Talking Sense

Researcher who studies rural Americans calls out damaging stereotypes about rural voters

Two people talk
Kendra Grev hands out an I Voted sticker to a voter at Cedar Town Hall in 2022. The polling place is a former one-room school building in rural Trimont.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

As rural voters increasingly gravitate toward conservative candidates, some liberals have described the shift as one that's fueled by racism, xenophobia and a predisposition toward violence and authoritarianism on the part of white voters.

When Nicholas Jacobs, a government professor at Colby College, saw some of his research being used to support these claims about rural voters, he decided to write a rebuttal. 

In his essay “What Liberals Get Wrong About ‘White Rural Rage’ — Almost Everything,” Jacobs argues that rural voters are far more complicated than some people give them credit for. 

He spoke with MPR News correspondent Catharine Richert about the stereotypes politicians and the media have about rural voters — and how to move past them.  

His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Talking Sense is a partnership between MPR News and Braver Angels, a nonprofit that has been working to bridge political divides since 2016.

What stereotypes do liberals have about rural voters that they're just getting wrong?

Jacobs: The first stereotype is that people are more complicated voters than we like to often assume or give them credit for. They can hold a multitude of beliefs. Sometimes those beliefs do contradict one another, and the motivations for voting a certain way or for a particular candidate can be many. 

That relates to the second stereotype: One of the motivations that people have a hard time wrapping their head around is the fact that many rural people love living in a rural community.

It’s not a wasteland of poverty, despite there being struggles. It’s not a wasteland of alienation as a leading sociologist has described it. Rural Americans are the most likely group of Americans to say that if given the chance, they would not leave.

Why are politicians — and even journalists — bad at acknowledging these nuances? Does our democracy even allow for it? 

Jacobs: First, you could point to just the general nationalization of American politics … and the decline of local news. So we’re all hearing the same stories, we’re all framing the stories in the same way. We’re following national news at a higher level than we are local and regional news. And that’s not necessarily because we want to, but that’s what’s given to us. 

Politically how that’s manifested is a Democrat in Maine is becoming more and more like a Democrat in Minnesota. And a Republican in Virginia sounds very similar to a Republican out in California. 

The parties produce content for campaigns, and instruct candidates how they need to run races. They develop more consistent brands at a national level, which makes these variations lessened. And that has all had a simplifying effect on our politics. 

A lot of our politics, especially from the mid-2000s on, has really been oriented around this idea that when majorities are insecure, and every election is deeply contested, it’s a safer bet to mobilize your side instead of trying to persuade the other.

Two people talk on a video call
MPR News correspondent Catharine Richert (right) speaks with political scientist Nicholas Jacob about the misunderstandings media and politicians have of rural voters.
MPR News

If you were giving advice to a liberal politician, or really any liberal person about how to connect with rural voters, or more conservative voters in general, what would you tell them?

Jacobs: Good advice is always to listen more and talk less. But I’d actually say come prepared with some good questions. Ask, “Why are you so apprehensive about immigration? Why do you feel like you're being looked down upon?”

Hear their story about the time that they interacted with the government, or the last time a politician said something about how they needed to change in order to fit into modern America. 

Let people be complicated and ask them about those complexities.

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