Country Music and the Volk
Do Ernest Gellner's theories of nationalism explain the rural consciousness movement?
Given the political climate I want to make a pitch to urbanite, city-dwelling liberals to have more empathy for rural America in the hopes that we can reestablish some dialogue and civility. Everyone knows I hate the president. That’s old news. But I do love this country, and I hate the president because of what he does to it. The only answer, that I can see, is to talk to his supporters and figure out why they stand by his destructive tendencies.
The answer really does lie in country music.
For those who don’t listen to country music, it’s essentially just pop music with twangy lyrics about campfires, trucks and other symbols of small-town life. It tends to be exuberant. It also doesn’t really describe small-town, country life at all. The day-to-day drudgery in rural America no longer centers around the holistic sense of naturalism they portray. For decades now, small-town life has revolved around strip malls and retail shops that employ more people than they have customers. Local businesses have shuttered in favor of chains and, in the villages, nature has largely been eviscerated in favor of pseudo-urban sprawl. What I see driving through small town America bears little-to-no-resemblance to what I hear on country stations.
The Political theorist Ernest Gellner had this idea that the concept of a volk - essentially, the popular image of a nation, or, if you prefer, a “culture” - does not accurately represent the people who indulge it, but rather harkens to an antiquated time by which modern people identify their values. Think of it this way - when people listen to “folk” music they think of themselves as listening to the music of their people. In reality, they’re listening to modern imitations of traditions that are no longer active.
That’s country music. Decades of change, driven by globalization, have caused widespread shifts in labor. The long-standing industries of small-town life, the factory and the farm, have shuttered. Youth, facing a dearth of opportunities, have fled to cities, and adults, worried for their children’s futures, have conglomerated in suburbs. Essentially, the small towns have gotten smaller, the big cities have gotten bigger. The result is that the traditional way of life in small-town America has completely vanished, and the remaining population in these towns is so small and dispersed that they’ve become completely isolated from each other.
The Wall Street Journal fanned the flames of class conflict recently when they ran an article claiming that rent in New York City had fallen, in which they wrote that New Yorkers would no longer have anything to complain about at their “cocktail parties” - the right-wing in America, which has increasingly become a rural phenomenon, sees liberalism - increasingly, an urban phenomenon - as a form of class-based elitism in which the urbanites make demands of the countryside without giving anything in return. That lends itself to all manner of extremism.
Take climate change. Right-wing extremism is basically the logical conclusion of the conservative stance. If you’re living in “small-town America,” you’re naturally going to oppose preventative measures for climate change, because those preventative measures are going to force you to change your way of life. They’re going to cause shifts in labor and new regulations that you probably can’t meet. You’re also not going to see any immediate benefits, or even long-term ones. The people who have the resources to adapt to these new regulations live in cities. They’re also the ones facing the greatest threats from climate change. So, if you’re in a rural area you’re naturally going to view climate change regulations as “bad.”
But, if you take a look at the facts, it’s pretty much an objectively good thing to take care of the planet and protect our resources. So, logically, if you’re opposed to those regulations, you have to create a reason why. It makes sense that you would say the climate data is fake. Of course, it’s basically the consensus of the scientific community, so you have to explain why they’re all faking the data. It follows, then, that they’re faking the data because they have some ulterior motive. What you wind up with is a belief that powerful groups of people are engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the country in favor of others. There’s almost no other conclusion you can come to if you start from the standpoint of “I don’t want climate change regulations.”
It’s really easy for even more extremist groups to co-opt that kind of stance, because the archetype of a “globalist” fits so neatly with the long-standing antisemitic archetype of “the Jew.” The rest of the bigotry inherent in that point of view also follows, because you see changes in values, norms and demographics as part of the same process of a “globalist agenda.” People in rural areas hold overwhelmingly more negative views of immigrants, legal and otherwise, than those in urban areas, despite meeting far fewer of them. Because they see liberals as redistributing resources to cities, they imagine the liberals redistributing away from them - their countrymen - in favor of others - foreigners.
And so what you have is that perfectly good and intelligent people can become extremists simply by accident of where they live. Again, if you live in a rural area, and you’ve seen how rural life has been deconstructed for several decades, you’re naturally going to oppose progressive legislation because it’s against your personal interests and well-being. One assumption follows from the other - a path dependency, if you will - and these good and intelligent people are espousing extremist views.
Counteracting this phenomenon means we have to make a dialogue. It means that conversations can’t start in a confrontational tone. Many on the left will talk about how immoral and paternalistic it is to dictate terms of speech to the underprivileged, and I agree. This isn’t about morals, it’s about achieving the results everybody wants. It’s also important to remember than people in rural areas tend to get screwed as far as resource distribution goes. It’s one reason why they get so furious about notions of “privilege,” because you’re essentially telling them that they’re failing even though everything is stacked in their favor, and from their point of view, things aren’t.
The thing is that any movement fighting against a power structure is going to target vulnerable people, because those are the only ones you even can target. Shouting “white privilege!” at a wealthy suburban WASP won’t change the power disparity at all. So vulnerable groups of people tend to get thrown under the bus by competing identity movements - feminist groups often exclude and even perpetuate systemic abuse against people of color. Racial equality movements tend to pick out the whites that have the least protections, like women, Jews or the disabled. None of that is the fault of the movements in and of themselves, it’s just sort of a matter of physics. And so there’s a lot of aggression against the “hicks” and “rednecks” which, given the way rural America treats minorities, isn’t really misplaced at all.
But “hick” or “redneck” culture aren’t really rural culture at all. They’re imitations of a rural culture that no longer exists, bound up by a resentment against perceived forces working against it.
So, if we want to see results, the urbanites have to show those so-called “redneck hicks” that they mean them no harm. Otherwise, small-town America simply won’t listen.
If we can’t break bread with them, they’ll just break bread with the Nazis.