The Rage – and Resilience – of The Left Behind

The intense anger felt by many inhabitants of rural America became palpable to outsiders during the 2016 presidential election. But the values and anxieties fueling that anger had been prominent in rural life for decades. In The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, sociologist Robert Wuthnow provides an unusually nuanced look at rural America’s people and communities, examining the sources not just of their rage, but of their resilience.

Wuthnow probes the stereotypes that urban and suburban Americans hold about rural people to reveal a more nuanced and complex population than his readers might expect.  The statistics showing rural communities’ decline don’t reflect that many rural populations are holding steady or even thriving, or that those populations are much more diverse and varied than many commentators realize. Rural people don’t all think or vote the same way. Yet many feel a deep fear that their communities are changing in ways they cannot control and do not benefit from.

As they have done for a hundred years or more, these communities look inward for resilience and solutions. Some changes they accept; some, they even welcome. But some they cannot stomach, responding with the deep rage that stunned much of the rest of the country in 2016.

Interrogating the now-common insight that rural residents vote “against their self-interest” (popularized in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?), Wuthnow shows that at the heart of rural Americans’ value system is their town, or what he calls their moral community. This community is held together by the values it shares, from greeting neighbors on the street to prizing independence – values that may seem incompatible to those who don’t understand their complexities. For example, the moral obligation to take care of one’s neighbors may seem to an outsider to conflict with the value of self-sufficiency or independence. But in fact, taking care of neighbors means that the town needs not look outward for help – therefore upholding, as a community, the value of independence.

The moral community is often tied together, at least in part, by a shared commitment to religion. While outsiders may scoff at this commitment, Wuthnow shows how necessary it is to sustain hope and faith when rural livelihoods are so often determined by forces outside their control, whether they be weather events, price controls, or factory closings. To so-called “values voters,” conservative politicians’ focus on social or cultural issues is not a trick or a distraction from economic issues. It is, rather, a reflection of what is important to the community.

Wuthnow’s subtitle, and the ideas with which many of his readers will approach the book, are about “decline and rage” in rural American communities. But The Left Behind is also a testament to the evolution and resilience of these communities. Wuthnow’s patient insights offer much to the urban or suburban reader, for whom understanding, rather than demonizing, rural communities is key. As Wuthnow points out, “Rural people… participate in the same society that all of us do—the one we all hope can work for our collective well-being.”