But that focus also has perpetuated a number of myths, blurring out much of the messiness and complexity of rural life. As a Washington Post reporter who has resided in a northwest Minnesota farming community since 2016 — I wrote a book about it — I’ve had the opportunity to watch those perceptions solidify in real time, as well as compare them to the on-the-ground reality.
As the 2020 campaign season gets underway in earnest, here are five myths to keep in mind when you read sweeping pronouncements about rural America.
#1: ‘Rural’ is synonymous with ‘Midwestern’
Last year, New York Times politics editor Jonathan Weisman provided a particularly clumsy example of this common conflation, suggesting that U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who represent densely populated urban districts in their states, weren’t really “Midwestern.” This is nonsense, of course — the Midwest is a region, not a population density — but it’s emblematic of the way many influential people in politics and the media start fudging definitions when they talk about people who live outside of New York or Washington.
In reality, any place outside of an urban area or urban population cluster should be considered “rural,” according to the U.S. Census. As the map above shows, rural areas comprise well over 90 percent of the country’s land area. They’re everywhere. The American rural experience ranges far beyond the confines of the Rust Belt. You can, in fact, find rural areas just outside of any major city, including in New York, California and Massachusetts — places often positioned in opposition to “rural” America.
#2: ‘Rural’ is synonymous with ‘white’
One of the most regrettable Trump era trends in political reporting is the diner safari, in which a big-city reporter is parachuted into a small town in the middle of the country in search of the secret wisdom of diner patrons in overalls and trucker caps (full disclosure: I’ve done one of these, too). Such patrons tend to be, almost without exception, white.
The unfortunate effect of such stories is that they don’t reflect the fact that a fairly large and growing share of rural Americans are, in fact, nonwhite: about 22 percent as of 2018, or more than 10 million people. Such residents often have political beliefs that are considerably different from those of their white neighbors. In contested national elections with razor-thin margins, support of rural minorities could make all the difference in a battleground state such as Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.
Such statistics raise more specific questions: What are black voters in the rural Southeast looking for in 2020? What do Native American voters in Midwestern battlegrounds make of the impeachment process so far? What are rural Hispanics in Western states looking for in a Democratic candidate?
We don’t have great answers to these questions, in part because we’ve spent so much time talking to rural whites.
#3: ‘Rural’ is synonymous with ‘conservative’
Those media diner excursions also give the impression that the swath of country between New York City and Los Angeles is populated chiefly by staunch Republicans, leavened with a conservative Democrat here and there.
Here’s the reality: In 2016, nearly 1 in 3 voters living in nonmetropolitan counties voted for Hillary Clinton. “Nonmetropolitan” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as “rural” — some metros contain rural areas within their borders, for instance. But there’s enough overlap that demographers often use the categories as proxies for one another.
In all, well over 6 million people voted for the Democratic presidential nominee outside of America’s major metropolitan regions in 2016. I found out as much on my own diner excursion that year, when I ambled up to a table full of veterans and ex-farmers at my local gas station to find, to my surprise, that all of them had pulled the lever for Clinton.
Farming and progressive politics went hand in hand in parts of the country for much of the 20th century, to the extent that in Minnesota, the official name of the state Democratic Party remains the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party to this day. Despite this history, and despite millions of rural Democratic votes in 2016, “rural Democrat” and “rural progressive” are categories that are largely absent from today’s political debate. Indeed, in 2019, some media outlets are still convening all-Republican panels of small-town voters and presenting them as representative of attitudes “outside the Beltway.”
#4: Rural Americans don’t care about the news
Reporters and politicians have often characterized rural Americans as indifferent to political news or “Beltway intrigue,” which they set up in opposition to more “authentic” concerns such as grain prices, local tax burdens and small-town governance.
This reinforces a damaging stereotype that people in small towns are simple folks, living simple lives set apart from the rhythms of life in big cities. But actual data on rural news consumption paints a very different picture. In 2012, for instance, a Pew Research Center survey found very little difference in news consumption habits between people in rural areas and those living elsewhere. Crucially, the study showed rural Americans were no different from people in other communities when it came to their interest in such major news topics as politics, crime and breaking news.
My own experience in northwest Minnesota confirms this. The arcana of the 24-hour news cycle — Anonymous, Sharpiegate, the Steele dossier — are discussed just as obsessively in small-town bars as they are at D.C. cocktail parties. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: People up here watch the same cable TV talk shows and read the same national news websites as people anywhere else.
#5: Rural America is the ‘real’ America
All of this builds up to what may be the most pernicious myth — that life in rural America is more authentic, more American than life anywhere else. The intent of this narrative is to hold rural people up as exemplars of American life and ideals. But adhering to such simplistic avatars denies them much of their messy, complicated humanity. It reduces the rural experience to a crude caricature that advances the interests of a particular political viewpoint — a white, conservative one.
There’s much to love about life in rural America. After three years here, I have a hard time imagining living anywhere else. The broad skies, open spaces and uncrowded vistas give me a peace I was never able to find living in more populated places. The relative scarcity of people means that those of us who do live here have to forge closer personal bonds to solve the sorts of problems that, in more populated places, are typically handled by anonymous professional bureaucracies.
But there’s a lot to love about life just about anywhere in America. There are as many different modes of being an American as there are towns, or families, or individuals living in this country. The mantle of “real American” — and all the scrutiny, assumptions and mythmaking that come with it — is a burden that none of us should have to bear alone, but rather is one that we can all share.