What Liberal Elites Don’t Know About Rural Americans Can Hurt Us

The New York Review of Books strikes out, again

Wendell Berry May 31, 2023

In 1996, Bill Clinton won about half of U.S. counties that were at least 85% white and earned less than the national median income—i.e. rural counties. In 2016, such counties went 658 for Donald Trump and two for Hillary Clinton.

One reason rural America has turned MAGA red is because the well-intentioned folks in the Democratic Party establishment and their allies at progressive nonprofits have been poorly served by editors in the liberal media. Look no further than The New York Review of Books, a publication almost everyone here at Barn Raiser subscribes to but that rarely fails to miss the mark when it comes to covering rural America.

Earlier this year, the poet, novelist and essayist Wendell Berry, 88, who has farmed along the west bank of the Kentucky River in Henry County, Ky., since 1965, wrote a letter-to-the-editor to The New York Review of Books. In his letter he took this beacon of progressive thought to task for once again promulgating harmful myths about the people of rural America.

Berry took issue with both a January essay by Alexander Burns, a New York Times national correspondent and CNN political analyst, and a February book review by Ian Frazier, a writer for The New Yorker.

In 2017, the NYRB published a similar letter by Berry that critiqued the urban bias of liberal and progressive writers and lawmakers who have sought to diagnose the “rural problem” that reared its head with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. This time round, however, The New York Review of Books didn’t publish Berry’s critique, so Barn Raiser, with Berry’s permission, proudly does so.

To the editor, The New York Review of Books:

For me, a lifelong rural American, reading Alexander Burns’s article, “Making the Senate Work for Democrats” (January 19) is an experience both odd and familiar. The experience was odd because the article appeared in The New York Review of Books, to which I am a longtime subscriber even though its editorial point of view and that of its writers is exclusively urban and academic. As its reader, I am an outsider looking in. The experience is familiar because Alexander Burns, like other writers for that magazine, has never looked at or imagined our country from a country person’s point of view.

I live in Henry County, Kentucky, which I can remember as a part of a thriving agricultural region with many small family-run farms and flourishing local economies. Now, as in every place I know in rural America, the small towns here are dead or dying, much of the farmland (long priced above the reach of farmers) is consigned to toxic, continuously cropped large acreages of corn and soy beans; communities and families are breaking up. The education system prepares our young people to leave, and they are leaving. Other problems are addiction, depression, bad health, poverty, and the boredom with rural life that is induced and expected. At present we are suffering a solar panel land rush and a Bourbon boom land rush, which further increase land prices, go after the best farmland, and turn neighbor against neighbor. I believe I have given a fair representation of the plight of rural America, a land of worsening problems that it did not cause and cannot solve, from which urban America derives its food, clothing, and shelter, plus “raw materials.” For these necessary things rural America receives prices set in urban America. For the manufactured goods returned to it, rural America pays prices set in urban America.

This rural America Mr. Burns treats as an enemy country, “rural and white,” inhabited by voters for Trump who are “animated most intensely by feelings of racial resentment or male self-pity,” and by “working-class voters who feel victimized by a distant and dysfunctional government, by wealthy elites, by nefarious foreign regimes, and all-powerful multinational corporations.” Mr. Burns is a political expert, who writes from a posture of authority, but his authority comes from no close acquaintance with rural places or with Trump voters or with people of the working class. He identifies only two reasons rural people might have had for voting for Trump, without asking, for instance, why they might have voted against Clinton or Biden. And he says that working-class voters “feel” victimized, apparently without considering that they may “feel” so because they know so. He might have added that many of them know also that they are disregarded or disdained by another set of elites who think them ignorant because they have not been to college. This is a prejudice, resting upon a cruel and extremely destructive falsehood of the same kind as white supremacy. To be fair, or at least more complete, Mr. Burns might have added to his collection of deplorables the rural voters who vote for Democrats only because the Democrats are not Republicans.

Mr. Burns objects to such people partly because many of them live in states sparsely populated that yet have two senators. He thinks that this is extremely unfair to Democrats. He blames “a constitutional order that truly is rigged against them.” This is an extreme statement that seems to come from an extremely simple mind. Mr. Burns does not ask how his view might be changed if the voters in those states were mostly Democrats. And he has not the ability to imagine himself as a resident of one of those states if it were represented in Washington by a tiny delegation in the House and no senator.

Because I have watched for half a century and more the decline of my own community and others like it everywhere in rural America, along with the increasing ecological and cultural damages of industrial agriculture, I have made a practice of reading newspaper and magazine articles by Democratic or leftward experts of politics and economics, hoping that I would see an acknowledgement, first of the economic importance of the natural world, and then of the importance of the land-use economies of agriculture, forestry, and mining, by which the goods of the natural world are made available for human use. I have not made a “survey,” but I have read enough to know that Alexander Burns’s article is conventional. Like his fellow experts, he appears to assume the inexhaustibility of the non-human world, and likewise the forever availability of the rural and working-class humans who do, well or poorly, the fundamental work of every economy. Like most of his fellow experts, he consents to and takes for granted the corporate destruction of the land and the human communities of rural America.

What then is Mr. Burns’s program for the success of his party? He mentions first “a revolution in the American energy sector” and building “colossal semiconductor plants across the country.” Democrats, he says, should make those goals “the core of their party’s political identity.” He mentions also that Democrats need to deal with the climate crisis and Chinese imperialism, to defend “abortion rights,” and to support “decriminalizing marijuana, reining in big tech companies, confronting the OPEC oil cartel and the Saudi regime,” and guaranteeing “access to contraception, fertility treatments, and abortifacient drugs.”

Questions of the merit or political efficacy of Mr. Burns’s program are not my present concern. I want only to notice that it addresses no rural problem. There is no interest in remedies for the bad ecological and human effects of mining, or in a farm bill that would make agriculture less destructive of land and people, or in ways to preserve the ecological integrity of our forests, or in ways to prevent the corporate destruction of the local economies necessary to support local communities—to name only a few rural needs.

My impression is that the writers of the articles I have read have never ventured into rural America to ask in good faith what the problems are and what might be the remedies. And so I have made a sort of practice also of inviting writers and editors to come here where I live to allow me (and some younger people) to show them what we are up against. So far, nobody has showed up. As if to make up for its long neglect of the plight of American farmland and farmers, The New York Review of Books published in its next issue (February 9) “Grim Reapers” by Ian Frazier, a review of two books that corroborate my concern. In general, Mr. Frazier appears to take seriously the two authors’ understanding of the problems—among others, the government’s deliberate eradication of the “midsize farm”—and their warnings. But at the end of his review he undercuts his own seriousness and authority by these sentences:

I think that for midsize farms to avoid extinction and come back—and save us—they can’t just be the sensible solution that they are. They need to have something crazy-American about them, some kind of “gee whiz!” high-tech wonders that are environmentally unharmful and designed for them alone. In an age when American science can bounce a rocket off an asteroid 6.8 million miles away, how hard would it be?

There is no reason or excuse for these remarks, which rest upon a set of falsehoods that have blinded the American people and their government to the destruction of their land. The space program is not the highest human accomplishment. All problems cannot be solved by science and technology. Good farmers are not mindless drudges who can be easily replicated from the “labor pool” or the Class of 2023.

The truth is that when this nation chose to eliminate four million farmers (with their families, hired help, buildings, and boundaries) on the advice of the colleges of agriculture, the agricultural bureaucracy, and the agribusiness corporations, it committed a sort of cultural genocide. It destroyed, that is, a necessary mosaic of local agrarian cultures, which made farmers of farmers’ children by teaching them how to farm in their native places. Imperfect as it often was, this was an asset of immeasurable economic worth, easily wiped out, unimaginably difficult to restore. I don’t believe that the scientists of outer space could define the problem, let alone solve it.

Wendell Berry
Port Royal, Kentucky

Wendell Berry’s letter to the editor of The New York Review of Books published by Barn Raiser struck a nerve. Read what folks said here.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, poet, essayist and novelist, tends a farm with his wife Tanya near Port Royal, Kentucky. In 1958, he was awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University's creative writing program, where he studied under Stegner in a seminar that included Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen and Ken Kesey. His first novel, Nathan Coulter, was published in 1960. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is his best known work of nonfiction.

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