After twenty years of living on the East Coast, journalist Monica Potts returned to her rural Arkansas hometown. There, a struggle over a local library inspired her widely read New York Times op-ed “In the Land of Self-Defeat.” In it, she laments her childhood friends’ growing insularity, anti–public spiritedness, and anti-tax ideology — even when it hurts them materially.
To Potts, the town of Clinton, Arkansas’s acrimonious fight over a library indicates the futility, and even possible danger, of campaigning on redistributive “big government” policies like Medicare for All and tuition-free higher education in “self-defeating” places like Van Buren County.
“People like my neighbors hate that the government is spending money on those who don’t look like them and don’t live like them,” she writes, “but what I’ve learned since I came home is that they remain opposed even when they themselves stand to benefit.” In other words, there’s no use in trying to help people who have been brainwashed into not wanting any help. Trump’s appeal in these self-flagellating regions is simply “unbeatable.”
But the story Potts tells demonstrates none of these things. Van Buren County, Arkansas, is in economic crisis for reasons beyond its immediate control. The backlash against raising taxes for the library is not the simple result of a backward ideology, but the predictable consequence of the town’s legal duties, bad local politicking, and economic constraints that would be hard for most of the Times’s readership to even imagine.
But Potts’s article is useful for another reason. It highlights the nature of a new American genre: supposed redneck insiders like J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy interpreting foreign lands for those bewildered by Donald Trump’s rise. And, more disturbingly, it demonstrates just how eager liberals are to embrace a newer, more palatable variation of the “culture of poverty” thesis that summarily blames the poor for their own miseries.
As Potts herself explains, Van Buren County, Arkansas, is a “low-income” place. The typical private-sector wage is between $10 and $13 an hour. The median income is well below the national average. The poverty rate is around 22 percent.
But in the early 2000s, as Potts says, the region enjoyed an economic boom thanks to new exploration of the Fayetteville Shale gas fields. Flush with higher tax revenues, the county approved a multimillion-dollar expansion of the library — a project with which Potts’s mother was involved as a member of the library board.
Then, in 2009, on the heels of the financial crisis, the price of shale gas collapsed. Profits shrunk, production slowed, and companies downsized. Gas firms started refusing to pay their taxes, complaining the rates were “unfair,” forcing local authorities to drag them to court to try to recover revenue. Those legal battles continue to this day.
With economic contraction came emigration and declining revenues from property and sales taxes. Worse yet, Arkansas state aid fell. Since the 2008 peak of the gas boom, Van Buren County revenues have shrunk by 20 percent. Hanging over the collective head, in addition to all the regular town expenses, was servicing the outstanding $2.1 million debt accrued to build the new library facility. What to do?
Potts tells us “the library made its own budget cuts, but the savings weren’t enough to cover the shortfall in paying for the building.” But the library didn’t just make inadequate budget cuts. The library board also proposed new expenses. They wanted to hire a new head librarian with an expanded job description at $25 an hour, up from the previous $19 an hour, roughly twice the average wage in the county.
This proposal was highlighted for the public at large in April 2019, when “a local man who operates the Facebook group, Van Buren County Today Unfiltered, posted the agenda for a coming meeting of the Quorum Court, the county’s governing body,” wherein the new job description and raise were discussed.
On Facebook, furor ensued, with indignant denizens invoking themes of government waste and even corruption. This “surprised” Potts, who had “thought people would be supportive.” With “sadness, anger, and frustration,” Potts entered the digital fray, defending the proposed raise on the basis of the candidate having a master’s degree. Her social media efforts came to naught. The library board backed down — the wage rate stayed at $19 an hour.
A few months later, the larger shortfall issue outstanding, friends of the library sought to raise local property taxes to pay the new facility’s debt down. A new round of pushback began. That proposal was scrapped as well. Now the local library lobby is pushing for a sales tax to prevent a downsizing.
Potts could have argued that this controversy shows how America needs to change the conditions in which such local debates happen: we need a radically different federal energy policy, less regressive ways to fund vital social services, and sensible state and federal economic development planning.
Instead, Potts argues that this backlash shows that her childhood neighbors are in wholesale retreat from community life, collectively morphing into miserly Scrooges, turning their backs on the institutions that hold them together. Instead of “pitching in to maintain what they have,” she writes, people “seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.” She does not consider other reasons as to why the library proposals elicited such irate reactions. It’s simply their hopeless pathology.
And then, even more significantly, Potts argues to her Times readers that this local fiasco over a library shows that any proposals for Medicare for All or tuition-free college would simply be rejected out of hand — not only by this community but the entirety of downscale, rural America.
For Potts and her readers, this isn’t just one small town. It’s the “land of self-defeat,” that massive hinterland at the frontier of affluent, metropolitan America. And in a reactionary backwater like that, people just can’t be reasoned with.
Whatever Potts’s own intentions, it’s a quietist conclusion, perfect for anyone looking to write off the unwashed masses, or for excuses not to support broadly redistributive politics. More important, it is an ideal message for a ruling class trying to undercut the stirrings of a rebellion emanating from America’s interior.
Potts says she is telling the story of miserly and insular country folk. In fact, she is actually describing a shrinking town, battered by recession and economic forces beyond its control, rejecting a poorly presented proposal to deepen a subsidy for an arguably poorly planned library expansion.
Potts talks about how, in her hometown, there is a “prevailing sense of scarcity,” how “people here think life here has taken a turn for the worse,” and so are deciding it is time “to go into retreat.”
But since 2009, conditions in Van Buren County have gotten worse. It’s not some delusion induced by “too much Fox News.” Less tax revenue meant times were tougher — materially, objectively, and unavoidably. For those living in booming cities like San Francisco or New York with enormous tax bases and thriving industries, the challenges facing Van Buren are likely hard to imagine. But that doesn’t mean they’re not very real.
Running a small town’s budget is not like running the United States budget. Van Buren County is not free to pursue some sensible Keynesian economic program whereby they spend money and run deficits during downturns to develop a robust and balanced economy and stimulate demand, which will then generate taxes that can pay down yesterday’s debt. Under the law, nearly every local government in the United States is strictly restrained in its fiscal policy. Many must run perfectly balanced budgets, where what is spent annually must be equal to or less than what is raised in local taxes and other income.
So every year, in towns all across America, budget debates are the same: Does the local high school really need a second principal? After all, there are also potholes to be filled. But who should get that construction contract? Will the bidding process be fair, or is corruption afoot? Tellingly, as Van Buren County community members hashed over Potts’s op-ed on Van Buren County Today Unfiltered’s public Facebook page, conversation turned back to the merits of the original library expansion, with someone noting they seem to recall that at the height of the shale gas boom, the county had suspended its competitive bidding process.
Predictably, when the proverbial pie shrinks in periods of recession, these debates are especially rancorous. If there isn’t enough revenue to cover expenses as proposed, what will get cut? Or will you increase the tax burden yet more in the midst of collective hardship? The stakes are high — if the town fails to fix the problem itself, it could be forced to declare bankruptcy, and get put into state receivership, losing its right to self-govern and having austerity unilaterally imposed by the state.
In such moments of retraction, a surefire way to incite public fury and charges of graft is to quietly propose expansion for your interests (and then have that proposal “uncovered” by an internet sleuth) while your neighbors are tightening their belts.
Potts claims that the library conflict turned into a bigger fight “about the county government, what it should pay for, and how and whether people should be taxed at all.” And according to Potts, this local controversy is a simulacrum of national politics. Her upshot is this: “As long as Democrats make promises to make . . . lives better with free college and Medicare for all [which] sound like they include government spending, these voters will turn to Trump again — and it won’t matter how many scandals he’s been tarnished by.”
But while Potts claims this local backlash against raising wages and taxes for the library means residents of Clinton are knee-jerk anti-tax zealots, this is not what she demonstrates. While she quotes library board chairman Phillip Ellis asserting, “I think it’s just antitax anything,” not one of the library critics to whom Potts speaks expresses any general Randian fanaticism against taxes. Instead, the library skeptics talk about feeling their tax dollars are being wasted — a subtle but important distinction, particularly in a country with a threadbare welfare state that leans heavily on unpopular means-tested benefits programs rather than universally available public goods.
Potts’s argument that this library fight illustrates her neighbors’ tax allergy isn’t grounded in evidence she offers, but in an assumption — that the only reason rural voters would oppose this library expansion is because they are opposed to all taxes. But this assumption is flawed. As Vanessa Williamson writes in her recent book Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes, “surveys show that Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to agree that taxpaying is a moral responsibility . . . a responsibility that we have to our country as citizens” because “the country has to be taken care of.”
It is entirely plausible that someone could oppose Van Buren County’s local library expansion yet support national, redistributive policies like Medicare for All (M4A) and tuition-free college, because theeconomics and politics of these local versus national proposals are radically different. Libraries are wonderful, but a strong case can be made that the $3 million Van Buren County expansion was a mistake, weighing down a shrinking town with a debt-financed, non-income-generating facility that it didn’t need to begin with.
M4A and tuition-free college, by contrast, are policies that propose to lower the costs of health care and education, boost the economy, and address universal needs in today’s world. This is a distinction even country folk are capable of grasping — if it is explained in good faith, without condescension.
While Potts insists that promotion of such policies is a fool’s errand in her neck of the woods, M4A and tuition-free college are rapidly growing in popularity. Depending on how you ask the question, polling consistently shows that between 55 percent and 70 percent of Americans endorse M4A, and 60 percent support tuition-free college. That’s because these proposals make sense — not just morally, but financially.
And while there is not good data on the geographic distribution of this support, we do know that the key champion of M4A and tuition free college, Bernie Sanders, is beloved across the entire country.
In the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders, with his message of political revolution against America’s ruling class, soundly beat Clinton in “flyover country.” Out of the ten most rural states in America (by population density), Sanders won seven. He won the Great Plains, the entire Rocky Mountain region, rural New England, and the Pacific Northwest. He won Michigan and Indiana, proving he can compete in the Rust Belt. And, most portentous of all, he won West Virginia, a bellwether entry point to the South.
This time around, Sanders’s grassroots fundraising performance in America’s peripheries is a powerful indicator of where he stands with the public. In August 2019, the New York Times released a detailed map of the Democratic candidates’ fundraising performance among individual donors. Effectively the entire map was blue, for Sanders, with particularly dense areas of activity in Appalachia. Sanders’s domination of the data was so overwhelming that the Times had to create a second map, one that removed him, so that the other candidates’ smaller, generally more regional donor bases could be viewed at all. In the 206 counties that flipped from Obama in 2008 to Trump in 2016, Sanders is crushing his closest competition in the number of individual donors: 33,185 donors to Warren’s 13,674.
In April 2019, Sanders even entered the lion’s den itself for a Fox News town hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a shuttered factory visible in the background. When host Bret Baier asked the audience how many people would really be willing to give up their private health insurance for a M4A system, he was met with an auditorium full of hands shooting up and whoops and hollers.
But Sanders is just one phenomenon evidencing a dawning class consciousness in America’s periphery. In 2018, a surprising strike wave grew in the United States. The backbone straightening was led not by urban, unionized workers, but by non-union schoolteachers in “land of self-defeat” states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona. This year, 48,000 General Motors (GM) workers, most within the Rust Belt, went on strike for forty days, the longest auto strike in over a decade, costing GM $2 billion.
One would think the ostensibly progressive Democratic Party establishment and its adjuncts, headquartered in states like New York, California, and Massachusetts, would be delighted about what all this heralds. But one would be wrong.
Instead, the liberal political and pundit class has been, at best, studiously ignoring signs of a gestating working-class consciousness, notoriously avoiding covering Sanders, and giving short shrift to the teachers’ strikes in favor of Russiagate. But at worst, it is deliberately discrediting and demonizing class politics, in particular by elevating a new iteration of the old right-wing “culture of poverty” argument: that social crisis in the American interior is simply the result of self-sabotage and bad values, not material conditions.
This position puts them in league with the likes of Charles Murray, the discredited defender of the notion that race is a biological determinant of intelligence. Murray, approvingly cited by J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, is one of the main proponents of the idea that poverty has its origins in cultural pathology rather than political economy. When Murray espouses these beliefs, liberals throatily reject it as nonsense. But many are now enthusiastically embracing such culturalist explanations of poverty when they’re applied to the “white working class,” using them to justify shaking off the down-home elements in the Democratic base, and instead courting affluent college-educated Republicans.
Capitalism, and the class antagonism with which it is fraught, has a geography. “Core” regions control, directly or indirectly, the society’s industrial base and financial sector. This is where the surplus value generated by the whole society’s collective labor accumulates. These regions are urban. Firms locate here to find workers, which in turn attracts more workers seeking jobs in higher-wage, value-added sectors. Thus, there is a strong internal consumer base driving development. In short, these are places with money — and in our system, money is the finest distillation of power. New York City is one such region.
“Peripheral” regions serve a different function — they provide raw materials, food, and energy to the core. This can look like monocropped commercial agriculture, aggressive logging, or a big extractive mineral sector like the gas fields in Van Buren County. Often, interests in the core actually own the resources in question — and they want these strategic inputs extracted for cheap. That means enforcing strict labor discipline in peripheral regions: low wages and no unions.
Predictably, it is in the periphery that one sees the most chilling examples of terror used to maintain highly exploitative labor relations, often according to some kind of racialized caste system. These repressive labor regimes are managed by “compradors,” regional elites who collaborate in the economic and political subordination of the periphery and profit wildly from it — think Don Blankenship in West Virginia, or the Al Saud family in Saudi Arabia. But however rich rural compradors get, surplus value continues to flow inexorably into industrial and financial cores.
Instead of developing their own independent industrial base, peripheral economies often become lopsided, corralled into reliance on those extractive sectors that benefit the core, and in which they have a supposed “comparative advantage.” This is sometimes called the “resource curse.” Consequently, peripheral regions become economically dependent on the core, both to buy their exports, and then to send back finished goods.
Peripheral extractive industry is often ecologically destructive. As Marx observed, there is a “metabolic rift” between town and country, as the non-renewable ecological assets of the countryside are extracted and exported to the city. Chronic extraction can turn whole regions into “sacrifice zones,” places that are used up and then abandoned.
But from the perspective of the ruling class, there is something far more dangerous than any of this: the emergence of class-conscious, solidaristic movements in the periphery demanding control over their resources, redistribution of wealth, and political power.
Rebellion at the periphery is always especially distressing for our rulers — after all, workers in the core might join in.
The New York Times tries to disorient its majority-urban readers, reassuring them that if the conditions in peripheral places are deplorable, it is because the people there are deplorable — there is no way such knuckle-draggers would ever support Medicare for All or tuition-free higher education. The solution to the crisis is, therefore, business (and politics) as usual.
The American ruling class is comfortable peddling narratives like this because it believes it can abandon places like Van Buren County to reactionary politics and still beat Trump with some version of a 1990s Democrat, to be voted in by states with large progressive metropolitan regions by some narrow but sufficient margin. It’s a gamble, but one with which elites are comfortable — most would far rather risk a second Trump term than come anywhere near a Sanders presidency.