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An Utterly Misleading Book About Rural America

White Rural Rage has become a best-seller—and kindled an academic controversy.

Joseph Rushmore

Rage is the subject of a new book by the political scientist Tom Schaller and the journalist Paul Waldman. White Rural Rage, specifically. In 255 pages, the authors chart the racism, homophobia, xenophobia, violent predilections, and vulnerability to authoritarianism that they claim make white rural voters a unique “threat to American democracy.” White Rural Rage is a screed lobbed at a familiar target of elite liberal ire. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the authors appeared on Morning Joe, the book inspired an approving column from The New York TimesPaul Krugman, and its thesis has been a topic of discussion on podcasts from MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and the right-wing firebrand Charlie Kirk. The book has become a New York Times best seller.

It has also kindled an academic controversy. In the weeks since its publication, a trio of reviews by political scientists have accused Schaller and Waldman of committing what amounts to academic malpractice, alleging that the authors used shoddy methodologies, misinterpreted data, and distorted studies to substantiate their allegations about white rural Americans. I spoke with more than 20 scholars in the tight-knit rural-studies community, most of them cited in White Rural Rage or thanked in the acknowledgments, and they left me convinced that the book is poorly researched and intellectually dishonest.

White Rural Rage illustrates how willing many members of the U.S. media and the public are to believe, and ultimately launder, abusive accusations against an economically disadvantaged group of people that would provoke sympathy if its members had different skin color and voting habits. That this book was able to make it to print—and onto the best-seller list—before anyone noticed that it has significant errors is a testament to how little powerful people think of white rural Americans. As someone who is from the kind of place the authors demonize—a place that is “rural” in the pejorative, rather than literal, sense—I find White Rural Rage personally offensive. I was so frustrated by its indulgence of familiar stereotypes that I aired several intemperate critiques of the book and its authors on social media. But when I dug deeper, I found that the problems with White Rural Rage extend beyond its anti-rural prejudice. As an academic and a writer, I find Schaller and Waldman’s misuse of other scholars’ research indefensible.

After fact-checking many of the book’s claims and citations, I found a pattern: Most of the problems occur in sections of the book that try to prove that white rural Americans are especially likely to commit or express support for political violence. By bending the facts to fit their chosen scapegoat, Schaller and Waldman not only trade on long-standing stereotypes about dangerous rural people. They mislead the public about the all-too-real threats to our democracy today. As serious scholarship has shown—including some of the very scholarship Schaller and Waldman cite, only to contort it—the right-wing rage we need to worry about is not coming from deep-red rural areas. It is coming from cities and suburbs.

The most obvious problem with White Rural Rage is its refusal to define rural. In a note in the back of the book, the authors write, “What constitutes ‘rural’ and who qualifies as a rural American … depends on who you ask.” Fair enough. The rural-studies scholars I spoke with agreed that there are a variety of competing definitions. But rather than tell us what definition they used, Schaller and Waldman confess that they settled on no definition at all: “We remained agnostic throughout our research and writing by merely reporting the categories and definitions that each pollster, scholar, or researcher used.” In other words, they relied on studies that used different definitions of rural, a decision that conveniently lets them pick and choose whatever research fits their narrative. This is what the scholars I interviewed objected to—they emphasized that the existence of multiple definitions of rural is not an excuse to decline to pick one. “This book amounts to a poor amalgamation of disparate literatures designed to fit a preordained narrative,” Cameron Wimpy, a political scientist at Arkansas State University, told me. It would be like undertaking a book-length study demonizing Irish people, refusing to define what you mean by Irish, and then drawing on studies of native Irish in Ireland, non-Irish immigrants to Ireland, Irish Americans, people who took a 23andMe DNA test that showed Irish ancestry, and Bostonians who get drunk on Saint Patrick’s Day to build your argument about the singular danger of “the Irish.” It’s preposterous.

The authors write that they were “at the mercy of the choices made by the researchers who collected, sorted, classified, and tabulated their results.” But reading between the lines, the authors’ working definition of rural often seems to be “a not-so-nice place where white people live,” irrespective of whether that place is a tiny hamlet or a small city. Some of the most jaw-dropping instances of this come when the authors discuss what they would have you believe is rural America’s bigoted assault on local libraries. “The American Library Association tracked 1,269 efforts to ban books in libraries in 2022,” Schaller and Waldman note. “Many of these efforts occurred in rural areas, where libraries have become a target of controversy over books with LGBTQ+ themes or discussions of racism.” The authors detail attacks on a number of libraries: in Llano, Texas; Ashtabula County, Ohio; Craighead County, Arkansas; Maury County, Tennessee; Boundary County, Idaho; and Jamestown, Michigan.

But half of these locations—Craighead County, Maury County, and Jamestown—do not seem to qualify as rural. What the authors call “rural Jamestown, Michigan,” scores a 1 out of 10 on one of the most popular metrics, the RUCA, used to measure rurality (1 being most urban), and is a quick commute away from the city of Grand Rapids.

That Schaller and Waldman so artfully dodged defining what they mean by rural is a shame for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that the question of who is rural is complex and fascinating. Scholars in rural studies make a distinction between subjective rural identity and objective rural residence—in other words, seeing yourself as rural versus living in a place that is geographically rural according to metrics like RUCA. The thing is, rural identity and rural residence are very, very different. Though Schaller and Waldman mention this distinction briefly in their authors’ note, they do not meaningfully explore it. One political scientist I spoke with, Utah Valley University’s Zoe Nemerever, recently co-authored a paper comparing rural self-identification to residence and found a stunning result: “A minority of respondents who described their neighborhood as rural actually live in an area considered rural.” Her study found that 72 percent of people—at minimum—who saw themselves as living in a rural place did not live in a rural place at all.

It turns out I am one of those people. I grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, an 88 percent white enclave in the southward center of the state. Eighteen minutes and nine miles to the east, you hit the capital city of Harrisburg, which has the best used bookstore in the tristate area. Nineteen minutes and 13 miles away to the west, you hit the game lands, where I spent my teenage years playing hooky and hunting in thick, hard-green mountains. Mechanicsburg feels urban, suburban, and rural all at once. There are strip malls and car dealerships. There are trailer parks and farms with beat-to-hell farmhouses. There are nice suburban neighborhoods with McMansions. My high school had a Future Farmers of America chapter and gave us the first day of deer season off. The final week of my senior year, a kid unballed his fist in the parking lot to show me a bag of heroin. Another wore bow ties and ended up at Harvard.

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What do you call a place like that? It was both nice and not-nice. Somewhere and nowhere. Once in college, a professor made a wry joke: Describing a fictional town in a story, he quipped, “It’s the kind of place you see a sign for on the highway, but no one is actually from there.” He paused, racking his brain for an example. “Like Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.”

I tend to think of myself as having a comparatively “rural” identity for a variety of reasons: because Mechanicsburg was more rural when I was growing up. Because both sides of my family are from deeply rural places: Mathias, West Virginia (where 100 percent of the county population is rural), and Huntingdon, Pennsylvania (74 percent rural). Because, since the age of 10, I have spent nearly all my free time hunting or fishing, mostly in unambiguously rural areas that are a short drive from where I live. Because people like that professor tend to view my hometown as a place that is so irrelevant, it barely exists. So when Nemerever looked up data on Mechanicsburg and told me it had a RUCA score of 1 and was considered metropolitan—like Schaller and Waldman’s erroneous library examples—I was genuinely surprised. I’d made the same mistake about my own hometown that Schaller and Waldman had about Jamestown, Michigan.

Scholars who study rural identity say that common misperceptions like this are why defining rural is so important. “Researchers should be highly conscious of what ‘rural’ means when they want to measure relevant social, psychological, and political correlates,” a study of “non-rural rural identifiers” by Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a political-science professor at the University of South Carolina, warns. “Rurality can be a social identity that includes a broad group categorization, even including people who do not currently live in a rural area.”

Schaller and Waldman might have understood these nuances—and not repeatedly misidentified rural areas—if they’d meaningfully consulted members of the rural-studies community. In a portion of their acknowledgments section, the authors thank researchers and journalists in the field who “directed our attention to findings of relevance for our inquiry.” I contacted all 10 of these people, hoping to better understand what kind of input Schaller and Waldman sought from subject-matter experts. One said he was satisfied with the way his work had been acknowledged, and another did not respond to my message. Seven reported only a few cursory email exchanges with the authors about the subject of the book and were surprised to find that they had been thanked at all.

Although it is not unusual for authors to thank people they do not know or corresponded with only briefly, it is quite telling that not a single person I spoke with in rural studies—with the exception of the Wilmington College rural historian Keith Orejel, who said he was disappointed that his feedback did not seem to influence the book—said these men sought out their expertise in a serious way, circulated drafts of the book, or simply ran its controversial argument by them in detail.

The more significant problem with White Rural Rage is its analysis of the threat of political violence. A core claim of the book is that rural Americans are disproportionately likely to support or potentially commit violence that threatens American democracy. “Violent or not, anti-democratic sentiments and behaviors come in many forms and emerge from all over the nation,” Schaller and Waldman claim. “But rural Whites pose a unique threat.” The sections where the authors attempt to defend this assertion, however, contain glaring mistakes.

Schaller and Waldman describe the supposed threat to democracy posed by “constitutional sheriffs”—members of a right-wing sheriffs organization—in rural counties. But the authors offer no proof that these sheriffs are more likely to work in rural places. They cite an article about “rogue sheriffs elected in rural counties” that is not about rural sheriffs. And, in what Nemerever described to me as “an egregious misrepresentation and professional malpractice,” Schaller and Waldman cite two articles about “constitutional sheriffs” that do not contain the words constitutional sheriff. Schaller and Waldman also share an anecdote about the antidemocratic adventures of “the sheriff of rural Johnson County, Kansas” as proof of the organization’s dangerous influence. They neglect to mention that Johnson County is thoroughly metropolitan and a short drive from Kansas City. Per the 2020 census, it is not simply Kansas’s most populous county; it is the least rural county in the entire state and one of the least rural in the entire country. It also flipped to Joe Biden in 2020 after Trump won it in 2016. (Schaller and Waldman acknowledged this mistake in an email to The Atlantic; they said they had looked up the information for Johnson County, Arkansas, which is rural. They said they will correct the error in future editions of the book.)

The authors cite an article titled “The Rise of Political Violence in the United States” to support their claim that the threat of political violence is particularly acute in rural America. However, that article directly contradicts that claim. “Political violence in the United States has been greatest in suburbs where Asian American and Hispanic American immigration has been growing fastest, particularly in heavily Democratic metropoles surrounded by Republican-dominated rural areas,” the author, Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes. “These areas, where white flight from the 1960s is meeting demographic change, are areas of social contestation. They are also politically contested swing districts.” Schaller and Waller claim, too, that “rural residents are more likely to favor violence over democratic deliberation to solve political disputes,” but the article they cite as evidence discusses neither political violence nor democratic deliberation.

This pattern continues when the authors rattle off a list of violent extremists—including the Pizzagate gunman and a pair of men who plotted to capture Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer—implying that these instances are proof of the unique dangers of “rural” people. But these men are not rural. They’re all from metropolitan areas with RUCA scores of 1 or 2, situated in counties that are also metropolitan. Time and time again, Schaller and Waldman warp the evidence to deflect blame away from metro areas, onto rural ones.

Nowhere is this shifting of blame more apparent than in Schaller and Waldman’s assertion that rural Americans “are overrepresented among those with insurrectionist tendencies.” As one review of the book notes, Schaller and Waldman marshal a report by the political scientist Robert Pape as evidence of this claim. But they completely misunderstand the point of Pape’s study. When I contacted Pape to ask whether he thought that his research had been misused, he was unequivocal.

He directed me to the slide in his report cited by Schaller and Waldman to back up their claims. Schaller and Waldman rely on the slide to point out, correctly, that 27 percent of Americans with insurrectionist views are rural and that these views are slightly overrepresented among rural people. However, they ignore what Pape explicitly described, in big bold letters, as the report’s “#1 key finding”: that there are approximately 21 million potential insurrectionists in the United States—people who believe both that the 2020 election was stolen and that restoring Trump to the presidency by force is justified—and they are “mainly urban.” The authors fail to explain why we should be more worried about the 5.67 million hypothetical rural insurrectionists than the 15.33 million who live in urban and suburban areas, have more resources, made up the bulk of January 6 participants, and are the primary danger, according to Pape’s report.

“They are giving the strong impression that our study is supporting their conclusion, when this is false,” Pape told me. He added that this isn’t a matter of subjective interpretation. The political scientist stretched his arms so that his right and left hands were in opposite corners of the Zoom screen: “Here is their argument. Here is their data. And there’s a gulf in between.”

Pape told me that he had been worried about this book from the moment he saw the authors discussing it on Morning Joe and describing what they call “the fourfold, interconnected threat that white rural voters pose to the country.” “This is a tragedy for the country,” Pape said, “because they’re grossly underestimating the threat to our democracy.” He went on to say that “the real tragedy would be if the DHS, the FBI, political leaders took this book seriously,” because law enforcement and government officials would be focusing their limited resources on the wrong areas. Even as Schaller and Waldman accuse the media of not paying enough attention to the antidemocratic dangers of the far right, the authors are the ones who are not taking this threat seriously. By shining a spotlight on a small part of the insurrectionist movement, White Rural Rage risks distracting the public from the bigger dangers.

Arlie Hochschild, a celebrated sociologist and the author of Strangers in Their Own Land and a forthcoming book on Appalachia, struck a plaintive note in an email to me about White Rural Rage: “When I think of those I’ve come to know in Pike County, Kentucky—part of the nation’s whitest and second poorest congressional district—I imagine that many would not see themselves in this portrait.” She added that these Kentuckians would no doubt “feel stereotyped by books that talk of ‘rural white rage,’ by people who otherwise claim to honor ‘diversity.’”

Kathy Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, a key work in the field that is cited by Schaller and Waldman, told me simply: “The question of our time is not who are the bad Americans, but what is wrong with our systems—our government, our economy, our modes of communication—that means that so many people feel unseen, unheard, and disrespected by the people in charge? And what can we do, constructively, about that?” It is a good question. The authors of White Rural Rage might have written a fine book had they taken it seriously.

“The scholars who have criticized us aren’t bothered by our methods; they’re disturbed by our message,” Schaller and Waldman wrote in a statement to The Atlantic. “One of our critics, Kristin Lunz Trujillo, said in response to our book, ‘we need to be careful as scholars to not stereotype or condescend to white rural America in a way that erodes trust and widens divisions.’ Though we would insist in the strongest possible terms that we engage in neither stereotyping nor condescension, we nevertheless find that a revealing comment: Rather than a statement about what the facts are or the scholarship reveals, it’s a declaration of a political and professional agenda.”

Schaller and Waldman also took issue with my criticism of the book on social media and in this article. “Like many of our critics,” they wrote, I “would apparently rather apologize for the revanchist attitudes among many white rural Americans than speak honestly about the serious threats facing our secular, pluralist, constitutional democracy.”

This book will only further erode American confidence in the media and academia at a moment when faith in these institutions is already at an all-time low. And it will likely pour gasoline on rural Americans’ smoldering resentment, a resentment that is in no small part driven by the conviction that liberal elites both misunderstand and despise them. White Rural Rage provides a rather substantial piece of evidence to that score, and shows that rural folks’ suspicions are anything but “fake news.” However, this is only part of the story. And it is not the most important part.

Schaller and Waldman are right: There are real threats to American democracy, and we should be worried about political violence. But by erroneously pinning the blame on white rural Americans, they’ve distracted the public from the real danger. The threat we must contend with today is not white rural rage, but white urban and suburban rage.

Instead of reckoning with the ugly fact that a threat to our democracy is emerging from right-wing extremists in suburban and urban areas, the authors of White Rural Rage contorted studies and called unambiguously metro areas “rural” so that they could tell an all-too-familiar story about scary hillbillies. Perhaps this was easier than confronting the truth: that the call is coming from inside the house. It is not primarily the rural poor, but often successful, white metropolitan men who imperil our republic.

Tyler Austin Harper is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.