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Leftists Trying Not to be Gnostics
Current Affairs seems like a worthwhile magazine. It describes itself as “the left magazine for people skeptical of leftism.” Based on this essay, it seems pretty far left . . . Bernie Sanders-left . . . but intellectually honest left. In the perspective of the Hemisphere Hypothesis, an “intellectually honest” leftist is a person who thinks

I have a basic hostility to analyses of politics that blame voters for making bad, stupid choices. This is in part because I don’t think voters in the United States have many choices. They are barraged by propaganda. It’s very hard to figure out what’s true. I’m not surprised that people believe deranged things in this country, where most of us are barely taught any critical thinking skills and more than half of those between 16 and 74 read below a sixth grade level. Take the pandemic, for instance. People were told that they should wear masks and take vaccines. They were also told, sometimes by people who had impressive academic credentials and came armed with a bunch of charts and statistics, that masks and vaccines were useless and harmful. How was someone with little time and without any specialized training supposed to figure out the truth? 

Yesterday, I flipped on the radio, and the first thing I heard was the Sean Hannity show. He was talking to two guests from an organization called “Border 911,” which tries to whip up panic over immigrants, warning that murderers and child traffickers and terrorists are pouring into the United States from Mexico. When I turned on the show, the guest was explaining that China was sending people en masse to sneak across the border and spy on Americans. 

What’s anyone supposed to make of this? You turn it on the radio, you hear it, you don’t hear any counter-argument or anything disproving it. If you try to “do your own research,” by googling “are Chinese people coming across the border to spy on Americans,” you’ll get some fairly neutral news stories about Chinese migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., and then a report by the “America First Policy Institute” arguing that these migrants are a “trojan horse” and coming as part of “malign CCP infiltration.” You’ll see a story in which Dr. Phil speculates that Chinese migrants are sending “seeds” and “plans” back to the Chinese government. Another reports that Chinese migration to the U.S. has increased 7,000 percent and “military-age men” and “spies” may be coming here to “wreak havoc.” Now, if you know that Dr. Phil has turned into an idealogue in recent years, and was never as trustworthy as his gentle public image, or if you know that the Daily Mail is a trashy tabloid that will print almost anything, or if you know that the America First Policy Institute was founded specifically to boost Donald Trump’s agenda, you might be skeptical of what you read. But you still might not know how to refute it. (Try it. Try proving that Chinese immigrants aren’t all spies controlled by the CCP. Even though the claim is ridiculous, conclusively exposing it as false is not easy, and it’s better to say that there’s no evidence for it beyond things like Dr. Phil’s wild speculation.)

So I’m always pretty sympathetic to people who believe even quite delusional things, because it’s hard not to, given the informational ecosystems we inhabit. That might explain my revulsion at a lot of what is said in the new book White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy by Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman, which casts American rural white voters as the #1 source of the country’s problems. “More than at any point in modern history, the survival of the United States as a modern, stable, multi-ethnic democracy is threatened by a White rural minority that wields outsize electoral power.” The problems with rural white people are many, Schaller explained:

“They are the most racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, geodemographic group in the country… Second, they’re the most conspiracist group. QAnon support and subscribers, election denialism, COVID denialism instead of scientific skepticism, Obama birtherism… They don’t believe in an independent press, free speech. They’re most likely to say the president should be able to act unilaterally without any checks from Congress, or the courts or the bureaucracy. They’re also the most strongly White nationalist and White Christian nationalist… Fourth, they’re most likely to excuse or justify violence as an acceptable alternative to peaceful public discourse.”

Michael Cohen of The Daily Beast characterizes the book’s thesis as: images of rural white people as a bunch of Trump-loving, homophobic, gun-toting, violent bigots aren’t “hurtful, elitist stereotypes by Acela Corridor denizens and bubble-dwelling liberals… they’re facts” and “most of the negative stereotypes liberals hold about rural Americans are actually true.” These truths are backed by “reams of data” such as the fact that “support for Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban ran 15 points higher than in urban areas” and “rural whites are 13 points more likely to view LGBTQ+ Americans in a negative light, and express fear and anger toward immigrants.” 

Now, the first thing to point out here is that this kind of data doesn’t prove that the stereotypes and caricatures are “true.” There are plenty of rural people who don’t support Donald Trump, and one of the dangers of stereotypes is that they treat demographic groups as hive-mind monoliths. In the book, Schaller and Waldman are careful to say that they’re not saying all rural white people are like this, but by talking about “rural white people” as a group that possesses these qualities, it’s hard not to reduce everyone in that category to a cartoon. 

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Are Rural White People The Problem? ❧ Current Affairs
<p>A new book argues that the basic threat to the U.S. comes from rural America’s bigotry and anti-democratic tendencies. This is the wrong way to think about it.</p>