For a long time in the US, liberals have questioned why rural Americans so often vote against their own self-interest. The question that needs to be asked, however, is who actually represents rural interests? Conservatives and their neoliberal economic policies have long exploited rural America, while liberals sit back in a “told you so” manner as if to say, “If you’d voted for us, things would be better.” Are the Democrats’ policies really in the interest of rural America? Or is it more likely that rural Americans vote against their own interests because there is nobody to vote for who has their interests at heart?
In The Southern Question, Antonio Gramsci noted that the rural peasants of his time were under attack not only from capitalism, but also from urban socialist intellectuals, who painted rural citizens as ignorant and simple. Even Marx praised capitalism by claiming it saved the population from the “idiocy of rural life.” This idea of rural being inferior and peripheral to urban shared by neoliberals and some progressives has marginalized rural citizens and left them both open and powerless to the forces of neoliberalism and globalization. External forces have long used rural areas as both a site for resource and labor exploitation while ingraining in rural citizens the ideology that they are inferior and should be looking to the enlightened urban populace to save them from themselves. The actual consequences however, have been a removal of the most highly educated rural citizens, and left behind is a de-skilled immobile workforce subject to the whims of whatever large corporation has decided to set up shop in the community.
The consequences of neoliberalism are clear. Large corporations move in to rural areas to take advantage of low wages, and a migrant and non-unionized workforce. Conservatives champion this approach by claiming it creates jobs and stimulates the economy in areas that would otherwise have nothing. Meanwhile, liberals criticize the exploited rural population and demean them as being uneducated and backwards. The effects of education are proving to be just as damaging though, as schools have fallen under the same neoliberal ideology that is affecting the economy. Students are not being educated in a manner relevant to rural values and community, but instead are being prepared for work in the global economy. Modernization is the new mantra for rural schools with the emphasis on consolidation and technology. New computers or tablets may connect isolated communities, but that does not equate to a better education. Especially when the education is pulling students from their communities to go compete in a global workforce.
It is important to note that rural resistance to neoliberalism is not nostalgia for a simpler time, nor is it the advocating of provincializing rural communities and trapping citizens in the place they were born. Instead, we are suggesting a new rural identity, an identity that values place and local knowledge while also opening students to global knowledge. In the current system, rural Americans are left to choose between a party that exploits their labor and communities, or a party that calls them stupid and wants to save them from their “ignorance.” The future of rural America is a democratic education that can create a new rural identity that recognizes the need to understand global issues, while still valuing local knowledge. As Paul Theobald, rural educator and author of Teaching the Commons wrote, “We know now how community eroded over time, and we know all too well how badly its restoration is needed. Unencumbered by the destructive ignorance set in motion during the industrial century, rural schools can begin the process of renewing their communities.” This process will not be found in the ongoing liberal vs. conservative debate, but in the creation of a new, democratic education.