In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a few newsroom managers sent reporters into the backward lands between America’s coastal super-cities in an attempt to understand what was bugging the yokels in flyover country.
Every now and then one of the big newspapers runs another National Geographic-style feature of this kind — since the odds are good that Jesusland voters will reject the 2020 candidate chosen by the Democratic National Committee and the Acela Zone chattering classes. It’s important to know what the great unwashed multitudes are thinking, since that’s an important source of material for late-night comics.
From a GetReligion point of view, these pieces almost always yield edgy examples of how many journalists see little or no difference between “political” beliefs and convictions that are rooted in ancient or modern forms of religious faith. Repeat after me: All things “political” are real. “Religion” is sort of real, or it is real to the degree that it affects “real” life, as in politics or economics.
This brings me a perfect example of this equation, a New York Times opinion essay by Monica Potts, who is currently doing research for a book about low-income women in Arkansas. This piece zoomed into the weekend must-read lists in many progressive corners of cyberspace. Here’s the double-decker headline:
In the Land of Self-Defeat
What a fight over the local library in my hometown in rural Arkansas taught me about my neighbors’ go-it-alone mythology — and Donald Trump’s unbeatable appeal.
As a rule, your GetReligionistas do not critique opinion pieces. So why mention this one?
To make a long story short, I could not resist noting a specific passage in this essay that serves as a kind of grand unified theory of how many journalists view the American heartland and the truly despicable — or at the very least lost and sad — people who live out there.
This long essay includes next to nothing, when it comes to reporting and writing about religion. It includes a lot of ink about libraries in this part of the world — which is fine with me since I am married to a public librarian whose work focuses, in large part, on helping librarians in small communities in the hills of East Tennessee. I am a pro-library kind of guy.
The piece opens, of course, with the impeachment talks swirling around the latest offenses of President Donald Trump. After waving that flag, Potts gets down to business, describing this culture on the edge of the Ozark Mountains:
Tim Widener, 50, who lives outside my hometown, Clinton, summed up the town’s attitude well: “It’s really a sad waste of taxpayers’ money,” he told me.
Mr. Widener could have been talking about anything. His comment reflected a worldview that is becoming ever more deeply ingrained in the white people who remain in rural America — Washington politicians are spending money that they shouldn’t be. In 2016, shortly after Mr. Trump’s victory, Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, summed up the attitudes she observed after years of studying rural Americans: “The way these folks described the world to me, their basic concern was that people like them, in places like theirs, were overlooked and disrespected,” she wrote in Vox. … People like my neighbors hate that the government is spending money on those who don’t look like them and don’t live like them — but what I’ve learned since I came home is that they remain opposed even when they themselves stand to benefit.
Let’s jump down a bit to get to the second half of the thesis of this sermon.
As it turns out, that danged U.S. Constitution gives these selfish little people more power than they deserve. That benefits a certain type of politician, of course.
Most Americans live in cities, but our political system gives rural areas like Van Buren outsize voting power. My time here makes me believe that the impeachment scandal will not hurt Mr. Trump — and that Democrats who promise to make the lives of people like my neighbors better might actually help him.
I realized this after a fight over, of all things, our local library.
Truth be told, I skipped over some crucial material in the middle of that really long “why this essay matters” passage.
That was the part where Potts places herself in the middle of the drama — since she has already informed readers that Clinton is her hometown. This includes the piece’s one explicit reference to religion, as opposed to all of those passages judging the local folks for their lack of concern about their neighbors. Don’t these people realize that folks in Washington, D.C., and New York City are truly concerned about their best interests?
Read the following carefully:
I returned to Van Buren County at the end of 2017 after 20 years living on the East Coast, most recently in the Washington area, because I’m writing a book about Clinton, Van Buren’s county seat. My partner and I knew it would be a challenge: The county is very remote, very religious and full of Trump voters, and we suspected we’d stand out because of our political beliefs.
Since coming back, I’ve realized that it is true that people here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.
Here’s the heart of the equation, once again: “My partner and I knew it would be a challenge: The county is very remote, very religious and full of Trump voters, and we suspected we’d stand out because of our political beliefs.”
This is, you see, all about “political beliefs.” Scribes need to escape the Ozarks and mature in Acela Zone zip codes in order to grasp truths like that.
Now, some of these “very religious” locals may even think that their their churches represent a form of real “community” in their lives.
It’s hard to tell, since the word “church” does not appear in this essay, along with terms like “God,” “faith,” “family,” etc. Some of these people might even link the term “community” to their schools, football teams and other civic institutions. (Watch the video at the top of this post to hear some of this language.)
So why are these people so down on some of the government structures and programs in their isolated corner of the world? Why are they so opposed to tax increases? Don’t they know that they are being selfish? The term “sinning” might even apply here.
Potts is pretty sure that she knows what is happening here and it’s pretty ugly. Then again, that could be her “political beliefs” talking.