The differences between rural and city students have always interested me. Here at Western Illinois University, we see both types of students largely represented. There are many students from cities such as Chicago, St. Louis and Peoria. Others come from rural areas in Illinois and the surrounding states. I, myself, am from a small town about an hour away, so I know all about life in a rural community and how that affects the way we see the world. While I find myself connecting with and communicating more with students from cities now, I still am enthralled by rural individuals’ political opinions.
I have a hard time classifying myself as rural, simply because I hated it. I hated being surrounded by corn, that my grandparents were farmers and how small my community was growing up. Now, I can definitely appreciate my upbringing, but I doubt my own political leanings are anywhere close to that of many of my peers and family from home.
I have noticed those from rural communities tend to take a more conservative stance when it comes to politics, while cities generally have a more liberal population. These are also things that political scientists, like Dave Leip, have been able to claim with data and research. News anchors outlets also took this for granted when they were reporting the 2016 presidential election. It was always assumed that rural communities would vote red, while the large cities vote blue.
I have always wondered why this is, until I stumbled upon “The Politics of Resentment,” by Katherine J. Cramer. Cramer expresses multiple times that it is not necessarily about whether a citizen from a rural community falls into the category of Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. She states that it is more so about how these people interpret politics, and not just simply about issues. She observed — through four years of talking to citizens in Wisconsin — it was not just about being a Democrat or a Republican to these people, but rather, who could they identify with in office.
“We may be missing something if we think of votes in terms of issue stances, as political scientists normally do,” Cramer wrote. “Perhaps issues are secondary to identities.”
It is more important to consider whom or what rural citizens identify with, not just what issues they feel strongly about. People want someone like them in government. They want to be able to identify with the individual governing them.
This makes perfect sense; it just was never something that I had studied in my political science classes or thought of before. This concept makes sense for many of us, I believe, but especially when it comes to rural voters. Typically, rural communities are not all that diverse. According to the Housing Assistance Council, rural areas are made up of white, lower- and middle-class citizens. In my own rural community, I attended a nearly all-white high school with the exception of there being less than five African-American students who were adopted or grew up in white homes.
People from rural communities would never have to interact with someone different from them if they did not choose to. I do not mean to generalize, but in my experience, many people from these communities seem frightened of interacting with or being governed by someone who looks different from them. This, in part, explains the reaction to Obama’s presidency.
Of course when Donald Trump, a white man with bad hair who speaks his mind, began campaigning in 2015, many rural voters identified with him. He was saying all of the things that these people had been thinking. Rural voters feel left out of politics, and this is something that Cramer noticed in her conversations among these voters. They feel that both Democrats and Republicans alike have left them behind. Rural communities believe they are being cheated out of resources and money that cities get.
Trump crafted his platform as an outsider. He said over and over again that he would “drain the swamp” that these rural voters had hated for years. Rural voters wanted someone in office who was finally going to pay attention to them. He told them exactly what they wanted to hear, and he played them well.
Knowing what we know now — that rural voters want someone to care and identify with them — how do we move forward? It is hard enough to try and represent the incredibly diverse population of the U.S. without including white, rural voters. According to the Census Bureau, whites consist of over 63 percent of the population. These people turned up in big numbers at voting booths across the country to vote for Trump, as shown by exit polling data reported on by The New York Times, Politico and other outlets.
Our government must address voters who feel they are left out of politics. We cannot afford to have another Trump term, and we do not need another populist to fool them into voting against their own interests again. We need real people — ones who care about average Americans — in office. Our politicians must find out why these voters feel left out and move forward with a plan.