Robert Wuthnow’s The Left Behind

One of the better books to emerge from the autopsy of the 2016 American presidential election belonged to Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist, Director of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion, and the editor of the prestigious Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. To my mind, it says something rather awful about the present state of American society that so many of the wealthy and well-educated must now turn to works of sociology to understand and hopefully empathize with the plight of their countrymen, or that it took a catastrophic election upset to pique their curiosity, but Wuthnow at least manages to approach his subject without the scorn and condescension now typical of the genre. Training their sights on America’s smaller communities, many bien pensant journalists affect a combination of shock and mockery once characteristic of how European explorers viewed the New World or the peoples of Africa and Asia (“How can they live like that?”), but to Wuthnow’s credit, he dispenses with such hindering presuppositions and evinces genuine curiosity. Just how stark is the rural-urban divide? Wuthrow quotes the exit polling data: 35 percent of the urban vote went to Donald Trump in 2016, compared to 50 percent of the suburban vote and 62 percent of the rural vote. “Moreover, the smaller a county’s population and the farther it was from a metropolitan area, the more likely it was to have voted for Trump.” The Left Behind examines that divide and seeks to understand and even sympathize with forgotten men and women of “flyover country.”

Roughly 30 million Americans live in towns with populations of fewer than 25,000, while the census data, using more encompassing definitions of “rural,” arrives at between 44 and 50 million people. In these places, though not every resident knows the name and biographical information of every other, there nonetheless exists a strong sense of community, based on shared history and culture, of course, but above all on shared moral commitments. Indeed, Wuthnow’s central insight is that a common morality defines these places, and that they should first and foremost be approached as “moral communities.”

I do not mean this in the vernacular sense of “moral” as good, right, virtuous, or principled. I mean it rather in the more specialized sense of a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right thing.

This isn’t incidental to the fact of people living together in small groups; it’s instrumental, and violations of this common morality – by locals, by strangers, and certainly by the federal government – are viewed as threats to the moral order.

A moral community draws our attention to the fact that people interact with one another and form loyalties to one another and to the places in which their interaction takes place. These enduring interactions and the obligations and identities they entail constitute the community as a home.

Whether that moral order is ultimately good or bad, or better or worse than potential alternative moral orders, is entirely beside the point. What is relevant is that it is the existence of that moral order and its common acceptance that “constitutes the community as a home,” that demarcates the familiar and the foreign, the friend and the stranger.

Rural communities are places of moral obligation. Residents can live there and be so independent that they rarely speak to anyone else. But if they do live that way, they are treated as outsiders. To be a community member in good standing requires speaking to a neighbor, keeping one’s residence maintained, and attending some of the town’s community functions. These are not the ideals of a utopian order that are seldom put into practice. They are the implicit constraints of ordinary life to which people adhere enough of the time to function as community norms.

It is here that I wanted to shout at my copy of Wuthnow’s book, as if to him: what meaningful alternative definition of a community could you offer? The word community has been much abused, stretched and contorted to fit the needs of the political moment. We hear of, for example, the LGBT community or the “black community,” as if pigment and sexual orientation suffice to form meaningful communities rather than mere categories. These communities are not perfect, of course, and not free from strife, but the existence of tension doesn’t negate their essential moral character. “The point is rather that so much of everyday life occurs within the bounded, socially and culturally identified community that the community itself takes on the characteristics of a home.”

Human beings do not easily relinquish a sense of belonging, and as unhappy and fraught as life in a community may at times become, it is infinitely preferable to a life without obligation or a sense of belonging. There are genuine insights into rural America contained in this book, some of them flattering and some of them less flattering. We glimpse the social solidarity that enables these communities to weather hard times and exist for decades and even centuries with their sense of themselves intact, and we glimpse the scapegoating of the other, the foreign, when it is convenient to do so. The disconnect between the moral norms of rural America and the priorities of a Washington-based, city-bred ruling class are here made stark and knowable. But I could not shake the feeling, as I turned the final page, that this was but the shadow of the more interesting book Wuthnow could have written. If the central insight of this book is that rural Americans live in “moral communities,” the necessary question becomes, “How the hell does the rest of America live?”