Rural angst

BY ART CULLEN

Two studies published over the past couple weeks intertwine interestingly: The Wall Street Journal reported May 27 that the economic blight that beset urban America in the early 1980s has shifted to rural areas: fewer jobs, higher divorce rates, out-migration and a brain drain. The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group analyzed the election of Donald Trump as President. It found through 8,000 detailed surveys of voters that white, non-college-educated voters were driven by attitudes about race, culture and Muslims.

In almost every measure of well-being, the Journal found, rural counties rank worst among the four population groupings (big cities, suburbs and medium or small cities). That’s a flip from the early 1980s, when rural areas ranked highest on all the scales (wages, out-of-wedlock births, child poverty, debt, etc.). Total rural population has declined for five straight years.

In Iowa, this is a familiar story. Two-thirds of Iowa’s 99 counties have declined steadily in population and economic prospects since the first farm recession of 1918-1920. Rural out-migration has accelerated since the Farm Crisis (interestingly, as soil erosion and water quality have worsened). Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson tells us that rural Iowa has drained its ownership/management class as business conditions deteriorated. The next group to flee is the young; just 40% of state university graduates remain in-state for their first job. And then it is the highly skilled blue-collar worker with a family: the young journeyman electrician or computer networking specialist or woodworker or machinist. The population of young adults (24-44) has declined by 35% in rural Iowa the past decade.

That leaves older, white voters with no college education and few marketable skills.

Among that group, the Democracy Fund tells us, there is resentment over declining quality of life. Not sure who is to blame, they target their insecurity toward immigrants, African Americans and Muslims.

“The broad picture that emerges from these data is that Trump supporters were distinctively hostile to Muslims, opposed to immigration, critical of modern feminism, worried about rising diversity, and unenthusiastic about free trade agreements. This is true of Trump primary supporters, Trump general election voters and Obama to Trump switchers,” wrote Robert Griffin and Rudy Texeira, two top-flight political demographers advised by William Frey.

Wages in labor markets with more than one-million workers are a third higher than the man working in a rural job.

“We didn’t really have much of a transformation strategy for places where the world was changing,” former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Journal.

We still don’t.

The highest concentration of white, non-college-educated Trump voters in Iowa reside in Cherokee, Sac, Calhoun, Ida and Pocahontas counties, according to the Democracy Fund survey. They are averse to immigrants despite watching their populations vanish. They vote for Rep. Steve King in large numbers. In Buena Vista County, at least 20% of the Obama vote from 2012 went to Trump — that would be white voters who feel disenfranchised by a lack of opportunity and perceive that someone else is moving in to take their place in a brighter destiny.

They see Donald Trump and Steve King giving the brush-off to the entire World Establishment, whatever that might be. They have a message of division and a strategy of political conquest. That appeals to people who have watched their towns empty out, their old jobs disappear and funny-looking people move in next door where other white working people used to live. This sort of unsettling has been occurring in dramatic fashion in Iowa since 1980. It continues. Storm Lake is something of an outlier. Its population is one of only two Northwest Iowa counties to grow over the past decade, and that is wholly because of immigrants working in meatpacking. Storm Lake, a little dot of blue in the Fourth Congressional District, voted against Trump and King. It has higher numbers of college educated and people of color. They feel more confident in their future and respond better to a message of unity and hope.

Many people think that Trump’s message of cracking down on trade and rebuilding infrastructure resonated. The survey, and The Wall Street Journal, would suggest that the interpretation is wrong. Rural voters didn’t care so much about the North American Free Trade Agreement as they did Muslims, whether here or abroad. They were animated by immigration and nativism. They know Hygrade with the old union boys isn’t coming back to Storm Lake, Tyson to Cherokee and Victory Motorcycles to Spirit Lake. They know that Maytag is long gone from Newton. And they know that Steve King and Donald Trump won’t fix it. They voted their angst.