Religion & Liberty Online

Overlooking Rural America

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

An attempt to understand “overlooked” Americans reveals more about the observer than the observed.

Read More…

With magnifying glass in hand, a budding naturalist can learn a great deal about ants scuttling around the driveway. Were the ants to glance upward, however, they might learn even more about the eager eyes—blown up from the ant’s perspective to enormous proportions—looking down at them.

In The Overlooked Americans: The Resilience of Our Rural Towns and What It Means for Our Country, social scientist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett—a member of our country’s coastal, meritocratic elite (her words, not mine)—raises a magnifying glass over middle America and looks for signs of economic optimism and cultural hope among “ordinary Americans.” Unfortunately, the book too often reveals more about the observer than the observed.

Published in June, The Overlooked Americans is one of the most recent entries in a field I think of as “American Carnage Studies.” This subgenre of popular social science seeks to diagnose the social pathologies that propelled Donald Trump into the White House and to explain the resiliency of his popularity among voters in the vast middle of the country. Building on the work of Charles Murray and others, J.D. Vance arguably launched American Carnage Studies in June 2016 with his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which painted a grim portrait of a deindustrialized and drug-addicted Appalachia.

If there’s one book that Currid-Halkett seems to have in her crosshairs, it’s Vance’s. Throughout The Overlooked Americans, she regularly insists that the dominant narratives of “rural America” are wrong, by which she seems to mean the dark picture presented by Hillbilly Elegy and its successors in American Carnage Studies. “What is clear to me when I look at rural America is that, as a whole, it is doing fairly well on almost all indicators,” she writes.

Understanding Currid-Halkett’s critique of Vance is helpful for getting a handle on the book. She has two main points. The first is that Vance—who minces no words about the moral poverty he witnessed during a difficult upbringing—lacks “true empathy” for the people he writes about and is “unappreciative” of the “larger social forces” keeping Appalachians down. It’s a strange critique that becomes more pointed when Currid-Halkett later diagnoses “the biggest issue plaguing America today” as a lack of empathy—specifically, it’s America’s “experts and meritocrats” who lack empathy for the “desires and fears” of rural Americans. Throughout The Overlooked Americans, Currid-Halkett makes clear that her understanding of “empathy” demands that she write about her subjects with a great deal of sentimentality (often degrading into what I can only describe as “gush”) and without moral judgment as she seeks, and sometimes strains, to respect “their voices and their truths.”

Her second point is that Vance and his readers project the struggles and dysfunction of one rural region of the country onto the rest of middle America. Currid-Halkett’s stated goal with The Overlooked Americans is to “create what I believe is a complex but more accurate portrayal of rural Americans, particularly how they are and are not so different from urban folks.” She seems to believe that a false impression has taken hold in the national imagination—in part thanks to Vance and others like him—of a rural American wasteland defined by abandoned factories, opioid pill mills, deaths of despair, and angry, bigoted Trump supporters.

“There are poor rural places. That is a fact,” she writes. “But it is not the only story—not by a long shot.” The “overlooked Americans” of The Overlooked Americans are not so much rural Americans in general but the rural Americans who are doing well.

The case Currid-Halkett makes for rural America’s economic resiliency is unfortunately vague, surprisingly short, and ultimately unsatisfying. She devotes just one chapter (“You’d Be Surprised How Well We Are Doing”) out of eight for a concentrated discussion on how “rural America” is and is not keeping up with the 21st-century economy. Her conclusion? “Rural America has problems … [but] it also has a lot more prosperity and greater economic and social contentment than the headlines might imply. People in America are suffering, but not everyone is.” Admittedly, this argument is hard to dispute. But then again, it’s not really saying anything, is it?

Part of the problem is how vague the term “rural America” is. Currid-Halkett admits as much and writes eloquently on the continued importance of regional identity. Though both might be lumped into the broad category of “rural Americans,” Midwesterners have much better economic prospects than do Southerners, for instance. After making the regional distinctions, however, Currid-Halkett continues to use terms like “rural Americans,” “middle America,” and “ordinary Americans” interchangeably, and expresses surprise—or treats as revelatory—every time a “rural American” does not conform to the stereotype of an angry, bigoted, and disaffected Trump supporter. The diversity of “rural” American life and opinion could only be this surprising to someone who hasn’t spent much time there.

Here, I think, is the fundamental problem of the book. When she began working on The Overlooked Americans, in early 2020, Currid-Halkett was ready to pack up her family and embark on an epic road trip across the country. Along the way, she planned on conducting interviews ‘to understand this country and meet its people.”

But then came COVID-19, and the road trip and the book were put on hold. Months passed. Eventually, as a replacement for her road trip, she started interviewing people over the phone. Those people would recommend others, and those others recommended more people, and so on. “Over the coming months,” she writes, “I spent hundreds of hours interviewing dozens of Americans in places with populations from a few hundred to a few thousand.” The book, then, became accounts of some of these conversations framed by data and the work of other social scientists.

The final product has what I can only describe as an oddly “disembodied” quality. In the accounts of her conversations, Currid-Halkett sometimes imagines what her interlocuters are doing on the other side of the phone, drawing attention to the fact that a book about the people of America’s fruited plain and purple mountain majesties is being reported and written from a home office somewhere in Los Angeles. As previously noted, Currid-Halkett stresses the importance of empathy—specifically, empathy expressed by “elites” for “ordinary Americans”—and she tacitly offers herself as an example for her fellow elites in how to do this, self-consciously (even performatively) conducting her interviews and research as empathetically as she seemingly can.

Currid-Halkett reports her findings and the process of her research as a kind of first-person detective story that includes meticulous accounts of the twists and turns of her own conscience. She inserts so much of herself into this narrative, in fact, that The Overlooked Americans would better be described as a memoir with elements of social science, rather than the reverse. For example, when an interview subject says something the author finds moving, she unexpectedly notes that the comments “bring tears to my eyes.” Another interview subject, Jason, a white and politically conservative Mormon who is fed up with American racial discourse, tells a cringe-inducing story of a white liberal professor from California who thinks it’s “really neat” that Jason’s best friend in childhood was black.

Here, Currid-Halkett interjects: “I feel embarrassment for my fellow academic. I can see the Saturday Night Live skit of the naïve progressive, well-meaning but also painfully out of touch.” In her own work on rural America, Currid-Halkett is obviously worried about striking the same cringey tone as “her fellow academic.” Tragically, though, Currid-Halkett can’t seem to get out of her own way. The personal interjections do not stop.

A discussion of the opioid crisis makes room for an anecdote about Currid-Halkett’s experiences with pain relievers after childbirth. In a chapter on “The Meritocracy Bias,” Currid-Halkett’s conversations with middle Americans about higher education are contrasted with Currid-Halkett’s own academic accomplishment and the higher education plans she has for her children. When the book turns to religion, the reader learns that Currid-Halkett, whose Irish-immigrant parents raised her in the Catholic faith, is “fairly skeptical of the religious structure upholding faith in a higher being” and feels strongly that “if there is a God, he/she/it is not Jewish or Catholic or Muslim or any other sect.”

And so on.

In each case (and many more like them), the author offers herself as representative of, again, America’s coastal meritocratic elite, which she contrasts with the values and mores of “rural Americans.” Her presence in the story becomes overbearing, even claustrophobic. I found myself dreading the approach of each cluster of personal pronouns relating yet more unwanted information about the author.

But then—partway through a digression in which Currid-Halkett weighs the risks, in June 2021, of interviewing a subject face-to-face based on local vaccination rates in rural Kentucky—I had an epiphany, which gave new life to my experience of reading the book. I realized that these regular acts of self-assertion, while providing little insight into the lives of “overlooked Americans,” might say something sociologically significant about the overlooking Americans. Perhaps this book is not a portrait of middle America but rather of exactly one coastal American. Armed with this promising interpretive theory, I read on and, from this perspective, I became confident—and am still confident—that The Overlooked Americans will prove an invaluable work for future historians and social scientists seeking to understand American life in the early 2020s.

For instance, of all the potentially fraught topics of conversations covered by the book—including race, wealth, religion, and drugs—it is traditional Christian views of human sexuality that most strain Currid-Halkett’s substantial reserves of empathy. Speaking with a religious Wisconsinite, Currid-Halkett is shocked to discover that the woman believes “homosexuality is a sin and is fighting against God.” The woman goes on to define homosexuality as “I want what I want, and I want it right now.” She continues: “I worry about gay people because I think they’re doomed. I think they’re going to be hurt, and I don’t want them to be hurt, but I see it as a way to die early, to not live to your full potential.”

In response to this 73-year-old woman’s view of marriage, Currid-Halkett pauses the narrative to tell us, “This was a very hard conversation, and the most extreme response I heard through the course of my many interviews … it was very hard to keep talking to her after that. I was really angry. But this is where it gets tough. As a researcher, it was not my place to challenge her views. I was there to listen. How could she be honest with me if she felt my judgement? This is not a part of my experience as an interviewer that I have been able to resolve.”

At this point, I wanted to pick up the phone, call Currid-Halkett’s office, and thank her for her bravery in talking to a woman born in the 1940s about her bigoted and dangerous ideas about human sexuality. But I did not. It is a part of my experience as a reviewer that I have not been able to resolve.

Occasionally, The Overlooked Americans dips into outright self-parody. In a chapter titled “Cognitive Dissonance,” Currid-Halkett includes an extended discussion of Edward Said’s “groundbreaking and controversial book” Orientalism to assist her in grappling with the concept of “otherness.” “As I try to understand how society makes sense of and resolves differences across cultures, I need some help,” she concludes before consulting a colleague in the University of Southern California’s anthropology department. This is all done to understand Midwesterners.

The author’s habit of framing the narrative’s revelations as personal revelations (with clauses like “What is clear to me when I look at rural America…” or “From the statistics I have seen…”) has the unfortunate effect of undermining her credibility as an informed interpreter of American life. For instance, she is surprised to discover that the South is racially diverse (“despite its reputation for being more culturally and racially intolerant”) and that New England (“a progressive stronghold”) is “extremely racially homogenous.” How can this be news to a professor of public policy at an elite university? Has she never been to Boston?

She makes an equally bizarre “discovery” about the Midwest. In discussing the Midwest’s economy, she reports that she “solved the mystery of why the Midwest is home to some of America’s most prosperous rural folks.” It seems that she “had always been under the impression that the Midwest was struggling because agriculture had gone by the wayside,” she writes. “On the contrary, not only is the Midwest doing well, but agriculture is still a crucial component to the region’s economy.” She continues: “In 1990, American agriculture was dominated by the Coastal West and South, but by 2020 the Midwest had emerged as a major center of agricultural productivity.”

Accepting relative changes in agricultural productivity between the country’s different regions over the past 30 years, it is unclear what statistics led the author to believe that the Midwest only “emerged” as “a major center of agricultural productivity” between the presidencies of Bush Sr. and Trump. Further, there’s rather a lot to say about changes in agriculture over the past few decades—the consolidation of “Big Ag,” the distorting effect of government subsidies, the slow death of the family farm—that the bottom line of “growth” obscures, but that Currid-Halkett never touches. These are strange omissions in a book ostensibly about rural life.

Interpretive quirks aside, Currid-Halkett’s extensive research, and her synthesis of that research, for The Overlooked Americans is impressive. I hope more authors will follow her cue and comb the country for what’s going right rather than focusing relentlessly on everything that is going wrong. Unfortunately, though, The Overlooked Americans never shakes that “disembodied” quality I mentioned. How much can you learn about “rural America” through statistical studies and phone conversations with a random sample of several dozen people? To give a full account of overlooked Americans, I think it would help to go look at them.

Caleb Whitmer

Caleb Whitmer is a program manager at the Acton Institute.