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Salena Zito: Dispelling the myth of ‘rural rage’

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2/5/2023 Salena Zito / Special to the Post-Gazette
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When Dr. MeeCee Baker first saw Paul Krugman’s New York Times column last week — “Can Anything Be Done to Assuage Rural Rage?” — she could only shake her head

“I was just really disappointed,” the Juniata County Democrat said. “The usage of a word like ‘rage’ to describe rural America, that word — that word — emotes an ugliness and intensity that is far beyond words like ‘mad’ or ‘pissed-off’; you use the word ‘rage,’ and you are trying to depict a dark and violent sentiment and populace.” That, she said, is something she rarely sees.

“I could see saying ‘sadness’ or ‘depression’ — sometimes — or ‘passion’ when people are talking about their views about any number of topics, but the ‘rage’ just isn’t there,” she said.

Ms. Baker is a Democrat living in a sea of Republicans. She grew up on a farm and currently lives on a farm. Along the way, she has also been a high school agriculture teacher, a Penn State student-teacher supervisor and an executive officer in Gov. Ed Rendell’s Department of Agriculture.

Today she runs her own government affairs firm and is sought after by just about every Democrat in the state for her expertise in agricultural, environmental and rural issues. Her politics are no less progressive than her fellow urban and suburban Democrats, and her sense of place is no less real than her Republican neighbors’.

Mr. Krugman’s piece last week wasn’t the first time he has taken not just a swipe at rural America: Last October, he opined that “the radicalization of rural America may be the demise of democracy.” And that was about the nicest thing he wrote.

Ms. Baker struggles with intellectuals who refuse to give up their uninformed and prejudiced stereotypes of rural Americans as enraged radicals who either spend their days plotting the next January 6th or fuming over a list of grievances against institutions or the current president.

After all, this former Rendell administration official and progressive Democratic strategist is a rural American, too. “I would love to invite him to come and spend a day or two with me and perhaps go to church with me,” she offered with characteristic generosity.

She laughs at the suggestion that people with spicy anti-Biden flags in their yard are an example of the rage Mr. Krugman writes about: “Two weeks ago I was upstairs getting ready to go to the inaugural festivities for Gov. Josh Shapiro, and I’m putting on my little tuxedo suit and my blingy jewelry and a little more makeup than I typically wear — and the doorbell starts to ring insistently.”

“I finally get enough clothes on to get downstairs and open the door, and here’s this poor woman looking very sad; she tells me she just moved in up the mountain, she’s lost her cat and would I mind if she gave me her number in case I found it in my barn?”

Ms. Baker said she noticed that the new neighbor was wearing what appeared to be a Joe Biden shirt: “I said ‘Well, I guess I’m not going to be the only Democrat in the neighborhood.’” The woman sheepishly pulled her jacket back to reveal that the shirt was not, in fact, supportive of the president.

“We both started laughing, and I said, ‘Well, we can disagree on politics, but we both love cats.’ And she said, ‘Absolutely — both love cats and we can be great neighbors.’”

Since the moment rural America helped deliver former president Donald Trump to the White House, many in the national news media have viewed rural America — in particular in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan — through the lens of their own angst and personal biases. But they invariably do so from a distance.

Steve Crawford, the former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture under the late Gov. Bob Casey, Sr., and Mr. Rendell’s last chief of staff, said it wasn’t all that long ago that voters in rural counties here placed Democrats in elected office up and down the ballot: “We had Democrats representing Lebanon County, Franklin County, Adams County, Cumberland, Indiana, Crawford, Elk and on and on,” he said.

Mr. Crawford, a Columbia County native, said the use of the word rage in the Krugman piece was “really overstated, and it stokes a preconceived notion that that’s the leading emotion that rural Pennsylvanians or rural America is feeling. I frankly think that there’s more angst and anxiety, perhaps, than there is rage. I understand that they have feelings of uncertainty, and . . . it’s not unusual for people to be worried about change that they don’t understand. But ‘rage’ — that’s just inviting it.”

As of 2017, there were 60 million Americans living in rural areas — roughly 17% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. Rural America’s land mass, though, is much more significant: 97%.

Mr. Crawford pointed out the people who live there are the ones who provide the land for wind turbines, solar farms and natural gas platforms needed for the rest of the country to be able to turn on their heat, charge their phones, make their espresso and plug in their cars: “They not only provide the energy sources; they also provide some the water supply, as well as the manufacturing to make the products we need — and of course that is where the farms and ranches are that provide our food.”

“I know that outside of going to the shore in the summer, a lot of Pennsylvanians spend their free time in the rural areas; in the winter, they are skiing and ice fishing and snowshoeing, and in the summer they are hiking and boating and just enjoying the rolling hills of Appalachia,” he said, adding that Pennsylvania is rich in rural tourism, something he said both Mr. Rendell and Mr. Casey, Sr., promoted.

Sharon Payne has spent 30 years of her adult life making a living from rural tourism. In the early 90s the then-29-year-old Altoona native would pass the old G.C. Murphy department store every day on her way to work at the old Bedford Village, and wonder about its possibilities.

Today that old bargain store is “Founders Crossings,” which takes up an entire block on the historic Lincoln Highway and attracts locals and tourists from as far away as Pittsburgh, Washington and Philadelphia to spend hours lingering in the 33,000 square feet of local artisans’ clothing, artwork and primitive crafts, along with dozens of antique vendors.

Ms. Payne has spent a lifetime living and working in rural Pennsylvania, and most of her clientele has done the same. She said people come to Bedford to soak up the gentleness of the lifestyle here, not to marinate in the “rage.”

“People love coming into small towns like this, I mean, this past year, good golly I did a lot of traveling from Arizona to Massachusetts, into Vermont, and I go to small towns because I like seeing what’s out there. And every place, the people were lovely,” she said.

If Mr. Krugman would like to sit a spell in Bedford, she too said she would be happy to host him: “Spend a few days — not five minutes. You’d be amazed at how easily stereotypes melt away.”

North Side native Salena Zito is a national political reporter for The Washington Examiner, a New York Post columnist and co-author of “The Great Revolt”:


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