Angry, Trump supporters
Angry Trump supporters. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Michael Shore / Twitter

Unveiling the heartland’s fury, its rural discontent, and its very real threat to American democracy.

Between the shimmer of America’s coastlines an inferno of anger and disillusionment consumes the heartland. This week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast explores this social and political divide with Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman, guided by their book, White Rural Rage.

Armed with journalistic insight and scholarly acumen, Schaller and Waldman unpack the reality of white rural America’s turmoil. They argue that Trump’s MAGA movement transcends a mere campaign catchphrase to symbolize the deep-seated rage of communities ensnared by economic decay, technological neglect, and cultural isolation.

By looking below the surface of rural America’s heartache and disaffection, Schaller and Waldman show that healing this existential rift in the fabric of American life will require true empathy and a deeper understanding of the local – and global – forces driving us apart.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. For over half a century, America has been riding a wave of change that began in the tumultuous 1960s. From politics and music to culture and race, the fabric of the nation has been forever transformed. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 marked the apogee of this era. And while the George W. Bush years felt like a step backwards, Barack Obama’s presidency propelled us two steps forward, further reshaping the American landscape. Amid these shifts, media, technology, and globalization have radically altered our world, leaving the past of 60 years ago barely recognizable.

Initially, opposition voices found a powerful platform in talk radio, igniting flames of resentment, rage, and bitterness, and they continue to burn. Today we’re going to delve into the heart of this American countryside, fueled by what my guests Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman call white rural rage. Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman examine the paradox of rural white America’s significant electoral influence, contrasted with their growing disillusionment. They explore the roots of this discontent, from economic struggles, technological upheavals, cultural shifts, and political manipulation.

They argue that the anger simmering in rural communities, combined with a demagogue like Donald Trump, pose a formidable threat to the very fabric of American democracy. But what does this rural rage mean for the future of our country? How does conservative media keep fueling this fire and what paths forward, if any, can be envisioned to bridge these deepening divisions? From Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables to the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” phenomenon, it is a complex and perhaps unsolvable narrative that has overtaken rural America.

Its impact on our national politics and its implications for democracy are profoundly troubling. Tom Schaller is a political science professor at the University of Maryland, and he brings his expertise in US politics and an extensive writing background, including contributions to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Paul Waldman is a journalist and opinion writer whose work has appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines, and digital outlets. He is a former columnist at The Washington Post and the co-author of four previous books on media and politics.

It is my pleasure to welcome Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman here to talk about White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy. Paul, Tom, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Paul Waldman: Thank you.

Tom Schaller: Great to be here.

Jeff: Well, it is great to have you both here. Paul, I’m going to start with you. The phenomenon of this white rural rage, what we’re seeing today, and what Trump has in some ways seemingly unleashed, is a phenomenon that has been building for some 60 years now. Talk about that first.

Paul: Absolutely. One of the things that’s important to understand is that people in rural America have some legitimate grievances. There has been a real economic decline. In a lot of places, the departure of manufacturing into countries where you can make tube socks or widgets for a lot cheaper than you can in America, that has left many communities without the jobs that they used to have. In a lot of places that were dependent on resource extraction, basically, the resources have all been extracted. You find that in a lot of places in coal country, for instance, that the companies basically used up all the coal that was there.

And there’s been, in a lot of places, technological advancements that coal is a perfect example there too, where you don’t need to send a thousand men down into a pit in the ground anymore. You can do most of it with machines and just employ a few people. And there are a lot of things that are endemic to low-density areas that just make life more difficult, that make it harder to access healthcare, that cause all kinds of problems that over time have built up and up. And a lot of people in rural areas felt that they have been ignored, that their problems are not getting any better.

And so you then have a political context where there has been a hollowing out in rural America of the sort of politics that might actually produce something better for people’s lives. And so this is something that has really been exploited very successfully by the Republican Party to say to people, “Well look, neither party is really going to give you much when it comes to the material conditions in your community. They’re not going to bring the jobs back. They’re not going to get you better healthcare, so all you should concentrate on is these questions of identity. Who is like us? Who is them? Who do you hate? Who says they’re on your side? And if you just focus on that, that should be the sum total of your engagement with the political world.”

And that creates a politics that’s really focused on anger and resentment. And it turns out that it’s really in the interests of Republicans who keep getting elected in so many rural places over and over and over again for people to be angry. And as long as they’re angry, they’re going to keep focusing on these identity politics issues and they’re not going to– as long as they’re focused on external people, whether it’s immigrants or snooty coastal elitists or faraway liberals or college professors or whoever it is that they’re being told to get mad at, as long as that focus is outside, then they won’t say, “Well, hold on. We keep electing Republicans to every office that represents us and yet we still have all these really profound problems. Maybe they should be held accountable.” That’s the last thing that Republicans want and that their very comprehensive media system, which is its own story that we can talk about, that they want. And so you get a politics that just encourages the legitimate grievances people have and turns them into something that is politically toxic.

Jeff: And Tom, the irony in all of this is that these white rural voters or rural voters in general as a group have a powerful demographic and political sway, given how many of them there are, given the way our system works, that they could have arguably done something positive with respect to public policy using that influence and political sway that they have and they’ve done just the opposite.

Tom: That’s exactly right, Jeff. A lot of people point out the book and say, “How can you discuss rural America generally or white rural Americans specifically and say that they pose a constitutional threat to our democracy? Only 20 percent of people live in rural areas. A quarter of them or 5 percent of the nation overall are minorities. That means the residual or 15 percent are white and rural. That’s about one out of six, one out of seven voters.” But as we point out in the book and specifically in Chapter 3 and 4, they have both what we call either a numerical and notional advantage or a mathematical and mythological advantage and we work through those respectively in Chapters 3 and 4.

And I’ll just give you a brief summary of both. First of all, thanks to Senate malapportionment, smaller states and therefore by extension, rural states and rural white states, particularly non-college rural whites are vastly overrepresented in the Senate. Wyoming, the smallest state, had 584,000 people at the last census and California had 39 million. That’s a 68 to one ratio but their ratio in the House is only 52 to one, and their ratio in the Electoral College is only 54 to three or 18 to one. There are 68 Californians for every Wyomingite, but they only cast 18 times the electoral votes.

And because of the concentration of white rural, particularly white rural non-college educated people in smaller states, it builds in an advantage in both the Senate and the presidency. And if you doubt me, just ask President Al Gore or President Hillary Clinton or consider the fact that the Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the eight previous national popular votes, but of course have only won the Electoral College five of those eight times. The Democrats, by the time Biden’s first term ends here, will have served 20 years out of those 32 and will have gotten five Supreme Court appointments.

And in the 12 years with only one popular vote win, that would be Bush’s re-election in 2004, the Republicans have had five appointments to the Supreme Court as well. So despite winning seven-eighths of the popular votes, the Democrats have had 50 percent of the last 10 Supreme Court appointments and the Republicans have had the other 50 percent. So you can see that there’s the magnification, numerically, of conservative and especially rural white power based on the structure of institutions. And then the second point that we make as a follow-up in Chapter 4 is that they have this mythological advantage.

We don’t want to say they’re not criticized, but there’s a bit of a deference, a kid-glove treatment, particularly when it comes to transgressions of rural white Americans because they’re considered more real than other people, that they’re the heartland folks who love their country and love their God and their families and leave their doors unlocked and help out a neighbor. And some of that is certainly true, though they don’t attend church any more regularly than people in the cities, according to the Cooperative Election Study but this notion that you have to constantly fawn over and lionize and worse excuse transgressions, particularly democratic transgressions of rural white Americans, because they’re somehow better than other people is absurd.

Our standard, as we joke, is the Tina Fey standard. I call her my TV girlfriend. In 30 Rock, she says, “Nobody’s more real than anybody else.” And in our view, a 65-year-old white male evangelical Christian father and grandfather who lives in northwest Iowa, who’s a vet, is no more or no less real than a 22-year-old Afro-Latina single woman who’s a lesbian who lives in Brooklyn and is getting her Art History masters and Ubering at night to pay her way through college.

Everybody as Tina Fey just wants to have a sandwich and a Diet Sprite and be left alone for lunch. That’s our standard. The sandwiches may differ depending on whether you’re eating a po’ boy in Louisiana or a submarine in Albany, New York where I grew up, or a hoagie depending on what part of the country you live in. But this notion that somehow white rural voters are better than the rest of the people, we’re not saying they’re any worse, we’re just saying they’re not any better than any other Americans, but they do continue to wield inflated power in the Electoral College in the Senate. And as we prove in Chapter 3, they actually have inflated power in the House of Representatives too.

Jeff: And it all falls under the rubric of what you talk about as this patriot paradox, Paul. Talk about that.

Paul: Yes. This is something that is also part of that rural ethos and part of why it’s part of rural people’s self-conception and also how the rest of the country views them, and often why in politics they are given that kind of extra deference. The idea is that rural people are particularly patriotic. They have flags on their porches. They send their sons and sometimes daughters to the military at higher rates. And that’s true, but that’s just one element of patriotism. It’s not how vigorously you wave the flag. It’s also whether you support the core institutions of democracy.

And those institutions are now under threat. And all too often, as we say, the stance of many in rural America is, “I love my country, but I’m not so sure about our country.” And you can call yourself a patriot, but if you think that it’s appropriate to dismantle this system that we have lived with for two and a half centuries, then there’s something really wrong there. And this gets to, I think, why it’s so important to reckon with the support of rural Americans for Donald Trump, who is, as we all, I think, understand the most profound threat that American democracy has faced probably since the Civil War.

You have someone who is not only of course a xenophobe and a bigot and all the other things, and a conspiracy theorist, but he is also someone who is on a near daily basis announcing his intentions to take an axe to all of the institutions that have sustained us. And Trump’s support in rural America, among rural whites, is truly extraordinary. And it’s getting bigger. In 2016, he got 62 percent of the votes of rural whites. In 2020, he got 71 percent, and it’ll probably be higher this time.

We looked, for instance, at the 100 counties where he performed the best in 2016. And they’re basically all rural. They tend to be smaller counties. They’re places where he got 80, 85, even 90 percent of the vote. And in 91 out of those 100 counties, he did better in 2020 than he had in 2016, as the rest of the country was moving away from him. And so this is the heart of Donald Trump’s support. And so you have people, millions of them who are fervent in their insistence that they are not just patriotic, but the most patriotic of Americans, and yet they are worshipful of this candidate who is unadorned in his intentions to turn America into something in terms of its government that may not be unrecognizable, but it is not going to be nearly as democratic as it is right now.

And who let’s not forget, led an insurrection to overthrow the United States government. And I don’t think that’s an exaggeration to put it that way. And so that has not diminished his support among rural whites as far as we can tell. And as I said, I would not be surprised if the 71 percent support he got among rural whites in 2020 turns into 73, 74, 75 percent in 2024. And so I think that it’s important to understand patriotism in a more comprehensive way than just, “Do you have a flag on your porch?” Does that matter? Sure, it matters. But it has to be something more than just saying you love America. You have to demonstrate it.

And this is where I think one of the points of our book is that there is a threat to American democracy. And it’s not only coming from rural places. There are plenty of people who have thin and weakening commitments to democracy who live in suburbs and who live in cities. And there are plenty of people in rural America who really are committed to American democracy and who don’t believe some of the problematic things that we discuss in the book. That’s important to understand. But that support for those problematic ideas and for the threats that are coming to American democracy are higher in rural areas, and they constitute really the base of the base of Trump’s support. So that’s why we call it a patriotic paradox.

Jeff: And Tom, talk about the things that are really adding to this divide. The wealth gap, which we hear talked about a lot, certainly, and the education gap and the way in which so much of this has moved away from policy issues to things that actually might help rural America to really focus on the cultural issues.

Tom: Yes, as Paul alluded to it, we talk about the threats that are coming from white rural America. Again, not exclusively and not uniformly but predominantly or the leading edge or the tip of the spear of this threat. And in the middle of the book, we talk about four compounding factors that magnify these threats of anti-democratic and racist xenophobic attitudes and conspiracism and weakening commitments to democratic traditions and norms. I already discussed too in my previous answer, the fact that rural white voters have an inflated electoral power and that they have this inflated mythologized notional power.

The other two that we talk about and Paul just alluded to one, is this triggering of rural white America by elites, and particularly by Donald Trump and the MAGA coalition who emphasize, as you point out, Jeff, cultural issues. And if you start from the assumption as we do or as we conclude that rural white Americans have rightly– let’s be clear, rightly concluded that neither party can really save them economically. You can’t vote in Congress to ban China from creating goods at cheaper rates because they use child labor and don’t have labor unions or environmental protections.

You can’t legislate away technological changes, as Paul alluded to that remove coal jobs and replace them with mountaintop removal and giant cranes instead of workers with pickaxes and shovels. And so as the post-extractive, post-industrial late-stage capitalism economy of rural America, which is replacing mom-and-pop shops with dollar stores, is squeezing local public revenues and budgets for towns and counties, kids are being brain drained out and being told, as 60 percent of rural adults we point out, tell their children to leave. And so the best and the brightest go on to state university, or a nice liberal arts college, or an Ivy League school if they can get in.

And they become doctors and lawyers and accountants and engineers. And then they have to almost go to the cities and suburbs to pay back their student loans and so forth. There’s this anxiety, resentment, we call it rage in the title, but we’re really talking about a definable, quantifiable social science construct called white resentment in the rural areas, and Republican politicians aren’t stupid. They may be mendacious. They may do things like J.D. Vance did when he basically lied about his own mother and claimed that it was Mexican immigrants coming over the border with a Democratic registration card in one hand, a lie, and a bag of fentanyl in the other hand, also a lie.

The vast majority, more than 90 percent of the fentanyl is brought across the border by American citizens. But if you can trigger people and their fear of immigrants, if you can trigger people and their fear of trans, some trans rights activist or some trans girl wanting to play on a soccer team, if you can trigger people by critical race theory or Black Lives Matter or whatever the boogeyman of the month is, as dreamt up by Chris Rufo at the Heritage Foundation and other such people and their media echo chamber on FOX and the national conservative talk radio network, you can get people to vote and you could argue rationally, let me be clear, you could argue rationally that if you’re a rural white person who doesn’t see any difference whatsoever between the Democratic and the Republican party on economics, you might as well vote for the Republican party, because at least they’re promising and have delivered in Dobbs to reverse Roe v. Wade.

And you might as well vote for them because they’re going to be more hard-lined on immigrants and support of Muslim ban, and try to restrict people coming in from shithole countries as Donald Trump promised. There’s a certain rationality to that vote if you essentially– as you pointed out, your institutions, including your schools, including your economies, have been gutted and eviscerated. You might as well just vote as a tiebreaker on cultural issues and cultural resentments.

Jeff: And yet on the economic issues, things that might have helped them, whether it’s Medicaid expansion under Obamacare or child tax credit or more education funding, they’re constantly doing things that are anathema to their own economic interest.

Paul: Yes, that’s true in a lot of ways. Medicaid expansion is a perfect example. You still have 10 Republican-run states that have not accepted the expansion of Medicaid, and who gets hurt worse by that? It’s rural Americans. The lack of access to healthcare is an enormous problem in rural America. Over the last 20 years, almost 200 rural hospitals have closed. And this is something we found as we traveled around and reported from different places in rural places all over the country. People told us again and again that it was such a problem that– one county supervisor in North Carolina was talking about this at a time–

They finally accepted the expansion of Medicaid after 10 years of arguing about it in North Carolina. But at the time when we were there, the argument in the legislature was still going on. And she said to us with this note of desperation in her voice, “We need it. We need it.” She said, “Not only do we not have a hospital in this county, we don’t even have an urgent care center. If you break your ankle, you’re going to have to get in your car and drive half an hour to get care, let alone if you’re having a heart attack.” And so this is a huge issue all over rural America.

And the Republicans who run so many of these states have refused to accept the expansion of Medicaid that rural hospitals rely on. And it is literally a life and death issue. And they tell people that, “Oh, well, this is going to be socialism and big government.” And the result is that millions of rural Americans don’t have health insurance and don’t have access to care anywhere nearby their communities. And somehow, they’ve been convinced to accept that expansion where the federal government pays 90 percent of the cost, well, that must just be doing a favor for Barack Obama. And so we certainly don’t want to do that.

And so this is an example of how the Republicans who represent so many rural Americans, especially white rural Americans, are constantly doing things that undermine their prospects and their communities, and somehow they keep getting away with it. I’ll give you one more example. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has a school voucher plan that he has been pushing really, really hard. And the thing about school vouchers is that they don’t do anything for people in rural areas. Why? Because there aren’t [any] private schools there. Even if you wanted to use a voucher, you couldn’t.

And people in rural areas rely on their public schools as the center of their community. And so you have Governor Abbott in Texas working hard to get this voucher plan passed. And for a change, an unusual occurrence, the Republicans who represent rural areas in the state legislature got together with Democrats to stop that bill. And so now Abbott is trying to target those Republicans for primary challenges from even more right-wing Republicans so that he can pass his voucher plan, which would hurt their rural constituents. And we see versions of that all over the country that in these places, people are represented from top to bottom. Every office they see on their ballot, whether it’s United States Senator all the way down to dog catcher, they’re all Republicans. And they’re not doing much to help them in the conditions of their lives.

I mentioned this hollowing out of politics that there’s no Democratic Party presence, and there’s also no real Republican Party presence. It’s easy for those Republicans to keep getting elected and elected and elected because people have decided that the Democratic Party they’re just not people like us. And therefore we’ll just keep electing these Republicans. But what we won’t do is hold them accountable for whether or not they are actually doing anything for us.

Jeff: And Tom, to what extent does the fact that urban America, the blue states, see this trend that we’ve been talking about, they see what’s going on and realize that as a rule, they’re not doing anything– rural America’s not doing anything to help itself, and it just adds to the divide?

Tom: Well, I don’t know. We don’t really poll or look at the attitudes of urban Americas. And I don’t know if the animosity is shared. We do cite one poll where rural Americans and urban Americans view the city and country as different from each other, and it’s 20 percent higher in terms of rural folks viewing the city as foreign than the share of city folk that view the country as foreign. And it’s hard to unpack exactly what they mean by that. But we know what the origins of rural resentment are.

They come from a sense that the government is built in the state capitals in Washington, and it’s focused on those cities and big cities in minority areas and that rural America gets nothing, no attention, no power, no services, even though there are 400 federal programs specifically dedicated to varieties of rural life and not just agricultural, though 70 of those 400 are at the USDA. They include everything from electrification and broadband and transportation and sewage treatment facilities to education and grants and community colleges and a variety of other programs to help rural America.

In any event, I don’t know if the animosity is similar. I’m sure that certainly on election day when the more numerous and overwhelmingly blue cities see that they cast more votes for Hillary Clinton or Al Gore, but somehow are watching the swearing-in of the guy Trump or Bush 43 take office despite getting fewer votes, I’m sure there’s a certain degree of chafing at that prospect and perhaps the gerrymandering on the state level, which as Paul pointed out, has still allowed 10 states to block the Medicaid expansion of Obamacare, which would bring significant relief and lower the uninsured rates in those states where they expanded based on what we know from the states that did adopt that.

The Kentucky versus Tennessee example that Jonathan Metzel, who wrote Dying of Whiteness made very clear that Kentucky’s health metrics and insurance rates both improved when it adopted Medicaid right out of the box, the Obamacare Affordable Care Act expansion. Whereas Tennessee, its neighboring state, which has a similar demographic profile, is still one of the 10 states along with Texas and Mississippi, and others, and Wisconsin, they’re all red states except for Wisconsin, which is the most purple state, refused to do so. So I don’t know if there’s an urban angst.

There’s maybe a lot of political frustration at these imbalances. But we really, unfortunately, don’t focus on that. So I feel a little unable to answer that question with any authority. I’m sorry, Jeff.

Jeff: It comes out as Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables. You see elements of that in that statement.

Tom: Hillary Clinton did not say rural or white. We often point out that nobody insulted Trump’s voters because we get this question all the time, “But what about Hillary’s–That deplorable comment.” First of all, it’s MAGA broad. It’s not rural-specific. But even if we say as we do that, the core of Trump’s MAGA coalition is white rural America, they did vote not just 62 percent in 2016, they made the most dramatic move to Trump after four years. They voted 71 percent for him four years later. No group moved faster or farther toward Trump in four years than rural white Americans. That’s a fact. So let’s say for the sake of example, she was thinking of white rural Americans, the base of Trump’s base.

When Donald Trump said, “I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight, not under self-defense, and I wouldn’t lose a single voter,” think about what that implies. He’s saying, “My supporters are so morally bankrupt, they’re so ethically depraved that they would vote for a murderer for president.” If Hillary Clinton said that, you’d hear that comment repeated time after time. We’ve had conservative talkers try to catch us off guard by playing that clip. And if Hillary Clinton had said that, that would’ve been worse than anything she said in terms of deplorables.

I’m not justifying her critique of people as deplorable. But Trump said that he laughed, his voters laughed, and then they went out in November and proved him right and voted for him in the tens of millions. They basically said, “Yes, we are that depraved. We will vote for a murder. We will vote for a guy who grabs it by the genitals. We will vote for a guy who cheats on all his wives, including with a porn star five months after she’s given birth. We will vote for a guy who cheats carpenters and electricians and plumbers and drywallers as part of his business model.

We will vote for a guy who makes fun of Mexicans as rapists and murderers. We will vote for somebody who’s so abased, who is so morally bankrupt because that’s who we are too.” If she had said that, she would’ve been crucified, but Trump says it and they laugh and they voted for him.

Jeff: Isn’t that further evidence, Paul, of just how wide this divide is and how impossible it seems, at least on the surface to ever bridge it?

Paul: Yes. One of the reasons I think, for instance, that people say, “Well, why doesn’t Joe Biden get more credit for the things he’s doing for red states?” And he, for instance, is spending tens of billions of dollars to extend broadband to underserved areas, including a lot of rural areas. And that’s really important to economic development and also just the quality of people’s lives. But he doesn’t get a lot of credit. And the primary reason is that all politics is identity politics. It’s about who am I and who is they. And where can you draw that line? Erect that wall? And this is something that Republicans have been very successful at in rural areas. They’re basically saying, “Democrats are not like you. They are this other kind of people, and you should never, ever even consider voting for them no matter what they might do for you, because they’re just not your kind of people.” That is an extremely powerful argument.

And one of the things that political scientists have found in recent years is that party identification has become a storehouse for all kinds of identity. It’s not just your preference. It’s not like, “Oh, I like the Red Sox and you like the Yankees, or I like chocolate ice cream and you like vanilla ice cream.” It gets to a profound sense of who you are and what sorts of people are your people and what sorts of people are not your people. And it’s very, very difficult to break through that.

But I don’t think we should give up hope, and that’s why we say near the end of the book we’re not saying that all rural Americans should just vote for Democrats, maybe some of them should, but at the very least, they need to get themselves some better Republicans. And that would be a really good start to force the people who they keep electing to not just say, “Oh, I’m like you and I hate the same people you hate,” but to also say, “Here’s what I’m going to do to address these problems that we have here.”

And if the rural voters began to do that, then you’d begin to see more political competition in primary campaigns, and politicians would have to say what they’re going to do and then they would have to deliver. And if you held them accountable, then maybe they wouldn’t get reelected if they didn’t deliver. And you would also, I think, open up a space more for Democrats to start to be able to make those arguments too. To break through that wall of identity.

If there was a conversation happening in Republican primaries about, “Who’s going to bring back some economic opportunity to our community? Who’s going to solve the problem of our crumbling infrastructure? Who’s going to make sure that we do have access to healthcare?” And Republicans had to address those issues, then that would open up a space for Democrats to come into those same places and say, “Hey, look we have some pretty good ideas on this too. And okay, maybe you don’t agree with us on abortion and that’s okay, but here’s some things that we might do to actually help.”

If you could open up that space a little bit, I think Democrats would have some more success, even if they might not win in rural communities. Maybe instead of getting 30 percent of the vote, they might get 35 percent, which could be meaningful in statewide contests, and it has at some times and in some places. But it would begin to just enhance the nature of the political discussion.

And that’s one of the things that I think is a real tragedy, is that politics has become so hollow in so many rural places. There’s no competition. The Democratic Party doesn’t have a presence, the Republican Party doesn’t have a presence, and people don’t see the political realm as a place that they can enter and engage with and begin to solve problems. And that’s really a tragedy for those communities. It’s also a gift to Republicans who don’t really have to do much for them. But that, I think, is the first part of the answer. For real people to start demanding more of the politicians they elect, and then that’s going to open up the space for a wider conversation.

Jeff: Doesn’t that mean though, Tom, of moving a 60-year trend backwards? Moving from identity and identity and identity to policy once again?

Tom: Of course, it means that but can you achieve it? Can you affect it? Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized in Chapter 5, which I assign to my students in Poly 100, argues, and I agree with Ezra, that demographic change is the single biggest underlying driver of everything that’s happening in American politics. Which is just another way of saying that, not that demography is the entirety of identity but it’s a big part of identity. That the demographic changes are driving identity politics, and we are pluralizing as a country. We’re becoming more heterogeneous, and not obviously on race, most specifically, but on gender and gender identity and other factors as well.

And as that happens, the big question that faces democracy, the existential question, is whether or not we can digest those changes without tearing ourselves apart. And so far, at least the answer is no. It’s not happening. Blue and red America are moving farther and farther away from us. It started at the state level with blue states and red states and the decline of purple states. We only have 8 or 10 states at most that are really competitive in presidential elections.

The number of states that have a split pair of US senators from different parties is down to five. It’s Wisconsin, Montana, Ohio. Used to be Pennsylvania till Fetterman won. Almost every state produces two senators from the same party and its electoral votes for that same party as well. We have way more unified governments at the state level where the governor and the state Senate and the State House are all controlled trifectas, as they call them, by the same party. And so blue America’s getting bluer, red America’s getting redder, and now it’s happening on the county level, which is really remarkable.

And so people are voting with their feet, or whatever you call it, moving to like-minded communities to be at places where they share an identity and an ideology. And there’s a lot of talk of we’re in the middle of a soft civil war. I think we already are in one, and I don’t know how we reverse that because we can’t reverse engineer the demographic changes that are, A, happening and are going to continue to happen as we move forward.

And so America has to decide, frankly, whether what’s most important is the secular constitutional religion to which people, when they hold up their hand on the Bible and take their citizenship exam, or even if they were born here, commit themselves to our secular pluralist constitutional democracy, and that is their religion, so to speak, I sound like George Clooney in that political movie, but in all seriousness, what should matter most to Americans is not who you look, think, act, or pray to, but whether you share that identity as an American, that core patriotism.

And what we’re seeing is the disintegration of people, of the commitments of some people, not all of whom are rural white and not all rural white Americans, who are losing that attachment because they see changes in the country. And as Paul pointed out, and you asked us earlier, that paradox is they beat their chest claiming that– as a Lee Greenwood song plays on the speaker at a football stadium, saying that they love the flag more than Colin Kaepernick and denigrating others’ patriotism when in fact they have some of the weakest commitments.

Colin Kaepernick takes a knee peacefully and he’s considered somebody who hates America, but people who remove the flag from the Capitol on January 6th and replaced it with a Trump 2020 flag, and were marching around the city where I live and where my taxes pay for our DC police officers, are marching around with US flags that have Donald Trump’s face with a Rambo bandana superimposed on a very slick and oiled up semi homoerotic Sylvester Stallone Rambo torso. And that image is superimposed onto the stars and stripes, those people are considering, or at least consider themselves patriots.

So the definition of who can desecrate our flag has polarized as well. And I think this is an unfortunate reality. And until we do something about it, and I don’t think you can just reverse engineer the demographic changes, so I’m not sure what the solution is here, we’re going to continue to have this bifurcated red-blue America and could spell disaster. I hope not. Paul and I talk a lot about how we hope we’re wrong long term about this book. We hope that rural white America, or rural America generally, is clawed back from the democratic precipice and returns to its commitments to the country with the same full throaty voice that they are now calling for a guy who wants to be dictator for a day.

We hope in 10 or 15 years people [will] say this book is obsolete. That’ll be a win for democracy, even if it’s a loss for white rural rage.

Jeff: Finally, Paul, have the last word on this because we’re out of time. Many other changes that are taking place, technological changes, and more demographic changes are all adding fuel to the fire.

Paul: Yes, absolutely they are. And this is something that there is no one easy solution to creating new vibrant economies in rural places. Some places have been successful if they have some kind of natural resource that maybe brings in people who maybe there’s a lake nearby and people like to go boating and then that creates some economic vitality there, but a lot of places don’t have that. Some places have said, “We want to welcome in immigrants because we’re losing population.”

And that has happened in a lot of rural places. Something like two-thirds of rural counties lost population between the 2010 and 2020 censuses. And so there are places that have said, “We need more population. We’re going to bring in immigrants, they’re going to start businesses.” And that has really worked in some places. But we’re in an era of rapid technological change and there is no one easy solution.

The Biden administration, for example, has a whole industrial policy that is based on promoting certain industries in places that have largely been left behind. And it’s going to take a while to bear fruit and it’s not going to go into every corner of America, but that’s a partial solution. But this is going to continue to be a problem because just the fact of low-density, and in some cases isolation from larger metropolitan areas, creates just real economic challenges that are extremely difficult to overcome.

And so you need to have all hands on deck to try to create a vibrant economic future. And unfortunately, too often people just want to be told that, “Oh, we’re going to bring all the coal jobs back,” as Donald Trump told people in West Virginia, or that we can just make America great again and wind the clock back to the 1950s and have those things at the same time as Republicans, for instance, are trying to destroy collective bargaining and unions in America, which is one of the only things that ever brought prosperity and security to a lot of these places. So it is an extraordinarily complex problem, and there is no one easy solution.

It’s going to take decades to solve, but the more that people in rural America are told to marinate in a toxic politics of resentment, the more difficult it is going to be to find those solutions. And to have everybody has an interest in bringing rural America up to a place where they do have security and prosperity. That’s what we have to do. We have to think about it as a common fate that we all have together. And it’s not zero-sum, but the problems are not going to be easy to solve, but it’s already too [chuckles] late to get started.

Jeff: Tom Schaller, Paul Waldman, the book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy. Tom, Paul, I thank you both so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Tom: Thank you.

Paul Waldman: Thanks a lot, Jeff.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.

Tom Schaller: Cheers.

Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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