About the Book by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett Titled “The Overlooked Americans”

From a Wall Street Journal books column by Barton Swaim headlined “‘The Overlooked Americans’ Review: All That Red in the Middle”:

“If you look at the map of the United States, there’s all that red in the middle where Trump won. I win the coast, I win, you know, Illinois and Minnesota, places like that. I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.”

So remarked Hillary Clinton in 2018. What she meant is that she won the cities; her words nicely summarize the metropolitan progressive’s view of rural Americans: dumb, lazy, backward-looking, mostly white, always bellyaching. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett challenges that stereotype in “The Overlooked Americans: The Resilience of Our Rural Towns and What It Means for Our Country.”

Ms. Currid-Halkett, a professor of urban planning and public policy at the University of Southern California, rejects the belief—conventional wisdom in the news media—that Donald Trump won the presidency because rural voters resented demographic change (i.e., were racists) and couldn’t adapt to economic globalization. That Ms. Currid-Halkett is herself a progressive gives the book a prima facie appeal. She says—I’m tempted to write “admits”—she reads the New York Times opinion page every day. Around the time the Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell decision defining same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, her children “all wore T-shirts with the word ‘Love’ written in rainbow.” When Mrs. Clinton lost the election in 2016, Ms. Currid-Halkett cried.

After the ’16 election, Ms. Currid-Halkett intended to drive across the country and survey the people of rural America. The pandemic shutdowns intervened, so instead she conducted phone interviews with ordinary people from small towns and rural counties all over the country. The lengthy and repeated conversations afforded her time to get to know her interlocutors, which she would not have been able to do in a single chat at the local diner or the Elks Lodge. Still, if she had taken that planned trip and seen the sad state into which many of our small towns have fallen, I wonder if she would have been so sanguine about their “resilience,” as her subtitle has it.

She is right, though, that rural Americans are more racially diverse, more productive and more broad-minded than the press and Hollywood would have us believe. “While rural folks do vote for Republicans many times over Democratic candidates,” Ms. Currid-Halkett writes, “it is not because they are economically distressed, jobless, or particularly vulnerable to feeling left behind. Overall, the data suggests the opposite.” Rural America, moreover—she supports this claim by an array of statistics—compares favorably with big-city life in several important categories: home-ownership, employment, income equality, median income.

But the book’s central concern isn’t statistical but political. She means to show that rural Americans are not the malign, gullible nitwits her fellow coastal elites assume them to be. On the evidence of “The Overlooked Americans,” Ms. Currid-Halkett is a kind person who genuinely believes that people with sharply opposing political views can understand each other if they try.

One of her interviewees, a warm-hearted lady named Shannon from Manchester, Ky., is easy for her to like. They talk for hours on the phone and send each other encouraging emails. But there are problems. Shannon believes Mr. Trump won the 2020 election. She will not be vaccinated for Covid-19, occasioning angst and frustration in her newfound academic friend. Worst of all: Shannon, though she has gay friends, opposes same-sex marriage (“I am completely against it”).

Following Ms. Currid-Halkett’s reflections as she tries to reconcile the “two versions of Shannon”—one selfless, the other retrograde—is by turns touching, frustrating and amusing. “I often sit in silence trying to find the through line in her contradictions,” she writes. “I feel removed from Shannon’s cultural universe and at times deeply disconcerted by her views, and yet I am completely connected to her as a human being.”

How to solve this mystery? We are treated to an explanation of Edward Said’s book “Orientalism,” on the “othering” of unfamiliar people, and to a variety of social-science articles on stereotyping. Ms. Currid-Halkett, to her credit, doesn’t express her own left-wing beliefs to the people she interviews. Did Shannon experience comparable grief at the knowledge of her friend’s progressive beliefs? I doubt it.

The cognitive dissonance Ms. Currid-Halkett’s experiences in thinking about Shannon might be partially resolved if the author were able to get a critical distance from her own opinions. People like Shannon might more readily have accepted the outcome of the 2020 election, for instance, if big-city officials hadn’t changed the rules, citing “public health,” in the middle of the contest. Maybe the Shannons of the world rejected the vaccine because, by the time it was made availablein 2021, public-health authorities had been stupendously wrong about virtually everything they had said and done since April 2020. As for same-sex marriage, I assume Shannon isn’t for it for the same reason Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton weren’t for it not so long ago—namely because the idea had barely been contemplated in 10,000 years of human history. Maybe consider the possibility that Shannon has a point.

In another chapter, Ms. Currid-Halkett offers a roundabout defense of rural Americans’ religiosity by noting that putatively pro-science secularists have often perpetrated quackery and nonsense. “For secular America to disdain religious America is to ignore our own mythos and evidence-free beliefs,” she writes. That’s true, but somehow all the evidence-free beliefs she names—eugenics, Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”—fall conveniently far from the author’s own New York Times-endorsed consensus progressivism.

Ms. Currid-Halkett writes perceptively about rural Americans’ blissful freedom from meritocratic aspirations, and her desire to correct urban elites’ misperceptions of small-town life is heartfelt. In the end, though, her thesis amounts to a platitude—that rural Americans are swell. Of course they are. The only people who think otherwise embrace an outlook Ms. Currid-Halkett can’t bring herself to challenge.

Barton Swaim is an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal.

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