Much has been made about the urban-rural divide contributing to social, economic and political polarization. It appears to me that libertarian ideologues helped create the public image of the divide, and have effectively used it to manipulate public opinion and voting patterns. Popularized in the media and books, urban America is characterized as the home of liberal coastal elites. Rural America, the heartland, is the home of conservative heartlanders. Urban America is said to be out of touch with heartlanders and their deeply rooted values that are the foundation of the real America. Examining how that came about might point to constructive moves toward political, social and economic reconciliation. I’ve looked over some of the work devoted to it from the perspective of one who lives in a small city of the rural West, and offer these observations.
The heartland’s location remains a metaphorical mystery never to be solved. It certainly exists in places far removed from commuting distance to large metropolitan areas, but it also exists in the imaginations of people, no matter where they live, who identify with the values and beliefs associated with it. Heartlanders have a sense of ownership in them, fairly certain they define the hearts of true Americans, and are suspicious that non-heartlanders do not, and probably cannot, appreciate them. Conservative in their defense of their core values and beliefs, they are otherwise innovative risk takers willing to try new things.
Libertarian ideologues have done an admirable job of convincing life long conservative heartlanders that libertarian ideology is what true conservatism has always been about. They’ve played expertly on the myth of western individualism embodied in heartland conservatism to equate it with libertarian ideology. Heartlanders are not inherently comfortable with ideologies. They’ve generally found a place of comfort in the way things are in the context of the communities in which they live. They’re reluctant to see rapid changes in them, and are fond of remembering the best of former times. For classical conservatives, it’s government’s job to establish and maintain those conditions, and they trust it to perform.
Libertarians, on the other hand, view all rights and privileges as individually possessed and surrendered only under duress to permit minimal government to organize community in minimal ways. For them, government is, in Reagan’s words, never the solution, always the problem. Libertarian ideology has proven to be an ideal vehicle for white supremacy and isolationist nationalism that reserves rights and liberties for some while excluding them from others. For the last century or more, libertarian ideologues have generated public fear that socialism can lead only to dictatorial communism, and anything not libertarian is socialism. Oddly, libertarians are content making common cause with autocratic plutocrats, many of whom are generous underwriters of the cause. They’re like seals making common cause with orcas, never recognizing the one with whom they’re allied is their predator. But I digress.
The onset of today’s version of libertarianism gained public visibility with the momentary popularity of the John Birch Society and the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Sown seed may not have germinated, but it didn’t go away. Reagan’s presidency, spanning the 1980s, provided the ground and fertilizer for it to take root as an authentic expression of Republican conservatism. Obama’s term during the first decade of the 21st century, and the long recovery from the Great Recession, was all it needed to redefine conservatism in its own image. Along the way, it captured the mantle of standing for hard working heartland people, wherever they live, as the guardian and advocate of core heartland values and beliefs that are alien to coastal elites.
What are they, these heartland values and beliefs? Listening to talk about them, they’re relatively few and deeply held, if not lived into. They have little to do with politics, and much to do with family and community. With a few exceptions, I think they’re broadly shared by urbanites and coastal elites too, the very people they’ve been led to believe are alien. In other words, there is common ground on which to combat libertarian ideologue manipulation. Consider the following:
• Lasting and passionate love that can endure hard times, and deep unconsolable heartbreak when it fails. It’s about love won and lost that goes to the core of being itself.
• A love of home and family, especially elders, that gives rootedness and meaning to existence that can be found nowhere else.
• A real man, or woman, is self sufficient, but can rely on family and friends to be there for them.
• Everlasting absolute truth is found in simple, down home, unpretentious Protestant religion.
• Real value in life is found in hard work on the farm or in the factory.
There are more, of course, but these exemplify them. The point is, they are revered in the mythology of real independent minded heartlanders. Progressives have generally failed to recognize or honor them for the worthiness they deserve, even though they share much the same.
That failure left it open for right wing libertarian operatives to use them as fodder for skillfully employed propaganda. Using every trope rural America has to offer has been one of their most successful weapons. It produced tea party successes in Congress, emboldened McConnell to reformat the federal government in favor of autocratic plutocracy, and gave us Trump.
It’s not too late. Progressives and liberals can and must construct their political messaging to honor heartlanders through more honest appeals to their values and beliefs. The menu is right there to be read.