The Bitter Heartland
A toxic class resentment has been festering for decades among rural and small-town Americans.
Originally published March 31, 2021
We are living in an age of resentment, a sentiment that often leads to anger but is not the same thing. Resentment shapes today’s politics, especially but not exclusively on the right. It is dangerous, especially if ignored.
Resentment is literally an emotion that is “felt again,” repeatedly. Anger can be transitory; it can flare and burn out. But resentment smolders. Resentful people review—sometimes to the point of obsession—the wrongs that gave rise to their feeling. They brood over them even as they conceal, like Shakespeare’s Iago, what they feel.
Some acts that provoke resentment are unavoidable, even appropriate. We resent being told what to do even if we know we should do it. We resent being rebuked even when we believe that the criticism is justified. We bridle at our critics’ assertion of moral authority even when we know they are right. We experience these things as diminishing our sense of ourselves and our equal standing.
My focus here, though, is on resentment as a response to the perception of being treated unjustly, unfairly, or disrespectfully. Unlike the anger it can provoke, it remains bottled up. Resentful individuals don’t give voice to their resentment, because they feel helpless or fear retaliation. The fear can involve social disapproval, economic loss, even physical attack. The sense of helplessness comes from the disproportion between a person’s own power and that of the institutions or individuals committing the injustice.
Resentment is often hard to spot unless you are looking for it and get close enough to see it. Outside observers are often surprised when it bursts forth as anger or rage.
What causes the eruption? First, those who are seething may experience a triggering event, like the killing of George Floyd, and just can’t take it any longer. Second, individuals who think they are alone encounter like-minded others, a process accelerated by the internet, and the mutual discovery overcomes the sense of helplessness. Third, leaders emerge who give voice and legitimacy to suppressed sentiments, helping their legions of supporters feel powerful enough to act.
Some resentful people merely want a remedy for the injustice they have experienced. But others—typically those who experience disrespect—want more than redress; they want revenge.
As Iago brooded over the promotion that Othello had denied him, he did not just seek a reversal of this decision. He wanted to “own” Othello—and destroy him. He succeeded in both and, in so doing, destroyed himself.
Resentment is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Unleashing it is like splitting the atom; it creates enormous energy, which can lead to more honest discussions and long-delayed redress of grievances. It can also undermine personal relationships—and political regimes. Because its destructive potential is so great, it must be faced.
The new class conflict
Resentment exists across the political spectrum. Recent decades have witnessed the growth of a potent new locus of right-wing resentment at the intersection of race, culture, class, and geography. Because this new resentment has reshaped today’s politics and because it is hard for those outside its orbit to understand, I focus on it here.
Social conservatives and white Christians feel maligned and beleaguered. The working class has lost ground, and many members of the middle class fear that they are next. Many small towns and rural areas wonder whether they have a future.
A sense of loss is hard to bear and even harder when others are rising. The three decades after World War II transformed America into a middle-class society and created a mass upper-middle class.
As recently as 1990, only 8.5% of American households had annual incomes of $150,000 or more. By 2019, adjusted for inflation, this share had more than doubled, to 18.6%. During the same period, the share of households making more than $200,000 nearly tripled, from 3.7% to 10.3%. This expansion crossed racial and ethnic lines, with the share of Black households making $150,000 and up tripling from 3.0% to 9.2%. Immigrant families, especially those from East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, swelled this surge.
The members of the new upper-middle class are mostly people with above-average education and in-demand professional skills. They include doctors, health care administrators, lawyers, and academics who are both more numerous and making more than ever before; information economy professionals; lobbyists and government contractors; and upper-tier federal, state, and government workers.
Despite specific differences in professional self-interest, these groups share much in their outlooks. They favor an economy and society open to the world. They welcome trade and immigration, from which most benefit; many have settled far from their birthplaces and extended families. They prize the ability to make new friends. For many, professional relationships are more important than neighborhood ties.
With the growth of the mass upper-middle class came a shift in the cultural center of gravity. Racial and ethnic diversity does not faze these people, nor do changing social norms. Relatively few are social conservatives. They do not understand why anyone would object to equal treatment for LGBTQ individuals. If they identify with any religious denominations, it is with those whose doctrines and practices align with upper-middle-class sensibilities.
The development of a mass upper-middle class has had geographic consequences, because members of this group tend to cluster in metropolitan areas. Many cities have rebounded from their low fortunes in the 1970s and 1980s and have gained in population and tax revenues. Cities and their suburbs have garnered a disproportionate share of the economic growth of the past three decades, while small towns and rural areas have lost jobs and population. As young people have moved away in search of opportunity, their parents and grandparents feel left behind, and their populations have aged. Local schools, centers of community activities and identity, have closed.
The Geography of Discontent
Non-metropolitan areas have been beleaguered on every front. The long trend toward agricultural concentration has continued; many small farms are no longer profitable. Well before covid-19, non-metropolitan small businesses were in trouble, partly because of competition from national “big box” stores and online retailers, but also because traditional sources of financing were drying up. As Jerome Powell showed in an article written before he became chair of the Federal Reserve Board, the number of community banks, which made loans based on local knowledge and longstanding relationships, collapsed between 1995 and 2015 from nearly 5,000 to just 1,400. They were replaced by large, remote institutions that make loans based on standardized criteria and even algorithms.
While the industrial economy brought prosperity to cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh, its supply chain extended through small-town America. Thus, the decline in manufacturing dealt a heavy blow to non-metropolitan areas. After a period of stability in the 1990s, manufacturing jobs declined by 3.4 million between 2001 and 2007 and by an additional 2.3 million during the Great Recession, for a total of 5.7 million jobs lost—one third of the total in 2000. Since then, the United States has regained only 800,000 manufacturing jobs, leaving us with nearly five million fewer than twenty years ago. Most of these jobs will never return. Non-metropolitan economies have no obvious way of replacing them.
The trends in extractive industries, mainly mining and logging, are no more encouraging. In 1982 jobs in this sector totaled 1.26 million. Today, the total stands at just 609,000. Coal jobs, a symbolic benchmark, stood at 178,000 in 1985, compared to just 42,000 today. Although political rhetoric suggests otherwise, the “war on coal” is mainly technological, not environmental: U.S. coal mining remains competitive only because it has been so thoroughly mechanized.
Three decades ago, many observers predicted that the internet would abolish distance and make it possible for tech-based work to occur anywhere, including remote areas. Though the covid-19 pandemic may yet push the economy in this direction, rural and small-town Americans are unlikely to get their share of the benefits because many of them lack access to high-speed broadband. In the 1930s the New Deal pushed universal electrification to promote full participation in the industrial economy and society. Nearly a century later, government has yet to give universal broadband access the same status, leaving millions of non-metropolitan residents (and those in low-income urban neighborhoods) in broadband deserts.
The View from Somewhere
These developments have not gone unnoticed in small town and rural America. As metropolitan areas and upscale professionals surged ahead in recent decades, non-metropolitan areas fell behind, not only relatively but absolutely. Residents of these areas came to resent a political system that seemed indifferent to their decline and a culture that revolved increasingly around the beliefs and sentiments of a metropolitan America that the rest of the country regarded as alien. The stage was set for the revolt that has dominated American politics for more than a decade.
Thanks to the pioneering field research of scholars like Katherine Cramer and Arlie Hochschild, we are beginning to understand the outlook of the rural and small-town Americans who have spearheaded this revolt. In sum, Cramer and Hochschild teach us, “they” (people without college degrees who work mainly with their hands) resent “us” (educated professionals and “experts” who work with words and numbers). Worse, it is not a fair fight. They believe that they are losing their share of the American Dream because we have changed the rules in our favor—and have allowed others to cut the line in front of them and seize what they have worked to attain.
The bill of particulars goes like this:
“They” see “us” as presiding over a long-term decline in their quality of life without lifting a finger to help. Blue-collar wages have stagnated for decades; good jobs for which they are qualified have evaporated. Their suffering went ignored by elites in both political parties until Donald Trump emerged as their champion.
They fear falling even farther. (Behavioral economics tells us that losses sting more than gains please.) They do not understand why this is happening to them and are searching for an explanation, which only conservative populists bother to provide.
They have a sense of displacement in a country they once dominated. Immigrants, minorities, non-Christians, even atheists have taken center stage, forcing them to the margins of American life. The metropolitan areas we dominate—and that dominate the country—embody a way of life increasingly at odds with Americans in small towns and rural areas.
They believe we have rewritten the rules to rig the game against them. We have redefined success so that it is measured by test taking, which leaves them on the outside looking in. We have established a hereditary meritocracy based on our networks, resources, and inside knowledge of the rules. We tell them they should shape up and get with the New Economy, but never say how they are supposed to do that. They believe we have used our power for our own advantage, not to promote a common good that would include them.
They believe our claims to expertise are mostly bogus. Why did elites in both parties allow China to join the World Trade Organization on such favorable terms? Why did they plunge us into endless wars in the Middle East? Why did they cause the Great Recession and botch the recovery? Why have their medical experts changed their minds so often during the pandemic? President Trump was at his best, they say, when he ignored the experts and went his own way.
They believe that we deny their freedom and tell them how to live their lives. Why do we regulate the way they farm, fish, and hunt? Why do we prefer endangered species over their human families, shut down their businesses, and try to close their churches?
They believe we have a powerful desire for moral coercion. We tell them how to behave—and, worse, how to think. When they complain, we accuse them of racism and xenophobia. How, they ask, did standing up for the traditional family become racism? When did transgender bathrooms become a civil right?
They see us using the law to make them act in violation of their deepest beliefs—making the Little Sisters of the Poor cover contraception, forcing public schools to allow entrance to bathrooms based on gender identity. They believe we want to keep them from living in accordance with their faith.
They believe we hold them in contempt. They point to remarks by 2008 and 2016 Democratic presidential nominees as evidence.
Finally, they think we are hypocrites. We claim to support free speech—until someone says something we don’t like. We claim to oppose violence—unless it serves a cause we approve of. We claim to defend the Constitution—except for the Second Amendment. We support tolerance, inclusion, and social justice—except for people like them.
Responding to resentment
Although our natural inclination is to resent and reject these allegations, we should ask whether there is some merit to them. Donald Trump did not create these sentiments. They will not disappear just because his presidency has ended.
A survey conducted just months before the 2016 election found that 51 percent of all Americans—and 65 percent of whites without college degrees—believed that America’s culture and way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s. The survey asked respondents about this statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” Forty-six percent of all Americans agreed, as did 55% of whites without college degrees.
I doubt that the four years of the Trump presidency did much to attenuate these sentiments. I am sure that the mere rhetoric of reconciliation won’t, either. We need a new approach, economic unification coupled with social pluralism. Here’s what I have in mind:
“Building back better” must mean creating opportunity across geographic as well as racial and ethnic lines. Some policies, like universal broadband access, would do both. Others, like regional technology centers, would represent a conscious effort to spread the fruits of innovation to non-metropolitan areas. We could also reconsider pro-efficiency reforms that have closed essential services like banking and air travel in much of the country.
Moving toward social pluralism will be even harder. For more than a half century, Democrats have assumed that to solve social problems, we must nationalize them. This strategy succeeds when uniform remedies change behavior and, eventually, belief. Sometimes this happens, sometimes not. When it doesn’t, we see endless struggles for control of the national institutions that make the rules.
The alternative is to reserve the strategy of nationalization for core cases, like protecting the right to vote, and let states diverge in other areas. Making national approaches our default option may exact too high a price in local resentment.
Such changes will not eliminate resentment but may reduce it to a level our political system can tolerate. The alternative, the uncompromising pursuit of an upper-middle-class agenda, perpetuates the debilitating conflict that is undermining our future.
William A. Galston, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
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