The most influential media in the rural heartland revealed

There’s a particularly interesting revelation in Katherine Cramer’s analysis of the politics of rural Wisconsin, which appears today on the Vox website.

Cramer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has been traveling to specific towns in rural Wisconsin for about 10 years and she says the results of last week’s election was about respect — or the lack of it — for rural areas more than anything else.

That wasn’t the revelation; this was: Where did people get their news?

It’s worth noticing that Trump’s appeal to these folks is not about facts or particular policies. It is instead the act of delivering a message that resoundingly resonates with the perspective of someone identifying proudly as a resident of a type of place that the dominant urban society does not care about or respect.

I think it is also important to notice that the willingness to blame minority groups or even the mass media was not obviously the result of drinking up Fox News — or involvement with alt-right groups. When I asked people where they got their news, the most common response was “each other.”

Some people did pay attention to Fox News, but such people were more rare than the prevalent stereotype of rural Republicans suggests. I never heard anyone talk about involvement with the KKK or other hate groups. That is obviously information that people might have chosen to conceal from me, but its complete absence from our conversations also runs against the grain of stereotypes of Trump voters.

This resentful perspective was not something handed to people during this presidential campaign. The people I interviewed have been telling these stories to each other for years, if not decades, and the resentment has been simmering.

Cramer says the last thing many people want to do now is listen to Trump supporters in the rural heartland. That, she notes, would be a mistake.

Related: The Reality of Rural Resentment (City Lab)

  • Jerry

    ‘When I asked people where they got their news, the most common response was “each other.”‘

    But I thought it was liberals who were living in a bubble.

  • wjc

    This is fascinating.

    1) Do rural residents want respect? Or is there also a policy agenda?
    2) What do rural residents expect from a Trump Administration that will be to their benefit? Or is “Make America Great Again” enough?

    • Mecum

      I don’t think they want respect as much as they want Government to either stay out of their lives or at least don’t do things that actually cause harm. What they expect from Trump is just that, let’s get real about the things that the elites are telling them “are for their own good”, i.e. ACA, Nafta, EPA, etc and evaluate the impact that these things are having on the lives of people.

      • wjc

        Well, I guess we’ll see if Trump does anything about those things, or if they were just empty campaign promises.

      • wjc

        And good luck to them if government gets out of their lives when the hospitals close and the roads don’t get repaired, etc.

        How do they think their county governments pay for anything when some counties have populations of under 10,000 and therefore no tax base?

        To a fairly sizable extent, government is the only thing that keeps rural life viable.

        • CHS

          And we better hope that government continues to keep rural life viable, or we’ll all screwed.

          These people aren’t dumb, they know government pays for their infrastructure, and know full well that the money isn’t all local. They also feel much more acutely the effects of government when things go poorly.

          • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the biggest employer in rural areas is often the school systems, which, of course, is government.

          • Mike Worcester

            For the most part it generally is a school system. Also right up there on the employer list is nursing homes/care facilities. While the vast majority of those are not government agencies, they depend heavily on government payments (ex – Medicaid) for revenue.


          • Khatti

            The other thing is that school systems have been consolidated. Not too far from me are places that have one high-school were they used to have three.

          • CHS

            I think it’s very safe to say that in a lot of rural areas the school is the largest traditional employer, unless there is some sort of healthcare facility around. The real question is, what is the largest source of employment in general for rural areas, and that has shifted to ‘self employed’ and small business. At least in my little corner of rural MN, businesses with less than 5 employees made up ~52% of the market, and that isn’t including self employed.

          • rallysocks

            For us, it used to be several different companies (of which only 1 is still here) then it was the school and then hospital. Now our healthcare system is the largest employer.

            Our school’s referendum just got voted down so we will see what happens there. We are a consolidated school, as are many out here. We all know that once the school goes, there goes the town.

            Thank our lucky stars we have the healthcare system that we do!

          • Mecum

            That was only after the big factories all left town. And actually that’s not true either. Centrally run school districts have consolidated schools and many small towns no longer have their own schools. More often the hospital is often the largest employer in town.

          • Mecum

            Government pays for nothing. They pay for government with their taxes. Exactly what you don’t seem to get.

          • CHS

            You obviously either didn’t read anything else I have posted or misread what I was trying to say, because I certainly do “get it” that government is just a means to redistributing money, and doesn’t ‘create’ wealth.

        • MarkUp

          The roads *aren’t* getting repaired. That was a priority for MN Republicans for the last two years, to get the government to fund road construction projects in their communities.

          • wjc

            What would those roads look like if all repairs had to be paid for by the counties?

          • Which government are we talking about? There’s $4.7 billion in state and federal revenue for transportation in Minnesota right now. It’s being spent on roads. The issue is whether any of it should be spent on transit.

            But every penny… every penny — of the tax you pay at the gas pump is constitutionally dedicated to roads and bridges.

          • Khatti

            I was listening to Keri Miller discussing legalizing marijuana this morning. The thought that occurred to me is if we were to legalize recreational use we should use the tax money gained for metro, public transportation.

          • Postal Customer

            I disagree. And for the same reason I disagree with Colorado’s policy of funding schools with weed.

            Schools, roads, transit, are the responsibility of ALL people, ALL tax payers.

          • Khatti

            I’ve become a…”path of least resistance” type in my old age. Even this plan would gather a lot of outstate flack.

        • Mecum

          And that would be the elitist attitude that they resent. Since when does Government run hospitals? Their roads are repaired by their county and local governments.

          • wjc

            Not elitist:


            The state subsidizes rural hospitals:
            >Rural Family Medicine Residency Grant Program
            >Rural Hospital Capital Improvement Grant Program
            >Rural Hospital Flexibility Program
            >Rural Hospital Planning and Transition Grant Program
            >Small Rural Hospital Improvement Program (SHIP)

            State highways are not just funded by county and local governments. There are also state subsidies.


            “In addition to HUTDF funds, state highways receive substantial amounts of federal highway aid. State-aid county highways and city streets are funded by both state aids and local property taxes.”

          • Mecum

            Subsidies are not the same as a Government run hospital like VHA or Hennepin County Medical. As a matter of fact, the Federal and State Government love “subsidies” because they use those to create the very kind of dependencies that you reference and those subsidies almost always have strings attached.

          • wjc

            I never said anything about government-run hospitals. My question is what impact a loss of subsidies would have on rural hospitals. How many could survive solely on local funding and insurance payments?

  • Mike Worcester

    As soon as I read “each other” my mind immediately went to the coffee klatches I see every morning. I’ve never been partial to those and I can see how they become the morning news hour for many. Of course, the obvious question becomes, where are they getting the information they are sharing between sips of joe?

    • jon

      “Some people did pay attention to Fox News, but such people were more rare than the prevalent stereotype of rural Republicans suggests.”

      If a large group of people (by rural standards) all get their news from each other, but one of them also watches fox news… then we know where the rumormill starts…

      one bit of false information can travel through a small town just as fast as a story you can read on snopes can travel through the internet.
      If you add “it’s just common sense” on the end of a falsehood it becomes absolute fact in some small towns…
      Facebooks fake news problem isn’t new, it’s just on a new medium.

      • Khatti

        True enough.

      • Mitch Berg

        The same thing holds true for urbanoids who think Jon Oliver and Trevor Noah are news.

        (Counting down to the inevitable “they’re awesome, and so much better than Faux news…” in 3, 2, 1…)

        • I think people have misread what the professor was getting at and I think it’s a really good point.

          I didn’t take away that people talking to each other about stuff they saw on the news was necessarily “the news” that was being shared (although I might be wrong).

          I took away that the story of people’s lives — the one story that media absolutely stinks at telling — constitutes their news. Maybe it’s about what happened at the hospital and it got passed along and pretty soon an individual issue becomes a systemic one.

          To me, this is the grassiest of grassroots…. people’s individual lives shared with one another.

          People are really good at ‘covering’ these “stories” by sharing the details of their lives. The media is really terrible at being interested in such “mundane” things.

          That’s a huge mistake. Been saying it for years.

        • jon

          If we have some indication that most urbanites get most of their news from each other than yes.

          But if that isn’t the case, then no.

          Either way we’ve all set ourselves up in echo chambers and they get worse each time we cut some one out of our life because they don’t agree with us on something.

          Facebook is the prime example where people unfriend based on political opinions and democrats get to see the democrat memes and republicans get to see the republican memes and the only crossover is trolls.

    • CHS

      I think what people need to remember is that ‘news’ can be defined very differently. You sit down at one of these places and hear that Joe from down the road just got diagnosed with cancer, that’s news. You hear that meat packing plant laid off 10 people, most of them you know, that’s news. You hear that your brother’s insurance premium went up by 60% this year, that’s news. It isn’t news in the sense of what the big picture is, it’s personal, and it’s no less real or important.

      • Mike Worcester

        I certainly was not trying to diminish the personal angles often heard at those tables, just noting that they are often the conduit by which news (how ever we do in the end define it) is spread.

        • CHS

          Fair. My comment wasn’t so much a rebuttal as an effort to get out there the idea that news can be defined differently, and the assumption that a rural person who gets news from another person isn’t necessarily a low-information voter as a lot of people assume. It’s just a different type of information, and in some ways more powerful. You can’t say a person’s personal experience or stories have a liberal or conservative bias and argue their validity, they just are what they are. Too often I think the conversation stops here, and the substance of why things are happening is never gotten to, especially when it comes to urban vs rural concerns.

          • rallysocks

            //Too often I think the conversation stops here, and the substance of why things are happening is never gotten to, especially when it comes to urban vs rural concerns.//

            Definitely. Especially since these conversations take place in the small town cafe or church, nobody wants to start a kerfuffle. It’s easier to just take the news at face value.

            Also, the disconnect most rural people feel. Out here, we used to say that Minnesota stops at Willmar. Now we feel even further away and St. Cloud is what our legislators consider ‘rural.’ There’s a huge impression that our votes don’t count.

          • Mike Worcester

            I grew up in northern Cass County, about 200 miles from MSP. When we were told “wow, that’s way up there” I used to joke “not really, there’s still three hours to go before Canada” 🙂

            The rural/urban line seems to shift as population concentrations shift. Half of the state’s population lives in the counties of Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka, and Washington. That will lend itself to a perspective skew that did not exist when I was a kid growing up in Cass County.

  • Mike

    So far I don’t see any indication that the Democratic Party has learned any lessons from this defeat. They seem to be very invested in blaming anyone and everyone for their loss except themselves.

    To me, the problem seems obvious: they chose to run an unpopular insider candidate in a year when people were clamoring for something different. That’s no defense of Trump, but instead just an indictment of the shortsighted and self-interested nature of the national Democratic Party. They apparently forgot that politics is a popularity contest.

    • wjc

      I think Democrats are interested in learning where things went wrong. We’ll see though whether Trump / GOP actually delivers for rural residents, whatever that means.

      • rallysocks

        It will mean whatever he chooses it to mean on any given day. He’s going to declare success no matter what the reality is.

    • Postal Customer

      Yep. The lesson is that you have to run somebody that people want to vote for. People wanted to vote for Obama.

  • Good Q&A in Columbia Journalism Review today from an independent reporter who spent the campaign away from the political machine, hanging out with voters in Trump Country.

    • Awesome. Thanks Bob!

    • CHS

      Thanks, that’s an awesome piece.

      Interesting angle on the decline of local news being the key to the mis-read by bigger news groups.

    • MikeB

      A very good explainer of what is happening. As real jobs are being phased out there is more tolerance of exploding the system. Their hopes will not be realized,
      but they took this as a great chance to express their frustration

    • Ennio S.

      Thanks for that. This explained a lot for me. I have much more empathy for the voters he covered. I’m afraid they are going to be very disappointed and even more angry in a couple years (I hope I’m wrong too). Also, I feel regret for some of my own attitudes during this campaign.

  • chris

    Rural areas are no more deserving of being called the “heartland” than urban areas are. One of the worst cliches ever.

    • Jerry

      I’m not sure it’s been true since the Great Depression

  • MrE85

    Most of the Trumpeteers I have heard interviewed sound pretty much like nice, decent people until the subject of immigration/refugees comes up. Then, watch out.

    • Mitch Berg

      That may well have as much to do with the editing of the interviews as the subjects.

      • Robert Moffitt

        That’s a very good point, Mitch.

  • Khatti

    What was truly terrifying about this election is that we are now two, not one, people. This problem predated the Trump campaign, and it might very well be there long after he is jailed, impeached, or just figures out that being President of the United States is just not a lot of fun. If anything his election has made this fact impossible to ignore. The same situation would have existed if Hillary had been elected, but the urban elites wouldn’t have noticed. With luck we’ll keep this divide from reaching the shooting stage.