The Book 'White Rural Rage' Gets the Research Wrong

Townhall Media

The book White Rural Rage was co-authored by political scientist Tom Schaller and commentator Paul Waldman. As the title suggests, the gist is that white rural voters are a threat to democracy.


In an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Schaller gave this unvarnished assessment of the rage he sees overflowing in the heartland. Rural whites, he said, are “the most racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-gay geo-demographic group in the country.” He called them, “the most conspiracist group,” “anti-democratic,” “white nationalist and white Christian nationalists.” On top of that, rural whites are also “most likely to excuse or justify violence as an acceptable alternative to peaceful public discourse.”

But political scientist Nicholas Jacobs from Colby College says the authors of the book have gotten some of the research underlying their claims wrong. He has a personal stake in the argument because some of the research cited in the book is his own.

Jacobs is clearly not a fan of the book, in part because he thinks it is wrong-headed in its approach but also because he finds that it is simply wrong in many cases.

The authors of White Rural Rage make two persistent types of error in analyzing the data on rural Americans.

First, they routinely fall victim to the logical fallacy of composition when they attribute group characteristics to individuals. For example, they suggest that since authoritarianism predicted support for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries, and rural residents support Trump, rural residents are the most likely to be authoritarian.

As it happens, the opposite seems to be true in this case as well; leading authoritarian experts find no geographic dimension to growing authoritarianism in the U.S., and the study the authors cite early in the book to “prove” that rural residents are “more likely to favor violence over democratic deliberation” says nothing about violence, or deliberation or authoritarianism.


The central premise of the book, that this rural rage is a threat to US democracy is not supported by research Jacobs himself has done.

Our research found that just 27 percent of rural voters — including 23 percent of rural Trump voters — think that if the opposing candidate wins in November, “people will need to take drastic action in order to stop [Biden or Trump] from taking office.” That’s the exact same proportion — 27 percent — as voters in urban and suburban areas who hold the same view. Nor are rural voters more likely than urban voters to say that the opposing party is a “threat to the future of America;” while 38 percent of rural Trump voters strongly believe that about Democrats, 36 percent of nonrural Biden voters think that same thing about Republicans...

This shoddy analysis and faux expertise does real damage. It is clear that the overwhelming portrayal of rural America as angry and irrational feeds into and amplifies the divisions between rural and urban Americans, overshadowing the shared challenges and aspirations that cut across these geographic lines.

Setting aside the book for a moment, Jacobs says there is no doubt that many rural people have adopted a politics of resentment. But he makes the case that a) this isn't so different from the desire to preserve a sense of place present in many urban areas and b) this stems in part from a belief in self-sufficiency. Rural voters believe in solving their own problems and aren't looking for a government fix.

Taken as a whole, rural voters are not merely reacting against change — be it demographic or economic. They are actively seeking to preserve a sense of agency over their future and a continuity of their community’s values and social structures. Some might call this conservatism, but I think it is the same thing motivating fears of gentrification in urban areas, or the desire to “keep Portland weird.” Place matters for a whole bunch of people — but especially for rural folks...

What rural communities may desire are empowering strategies that allow them to shape their own future — support that bolsters local leadership, encourages community-driven initiatives and provides the tools and resources necessary for them to address their specific challenges in a manner consistent with their values. That isn’t rage, nor is it a threat to democracy.


Shockingly, people in rural areas don't like being told they should be grateful for every effort big city progressives make to micro-manage their lives for them (always for the greater good of course). For daring to disagree, they get smeared with books like White Rural Rage.

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