Tearing Down the Myth of the Rural White Voter

A candid conversation with the Iowa-based writer and thinker Lyz Lenz, who believes that meeting your neighbor is the only solution

By EMMA GREEN | The Atlantic

The sun sets behind a corn dog stand at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., August 9, 2018. Picture taken August 9, 2018. REUTERS/KC McGinnis – RC14BFCC8130

Lyz Lenz spent most of her youth immersed in the conservative subcultures of the South and the Midwest; as an adult, she carries a feminist as fuck keychain and describes her politics as “two steps away from joining Greenpeace.” She grew up in Baptist churches in Texas and passed her 20s in buttoned-up evangelical congregations in Iowa; now she attends a progressive Lutheran church in Cedar Rapids. But while Lenz has rejected conservatism’s earlier hold on her life—she divorced her husband in part because he supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, showing just how far apart their values were—she says she also refuses to retreat to a liberal bubble. She has made her home in “middle America,” as she coyly calls the region in her new book, God Land, and is determined to confront the place and the people that have simultaneously shaped and vexed.

I first met Lenz a couple of years ago, at a conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since then, she has written for the Columbia Journalism Review and has taken a columnist post at her local paper, The Gazette. I find her work interesting for its ambivalence: As she writes in God Land, she no longer believes in “bridging the divide” between conservatives and liberals, Christians and atheists, rural folk and city dwellers. But she also doesn’t believe in giving up on people who are different from her. “This book is an attempt to sit in the brokenness of our nation and our lives and seek to find redemption,” Lenz writes. She doesn’t have pat answers for “fixing” America. And that admission sounds more honest than what you typically hear from pundits lamenting and proposing solutions for America’s fractured landscape.

My interview with Lenz about God Land was a cross between a political debate, a spirited journalism seminar, and a therapy session. By now, the bad version of articles trying to understand Trump voters has become a caricature. As the humor columnist Alexandra Petri memorably wrote in The Washington Post, these stories inevitably combine a Mad Libs of clichés with dark foreshadowing about the discontent of white working-class voters—something like, “In the shadow of the old flag factory, Craig Slabornik sits whittling away on a rusty nail, his only hobby since the plant shut down.” Yet for journalists, and especially those who write about religion and politics, it’s not an option to dismiss half the country as racists and reactionaries who deserve no nuanced coverage. Figuring out that balance, especially in this perplexing political moment, is complicated.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Emma Green: Let’s start with the big question: Why do you think rural America is seen as the quote-unquote “real America”?

Lyz Lenz: It’s the quintessential ideal of America: the flat plains, the corn waving in the wind. Little House on the Prairie, these beautiful visions of nature and open spaces. It’s so tied into the American dream, but it’s not fully representative of what we’ve ever had, right? Those spaces were never exactly open. They were owned by other people.

Green: Why do you think that, at this particular juncture, there’s such an obsession—especially in the national media—with trying to understand the “real America”?

Lenz: Well, I think it’s the 2016 election. Donald Trump’s victory stumped a lot of people, and there was this effort to try to understand the part of the country who, you know, we blame this administration on. This is something we crucially need to understand, but it’s also something we’re failing to understand, because we can’t look past our stereotypes and biases.

Green: Like what?

Lenz: Like the idea that to understand the rural farmer, you have to go find him in a coffee shop at 5 a.m., where he’s opining about the president’s trade policies. That man doesn’t exist. It’s far more complicated and nuanced. There’s a woman in my book, Evelyn Birkby, who was 97 when I interviewed her. I feel like she’s a lot more representative. She identifies as conservative and she remembers the Dust Bowl. But she also questions the thing I call “patriarchy,” which she would just call “power.”

Green: It sounds like you’re saying that this desire to understand the mythical rural voter, especially by the East Coast–dominated national media, actually ends up being kind of patronizing, because most stories portray a one-note archetype that smoothes out the inner lives and diversity of a complicated group of people.

Lenz: Yeah, and also, it is othering people. People in Iowa are still part of America. We have tea, we have internet, we’re all having the same conversations. They’re just happening in different places, in different ways.

Green: In your book, you seem ambivalent about something I think about a lot—this desire to understand and find empathy for people who theoretically stand across some kind of “divide” from us, as journalists or as readers. Clearly, you care about understanding people, because you spent two years researching this book, and you’ve stayed in Iowa instead of moving to the liberal cocoon of Brooklyn. On the other hand, you seem really angry—at these people, and at the fact that the national media fetishize nostalgic white cultures. How do you square that ambivalence?

Lenz: It’s just like being in a family. I grew up with seven brothers and sisters, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can love someone and be deeply angry at them at the same time. This is a key tension in America: You can love this place and still be pissed at it.

This is a very personal thing for me. I was married to somebody who voted and pushed for policies that I believed were hurting America. The people in my churches, who have loved me through some really difficult times, were also the people I heard saying very homophobic things and hurting others. I love this place where I live, but I also want it to be better.

Green: What you just articulated seems to be the opposite of so-called cancel culture. There’s a spirit right now, on both the right and the left, of total elimination of the enemy. Do you see yourself as countering that culture, or homeless in a world that’s driven by those impulses?

Lenz: I think I might disagree with the characterization.

Green: Hit back, Lyz!

Lenz: [Laughs] I think that game of both-siderism is really dangerous, and here’s why: The conversation should be about who has power and who is not being given a voice.

I was recently talking with my pastor about this idea that we all just need to “come together and talk.” And I was saying, “Some people need to be quiet. Some people need to listen.” Right now, the people who have power are really afraid of losing it. And they’re the ones crying victim when other people get a voice at the table.

Green: I hear what you’re saying, but you’re also speaking from a left perspective, and if we’re going to look at that world, I will say: I hear a lot of, “Fuck Trump, and fuck everyone who voted for him.”

Lenz: I understand the feeling—I think this president is horrible and toxic. But what you’re saying is correct: A lot of people in America did vote for him, and you cannot just say, “Well, they don’t matter anymore.” What you can do, however, is look a person in the eye and say, “What you’re advocating hurts people, and is morally reprehensible.”

There’s something I heard Leslie Jamison say one time: What I owe people is nuance on the page. People are complex, and they are human. That doesn’t mean that a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist is any less morally reprehensible. In fact, that almost makes it worse.

Green: You talk a lot in your book about the privilege that’s required for people to act like they are in some way “apolitical.” That’s a worldview you can only have if you’re insulated from the effects of politics. I’m nodding along with you there, but I also think it hurts the national media when we rely exclusively on a political frame when we report on people in “Trump’s America.” It’s flattening—trying to understand people only in terms of their votes. How do you reconcile those two things?

Lenz: I’m not sure I’m on board with the terminology. There’s a difference between “political” and “partisan.” I was talking to a pastor recently about activism on the religious left, asking about how they could be a minister to all people and still be politically active. And she said, “Everything is political. I believe Jesus is political. Everything he did upset people. And so every time I do something, it is going to be political.” But, she said, that doesn’t have to be partisan.

I really loved that framing, and I think about it a lot. But I do also think we’re in a time when advocating for the rights of queer people, of brown people, immigrants, black people, has sadly become a partisan issue.

Green: See, to me, that is the fundamental tangle. On the one hand, when we cover Trump voters, we should write about more than just their MAGA hats. Like everyone, conservative people have textured inner lives and are part of complicated communities. On the other hand, the MAGA hat has become a symbol of so much more than one election or one vote. It represents a worldview that discounts certain types of people and their place in the United States. So is the MAGA hat the center of the story, or not?

Lenz: No, no, no. I think we need to stop centering our stories on people with all the power. The best stories are those that happen at the margins. My book only has two or three chapters about rural white people. The rest is about queer people of faith, religious women on the internet, the incredible faith communities put together by people of color.

Those are the stories we need to start looking for. Once we start allowing more of those stories into the narrative, we’re going to see the full and complete picture. Look, I live in Iowa, but I’m also right next door to the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The joke around these parts is that we should call Iowa City “the People’s Republic of Johnson County.”

Green: This is one thing I loved about your book. You’re doing this slightly subversive move, upending stereotypes about who the “real America” is, and challenging the prevailing narrative about who is authentically American.

Why, exactly, do you think this remains so subversive? This idea that Vietnamese refugees in Bigelow, Minnesota, or people of color discussing spirituality in Chicago are just as much a part of the Midwest as the white guy in the coffee shop talking about abortion?

Lenz: That’s exactly it—like that New York Times editor who tweeted that Ilhan Omar wasn’t really representative of the Midwest.

Green: Okay, I want to flip this in a way that you’re probably going to hate. If your job is to do political coverage, it is just a fact that the 2016 election was decided in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania. White voters in those states were the margin in 2016, and they will likely be an important margin in 2020.

Lenz: But there’s also territory to be won in the voters who didn’t turn out. I don’t think it’s the job of the Democrats to convince Trump voters to vote for them. I think it’s the job of the Democrats to get out those voters who stayed home the last time.

Green: This is a perennial debate in politics, about mobilizing turnout versus persuading swing voters. I don’t think the answer is either-or. But especially among Democrats, the party is facing a fundamental question about identity: Should candidates be trying to win the votes of people who a lot of progressives find detestable? Should they care about these white, rural voters in the Midwest?

Lenz: I don’t buy into that binary at all. It really misses the reality of what’s happening in states like Iowa. It’s a purple state! We were the third state in the nation to legalize gay marriage. We’ve had really progressive immigration policies. The Midwest has traditionally been very supportive of labor unions. I’m not buying into this choice: “Do we have to reach out to these people or not?” I think that if you have complicated policies that speak to all of America, then you’re doing your job.

Green: Okay, final question.

Lenz: This is really hard, Emma; oh my God. I’m, like, sweating! Mostly people are like, “So tell me about hotdish!” And you’re like, “Answer the question! How do we solve America!”

Green: [laughs] Okay, this will be the second-to-last question then. It seems like one of the upshots of your book is that everyone is pissed about America right now.

Lenz: Yeah. Everyone’s pissed.

Green: What should we do about that?

Lenz: Well, here’s the thing: Anger is a normal, natural human emotion. I don’t think we have to be afraid of anger. We should be angry! The more we try to ignore it, or tell some people that they don’t have a right to be angry, the worse it gets.

I tell my children, “You’re allowed to be angry, but you can’t hurt people with your anger.” That’s the trick, right? People are allowed to be angry, and we should hear them out. But when that anger starts hurting people, that’s when you’ve got to shut it down.

Green: That’s a good note to end on. All right, Lyz. Tell me about hotdish.

Lenz: If I have one mission in life, it’s to spread the joy of tater-tot casserole to the world. I’ve been at so many Christmas dinners where things will get tense, and somebody’s mom will be like, “Okay, you want some bars?” And I’m like, “Yes, thank you. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

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EMMA GREEN is a staff writer at ​The Atlantic, where she covers politics, policy, and religion.

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