JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 9, 2011
The other day, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called up Ezra Klein to protest Klein's opposition to agriculture payments and other rural subsidies. The interview is a remarkably revealing. I knew the case for rural subsidies was weak, but I had no idea it was this weak. He argues for food subsidies because the U.S. needs to be self-sufficient in food, which is silly. (Who exactly is going to blockade our ports and starve us into wartime submission?)
He boasts that "One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America," which manages to be both extremely vague and highly unimpressive, given that in the previous sentence he noted that 16% of Americans -- two in twelve -- live in rural areas.
He argues that 90% of "persistent poverty counties" are rural, and when Klein points out that this doesn't mean 90% of poor people live in rural counties, Vilsack replies, "In terms of abject poverty and significant poverty, there’s a lot of it in rural America."
Oh, a lot of it. Well, that's a great statistic right there.
Vilsack's most persistent rhetorical move is to insist upon the moral superiority of rural people:
Those folks are good people, they populate rural communities and support good schools and serve important functions. ...
these are good, hardworking people who feel underappreciated. ...
There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important.
Vilsack, when pressed, cites the higher level of military service in rural areas, which (as Klein notes) is a good argument for paying more money to people who enlist, but a bad argument for paying money to people who live near people who enlist. But the more interesting fact is Vilsack's ability to sustain the trope at all.
Declaring the moral superiority of rural people is a common trope of American politics. Some city dwellers think of themselves as superior to everybody else, but they understand they can't say so openly. Suburbanites don't tend to think of themselves as morally superior by dint of their suburbanity. Only rural Americans are deemed morally superior on the basis of their population density.
Why is it so common to praise the character of rural America? Part of it is doubtless that rural life represents the past, and we think of the past as a simpler and more honest time. But surely another element is simply that rural America is overwhelmingly white and Protestant. And completely aside from the policy ramifications, the deep-seated veneration of rural America reflects, at bottom, a prejudice few would be willing to openly spell out.