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What the New York Times Got Wrong About “Rural Rage”

Last week, the New York Times published an opinion essay from economist Paul Krugman on a purported “rural resentment” that has led to the rise of right-wing extremism. Krugman packs a ton of punches into a short article, and misses the mark with most.

His first claim is that “ever since the New Deal rural America has received special treatment from policymakers.” He name drops farm subsidies but also pooh poohs subsidies from the USDA-run Rural Housing, Utilities, and Business-Cooperative services, which he says are paid for by urban America because rural people don’t pay enough federal taxes to foot their own bill. 

Krugman grumbles about paying for rural people despite the fact that rural America has been disenfranchised by decisions made by Republicans and Democrats, not by some sort of innate financial mismanagement. “Progressives often bemoan the policies of the Reagan Administration,” said anthropologist Marc Edelman in a Daily Yonder interview, “… but Bill Clinton’s Administration also has a historic responsibility for policies that contributed to rural decline.” 

Under Clinton, the North American Free Trade Agreement sent rural jobs to Mexico, corporations were given the right to sue, and the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act that kept commercial and investment banks separate was repealed, leading to the disappearance of local savings banks that had kept money circulating within rural communities. The 1996 Farm Bill reduced farm subsidies and ended crop price floors intended to raise the income of producers to keep them afloat even when prices are low. 

While Krugman is correct in saying farm subsidies increased under the Trump Administration, those subsidies didn’t predominantly benefit the smaller-scale, rural farmer who made, on average, $9,109 per-farm from two Trump-era subsidy programs, according to the nonpartisan research organization Environmental Working Group

No, the majority of those subsidy payments went to the largest corporate farms in the country – by size, the top 1% of agribusinesses received an average subsidy of $524,689 per-farm, and the top 10% received an average subsidy of $185,412 per-farm. And some of these farms are run by billionaires who don’t live in or represent rural America, but are benefitting from a broken tax system that allows the country’s wealthiest people to skirt federal taxes. 

On to the next resentment.

“What about rural perceptions of being disrespected?” asks Krugman. He quickly answers his own question by brushing off this legitimate issue: it’s just “human nature” to have negative views about “people with different lifestyles,” he writes. Yet, rural stereotyping – rural disrespect, as Krugman puts it – can play a huge role in influencing the public and, importantly, policymakers, to write off rural America as a lost cause. The most common misconception is that rural America is a whitewashed, simple, backwoods band of rednecks, not worth advocating for or supporting. Even though nearly one fourth of rural Americans are part of a racial or ethnic minority. And that’s just the beginning of why stereotypes like this are wrong. (See: our history of the word redneck, among other things.)   

Krugman uses a tweet from J.D. Vance to prove that rural politicians can spit vitriol at urban people but urban politicians could never reply in kind. If that’s the case, how do you explain the deluge of degrading tweets from Democrats about Appalachia when it was hit by deadly floods in July of 2022? Is it ever excusable for someone to say, after seeing the devastation of such a disaster, that “these people got what they voted for”

The problem with using J.D. Vance as an example of what’s wrong with rural America is that he shows exactly why the rural stereotypes Krugman shrugs off as a non-issue are so dangerous. 

Just because Vance dissed New York City does not mean that all rural people hate cities, nor should it give a pass for urban politicians to disparage rural America. Perhaps – perhaps! – politicians (and the public) shouldn’t disparage either place.

Yes, Republicans tend to win in rural areas. But this is no guarantee. Remember just two months ago when Trump-fawning Republican House Representative Lauren Bobert won her predominantly rural Colorado district by just a sliver of a vote? Or John Fetterman, who did win in Pennsylvania and performed 2.4 points better in rural counties than Joe Biden in 2020? And my personal favorite, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, who won Washington state’s rural third congressional district, which had been represented by a Republican for over a decade and voted for Trump in 2020? 

Ultimately, what Krugman fails to recognize is that rural America is not a monolithic swath of angry, poor white people intent on bringing down the Democratic Party. The danger of his article is that it makes broad generalizations about a diverse and large section of the American population that isn’t just randomly resentful about its treatment in America, but has often been overlooked by decision-makers in Washington D.C. 

It may still take a while for the federal government to gain the trust of rural people. But, as Krugman himself says, this doesn’t mean rural America should be left behind. “Anything that helps reverse rural America’s decline would be a good thing in itself,” Krugman writes. “And maybe, just maybe, reducing the heartland’s economic desperation will also help reverse its political radicalization.”

Well, how about we invest in rural America and find out?

The post What the New York Times Got Wrong About “Rural Rage” appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

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