure liked reading about his ideas.)
A lot of it is performative, but I don’t mean that in the sense that progressives don’t genuinely care about, say, pop cultural diversity. Think of how many times you’ve read a piece about the importance of racially diverse casting in Hollywood projects (sometimes on this very website) — something that is, indeed, hugely important.
But think about how often you’ve read an article about diversity behind the scenes, or in talent agencies, or atop the show business executive food chain. Then think about how often you’ve heard about diversity of class, or diversity of religion, or diversity of political perspective. Hollywood diversity goes only so far and largely reflects the views of those who are economically comfortable and live in Brentwood. The lack of outcry about this seems to suggest a slippage between what progressives want and the lived reality of many rural whites — even if that’s not true.
Many white folks in the mainstream left — myself included — increasingly function in terms of making sure we follow the right rules and nod toward the right cultural signifiers: shopping at the right stores and watching the right TV shows and saying the right things in the right way. Do all of these things, and you will be saved, become woke.
Foreign policy theorists have a concept of “soft power” — the idea that a country’s cultural output has influence that extends beyond its borders. To put it another (vastly simplified) way, American TV shows and movies sell a vision of the US to other countries that makes us seem cooler than we actually are.
What’s happened in the cultural divide between progressive fundamentalists and the white Protestant remnants of our rural areas is sort of a mirror-universe version of America as it appears onscreen. Movies and TV shows and music sell that superficially diverse, seemingly equitable society I talked about earlier, and that world seems further and further away from the rural viewers who are supposed to live in the same country as those creating that entertainment.
Think, for instance, of the Oscars So White movement. This was a huge deal for the online left, and justifiably so. It reflected how poor the film industry is at telling stories about the broad group of Americans out there who aren’t white.
But if you’re not ensconced in progressive news sources and simply tuned in to the Oscars, the constant pushing on this point by host Chris Rock and others must have seemed a little bizarre. Of course the Oscars don’t reflect America, a rural white person might think. I don’t see anybody who looks or acts like me.
That divide creates the subconscious sense that there’s a party somewhere that all these rural folks aren’t invited to — and everybody at the party is laughing at them, even as their towns grow more and more desperate, racked with economic pain, health crises, and opioid epidemics, problems that before 2016 were barely touched on at all in either conservative or progressive media. This idea comes up in every single book I’ve read about trying to understand the collapse of white, rural America.
Put another way: I’m increasingly convinced that too many on the left want the appearance of being equitable, rather than actual equality. So long as the picture looks right, it doesn’t matter who’s excluded from it. Where the right longs endlessly for a past that never was, an unchaotic 1950s that largely exists in its head, the cultural left seems trapped in hopes of a future that leaves out everybody who disagrees with it, where everything is okay because we’ve embraced a surface-level diversity. It doesn’t realize how little its America looks like the America many others live in.
And some of that, to be clear, is on older rural whites. It’s not my fault that they live in homogeneous enclaves and believe that my downtown Los Angeles home must be surrounded by constant crime and near anarchy. (It’s not.) It’s not my fault that in my hometown, at least, nonwhites who visited when I was a child were treated as, at best, exotic curiosities.
But I think we progressive fundamentalists can find other ways of both defending our ideals and listening to those who disagree without reflexively dismissing their concerns. Progressive economic policies, again, largely benefit rural whites when compared with conservative ones, but the culture we make and consume, and the politics we express on our Facebook walls, often seem like they only have room for city dwellers, no matter how much that’s not true.
Like religious fundamentalism, progressive fundamentalism, at the moment, is far more concerned with going through the motions of a so-called “good” life and belonging to the right movements than it is with actually trying to build relationships with people from outside of the fundamentalist core.
We understand the problems of abject poverty, but only abstractly, largely through data or statistics. We have limited experience with what it means to actually live through such a thing, whether in a rural area or an urban center. Similarly, we understand that people who live well outside of our progressive fundamentalist, urban core are people, too, but only abstractly.
When actually confronted with the messy realities — like the country electing Donald Trump president — we shut down just a little bit. We focus on the certainty we feel in our moral and philosophical codes and on that hoped-for future we expect will arrive any day now, but we ignore the very real pain and hurt going on in our own country.
We can’t blame a nebulous “other” for Trump, not 100 percent. We were at fault, just a little bit. We treated him as a joke for a long, long time, and didn’t understand that treating him as a joke only gave him more power, because his core voters thought we were constantly mocking them all along.
Let me tell you about where I grew up.
If you imagine America as a person, Armour, South Dakota, is a bump, a tiny little speck on the skin. You can drive through it in about a minute, if the town cop isn’t there to stop you. My wife — whose hometown population numbered just 2,000 people — is quick to mock me for having grown up in Mayberry, and she’s not wrong. I describe it as a good place to be if you like to feel lonely, and I remember long post-school afternoons sitting on a green, humming electrical box, looking out over the endless horizon of my family’s farm.
Main Street is emptier today than it was when I was a child, but those who still live in Armour have made worthy attempts to keep it lively. And the employment rate is stable, with most Armour residents driving to the nearby city (he said of a town with about 15,000 people) of Mitchell for work. Armour’s Main Street is no longer the center of any universe, but it has settled, at least somewhat peacefully, into being part of a solar system.
What I remember most about it is a feeling of stability. Living in Armour was a little like living inside a chrysalis. On the outside, it appeared unchanging, maybe growing a little bit harder, a little bit less flexible. But on the inside, massive changes were in motion.
Now, having moved away, I see the things my family didn’t talk about. Even in a town of 750 people or so, class distinctions were present. My family wasn’t absurdly rich or anything of the sort, but my parents had both gone to college and were insistent that my sister and I would go too, thanks to the money they set aside every month. We didn’t want for things. We had new clothes, and when I badly damaged the side of my dad’s pickup in an ill-considered tangle with a dumpster, it wasn’t the financial apocalypse it could have been.
Beyond that, my family was stable. My parents loved each other, and they loved their children. We went to church every Sunday. My father’s parents lived just a few miles away, and my mother’s parents weren’t too far — just a 90-minute car ride. I grew up surrounded by people who loved me and cheered for me and wanted me to succeed. I know my parents wish I would move back home, but they’re also a little pleased to tell people their son lives in Los Angeles.
There were others in town who didn’t have such comfort. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Armour was haunted by social schisms that threatened to swallow us. We were all white. We were all Christian. We were all Republican (except for a friend who bragged about his family being the only Democrats in town; he might have been right). But we were not the same, not by a long shot.
A friend of mine, whose father owned a successful local business, lived in the biggest house any of us had ever seen. Anytime we visited someplace far away from our hometown — the top of the St. Louis arch, say — we’d joke that we could see his house from there. He would laugh but defensively say it wasn’t that big (which, objectively speaking, was true; it wasn’t a mansion or anything), and anyway, his dad had done a lot of the work to fix it up.
Today, I understand that we weren’t just laughing in the good-natured way that teenage boys laugh at each other. We were also trying, subtly, to restore some sense of the social order. No one should be so successful, went the undercurrent of the joke. We believed in being rewarded for hard work, in God’s blessings. But our ribbing longed for redistribution.
And we never talked about those who really did live in abject poverty, just a few miles away — the Native Americans who had once ruled the prairies we lived on and were now trapped in a reservation prison we all wanted to believe was a gift.
In her book White Trash, scholar Nancy Isenberg convincingly argues that the roots of American social and economic class — inherited from our British ancestors — stretch all the way back to the 1500s. The book is nothing less than a suggestion that the beating down of poor, rural whites is one of many ancient sins that America can’t quite find it in its heart to do penance for.
Reading Isenberg’s book made me realize, finally, how to talk about something I’ve always struggled to express.
We Armourites were living right alongside a social caste system we didn’t dare discuss, but unlike the more obviously racist caste systems of other rural areas, this was one that the national media and government more or less accepted without question. I was lucky enough to have nice things, to have a shot at leaving South Dakota someday. Many of my peers did not. And we would never talk about it.
We had our church and our schools and our social clubs. All of those institutions mediated the gap between have and have not. But we had our jokes, and our gossip, and our insinuations too. We built a shadow kingdom of resentment and anger, in hopes that our real one might remain upright and stable.
I think we haven’t adequately grappled, as a nation, with what it means to go from white Protestant America to progressive fundamentalist America — from the small towns to the cities.
Even as America has urbanized over the past two centuries, we maintain our national mythology around small towns. Certainly the growing pains associated with shifting from a solidly white majority to the majority-minority US that will arrive in 30 years or so are driving these anxieties, but so is the thought that the small town used to be the center of American discourse, even if that was mostly an illusion. Now it’s not even part of the conversation.
So imagine you once lived in what seemed like a stable community, safe and predictable — or what it might be like to live in a place with a living memory of such a time. Beyond that, imagine that during this time, much of US popular culture seemed catered to making sure you felt validated in your life choices. As recently as the 1960s, film and television regularly told stories about rural America, and as recently as the 1990s, country music was seen as a vibrant, creative, explicitly traditionalist pop culture force.
Now imagine that world fading — slowly at first, when the plant closed, or the family farmer couldn’t make ends meet, or the school consolidated with the one from the town next door. But then all of a sudden, it seemed to accelerate: businesses closing, kids moving away, opportunity dying, the best possible representation of your community on TV becoming Duck Dynasty, of all things.
And in a country where you assumed white Protestantism was the center of everything, religion is suddenly just not a major factor in public life at all. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and the media insists you should be happy about it.
Is the anger over the loss of that world driven by white supremacy and the patriarchy? Absolutely. But imagine yourself as that person again. You’d be freaked out too.
In Strangers in Their Own Land, Hochschild hoped to understand how Louisianans whose lives had been hurt by the industrial pollution so rampant in the area could still support Republican politicians who wanted to slash government regulations.
Her key finding — her “deep story,” she calls it — is that the people in these communities feel they’re being passed over, that their shot at the American dream is being taken by a whole bunch of people who don’t look and act like them: racial minorities, yes, but also city residents and LGBTQ citizens and even endangered animals. She imagines this feeling as a line, in which rural whites stand and wait while imagining that folks from other constituencies are cutting in ahead of them and being celebrated for doing so.
The resulting discomfort and frustration is easiest to explain in terms of race and gender, and I don’t want to discount how this cultural anxiety has exploded, in ugly fashion, via racism and misogyny.
But Hochschild also unpacks how completely the modern world has torn apart these rural communities, simply by existing. The people she interviews can remember the world as it was, the beauty of the Louisiana swamps and the communities there, and they can see what it has become. One man, in particular, just wants to have a place where his adult children, who have since moved away, can find work and live near him.
We, all of us, live within systems we don’t realize are systems. Think of the way Earth stretches before you when you’re out somewhere open and wild, how it seems to be a flat plane that buildings and mountains and trees have been plopped down upon. Intellectually, you know it’s a sphere, that you are held to it by gravity. But to just see it, that’s not always obvious. And yet it would be obvious if gravity suddenly weakened, or if the Earth rapidly began to contract. The system you live in would reveal itself.
The questions of why evangelical Christians would support Trump, or why people who live in communities that are so predominantly white would be so anti-refugee, or why older white evangelicals are still so resistant to marriage equality are just three different masks concealing the same problem. Trump voters are people who suddenly realized — and I mean very rapidly, over a couple of decades — that the system they thought they lived in, where they thought they were at the center of the country’s power structures, isn’t the objective reality everybody else occupies, but rather a system that’s collapsing.
Voting for Trump, then, isn’t just a cry of desperation. It’s the latest shot in a civil war where too many progressive fundamentalists have brought political comedy videos to a ballot fight.
I would guess that I have very little in common, politically, with J.D. Vance, author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy. The book is about his life growing up among the descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants in Kentucky and Ohio, before joining the Marines and eventually graduating from Yale Law School. He’s quite obviously a political conservative, while I’m a liberal who’s uncomfortable with liberalism’s frequent timidity when it comes to remaking the American polity.
But I found myself nodding, over and over, at his conclusion that even now, having left behind his childhood and moved into the professional, ruling class, he finds himself trying to understand his new world, to operate by rules that are simply assumed by those he meets in this world to be known.
He finds himself in the unlikely position of translator, of trying to explain each world to the other and often becoming frustrated. His occasional feelings of inferiority in the face of this new life resonated deeply with me. And I was flabbergasted by how his tendency to either explode or completely retreat from conflict mirrors my own — and how he ties it to the rural past we share. I think, if I had the chance to talk with Vance, he would understand what I mean when I talk about progressive fundamentalism, even if he might disagree on the details.
Progressive fundamentalism is just another system, one that you don’t realize is all around you until you step back. It’s one that encompasses those on the left and the right who would argue at length about supply-side economics but blanch at the thought of outlawing marriages between two people of the same sex. It believes it has answers, but it mostly has data.
Indeed, if you only got a glimpse of progressive America through its pop cultural output, it would barely seem to care about economics, seemingly believing, on some level, that the kinder, gentler capitalism of the Clinton and Obama administrations has solved inequality — and anyway, a lot of the people who are stuck on the less equal side of the ledger believe obviously inaccurate things.
Those who subscribe to progressive fundamentalism confuse their beliefs for a solution because they embrace the cosmopolitan world those beliefs thrive in. They tend to view other solutions — older ways of thinking — as outmoded and outdated, as something that should be scrapped. They may not immediately consider themselves to be part of a clash between civilizations, between a new America centered on progressive fundamentalism and an old America centered on white Protestantism, but everybody who’s still living in the latter believes in that war, and sometimes rides that belief to gigantic electoral outcomes.
This discrepancy is what Vance and Hochschild and Jones and Isenberg and myself are all fretting over in the end. How do you translate messages between two different countries that share the same set of borders? For as much as I needle it, I do believe the cosmopolitan, more open, more diverse nature of progressive fundamentalism is a necessary improvement on the homogeneous nature of the old America.
And it’s not as if issues like marriage equality are something I’ll compromise on. Both Republicans and Democrats have fooled themselves, since the ’80s, into thinking American politics is an argument about how nice capitalism should be, when to a lot of people it’s about whether some of us should even exist.
Progressive fundamentalism, to use a religious metaphor, is lousy at witnessing for itself. It assumes that by looking cool on TV, it can win over those of us who could leave our small towns and move to a coast or major city. It assumes it doesn’t need to share the core tenets of its theology if it seems like a cool party.
But there are a lot of people left behind without the money or means to escape, people who might have once been receptive to these ideas but are now stuck.
And they curdle.
Let me tell you about where I live now.
Downtown Los Angeles is the culmination of a dream I had when I was 15, when I realized that all of the time I spent watching TV might someday be put to good use. Believe me, that I get paid to watch television isn’t lost on me as a kind of cruel joke the universe has played on everybody who doesn’t get to do the same.
This fact inevitably comes up anytime I engage in Facebook arguments with people from back home — about Syrian refugees or transgender bathroom rights or anything else. They scoff at the thought that I could write about TV and get paid for it. But I do!
And I live in a neighborhood with some of the best restaurants and nightlife in the country. We’ve got an amazing movie theater coming, and if I left my apartment at 2 in the morning, there would be people around, everywhere I went, who similarly want to share in my neighborhood’s bounty. We might smile at each other. We got out! our glimpses might say. We made it!
But did we? Or did we trade one seemingly oppressive system for a completely different one?
Because let me tell you more about where I live now.
If I leave my apartment and turn a different direction, I’ll walk right into the heart of Skid Row, right into the heart of poverty so absolute that the brain’s automatic response is to try to shut it out. I drive through it often, watching this shadow society exist alongside my own, this place full of people who are my neighbors but who are ignored by so many as an inconvenience.
And as downtown LA gentrifies, the boundaries of Skid Row tighten a little more with each new year. There’s a skirmish on the horizon, between the progressive, gentrified world downtown LA is becoming and this place that has stood, for decades, as a community for those who have lost everything.
These are the faces not presented in the progressive fundamentalist version of Los Angeles. Yes, we might talk about the homeless problem in the abstract, or donate a little money to a charity. But someday it will become inconvenient to our newly gleaming edifices, and it and the people who live there will be washed away.
Remember the Jesusland map? It circulated widely online after the 2004 election, when George W. Bush narrowly squeaked out reelection over Democratic nominee John Kerry, thanks largely to religious conservative voters, who were driven to the polls by a slew of anti–marriage equality measures. (The race was more complicated, of course, but that was the story that spun up in the immediate aftermath of the election.)
It was an honest, if bitter, reaction to a hard-fought contest that ended in the reelection of a bad president, who was reelected (in this argument) almost entirely because of bullshit cultural allegiances. But it also catalyzed, for me, how swiftly the left’s reaction to rural whites had gone from, at worst, “They’re a little misguided,” to, “No, these people are fucking idiots.”
And again, maybe that’s where we want to go. I disagree with the people I grew up with on just about everything — whether political or social or cultural. Maybe the answer is just to go all in on the Democratic Party, maximize turnout of nonwhite voters and millennials in every election cycle, and hope time and demographic shifts will save us all. It didn’t work in 2016, but Hillary Clinton did still win a convincing popular vote victory. Maybe this strategy will work in 2020.
However, I’d like to think progressive fundamentalists could articulate our values more effectively — and convince those who don’t share them to actually listen.
It’s absolutely necessary to call out the racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments inherent to many of the beliefs held by Trump and his surrogates, and we should be vigilant in doing so, at all times. But I think there are places where we can listen, too, and admit that on some of these points of wider cultural anxiety, there’s ample room for empathy. I’d like to think we could step forward not in the spirit of, “I have all the answers,” but in the spirit of, “I want to hear about your problems.”
When I started digging into the rumor I mentioned above that Syrian refugees were hiding out in an abandoned government facility in South Dakota, just to see where it came from, just to see if it was as racist as it seemed to be (and it was), everybody I talked to said some variation on the same thing: The people spreading this rumor might be angry and bitter and a little bit racist, but they’re good people. Really.
To be honest, that sentiment seems to contradict itself. Those who peddle dark conspiracy theories driven by racial paranoia would seem to not be blameless by simple virtue of doing, well, that.
The more I thought about it and continued talking to people, the more I realized that what they meant was maybe the rumormongers weren’t always good people, but their defenders hoped they still could be. There exists some universe where we can all talk about these things, where we can remember that we’re all Americans, going over the cliff together. This, in a nutshell, is the American small-town ideal — the mythological apex we aspire to.
But if Trump’s election proved anything to me, it’s that this vision of the small town where everybody (who’s white) can come together and have a chat about what’s troubling them is over. It’s increasingly a lie, a place that’s been lost beneath waves of bitter, vituperative backlash. The place dubbed Jesusland has lashed right back out to paint the (urban, progressive) world I live in as soft and “too PC.” And, pardon my French, fuck that.
Progressive fundamentalism has many, many, many faults, but it also has a compelling, competing vision of what America can and should be. That it has spent so much time trying to figure out how to understand rural America in the past year is, to me, a sign of its strength.
It makes room for everyone at the table, and it believes the stories of all people have inherent value and interest. It might not always live up to those ideals — and it needs to find a way to let rural whites know they are a part of its vision without compromising its larger ideals of diversity — but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be told that those ideals aren’t worth holding in the first place, that those ideas shouldn’t be the future of this country.
Our lives are beautiful and American too, but we do a lousy job of selling the emotion of that, the — dare I say it — patriotism of that. We’re lousy at owning up to our weak spots too. True political change comes from relationship building. Just look at how rapidly opinions on marriage equality changed as more Americans came to know the LGBTQ people in their midst. We should work to get better at building those relationships, at telling our stories.
There are aspects of the old social order, now lost, worth mourning. Were there terrible things about it? Yes. Many. But there were also communities of people looking out for each other, places where you could feel like you knew yourself and everyone around you. I miss the one I grew up in every day — which may, to you, mark all of the above as a bunch of horseshit.
But I do believe there’s nothing wrong with stability, or with faith. We are all struggling toward the same answers and hoping for the same things. We just want to be understood, and we just want to be loved.
And I still believe the best way to build the world we want is to invite others in — even if they reject it, again and again. Progressives keep trying, because our America makes room for everybody, and it can make room for those who are receptive to its message in rural, white America too, if we can only bridge that communication gap. That’s not soft. That’s the biggest, strongest ideal this country has ever had.
Let’s make America great again.