A leading sociologist examines the “moral outrage” of rural America.
Wuthnow (Social Sciences/Princeton Univ.; American Misfits and the Making of Middle-Class Respectability, 2017, etc.) draws on more than 1,000 interviews conducted by his research team over the past decade to offer this absorbing, in-depth look at the lives of the 30 million Americans living in small towns with populations under 25,000. Such towns—the “centerpiece” of rural America—must be seen as “moral communities” where people feel “an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being.” Although residents “realize the nation and the culture have moved on,” they “believe that the heart of America still beats in small communities.” Hence their moral outrage: “a mixture of fear and anger. The fear is that small-town ways of life are disappearing. The anger is that they are under siege.” In the 2016 presidential election, rural voters expressed displeasure not over economic issues but rather “a perceived cultural threat that is often ill-defined even though it runs deep.” For them, the federal government is not listening, intrusive, disrespectful, lacks common sense, and represents “an affront to their way of life.” Writing with empathy (Wuthnow attended a small-town grade school), the author reflects on the factors shaping rural life—from the importance of faith to the stability and familiarity of life in town to the importance of ritual events (barn dances, etc.), stories, and symbols—as well as pressing problems (brain drain, teen pregnancy, drugs, lack of good jobs) and concerns over moral decline (abortion and homosexuality). Wuthnow finds nuances: the isolation-ending benefits of the internet, Walmart, and 24/7 cable news have made rural residents more aware that the world “was changing and leaving them behind.” His interviews are consistently revealing: a 1960s Berkeley student told him, “I believe we have by and large substituted television for the church.”
A superb, authoritative sociology book.