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I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America

A cornfield near Patrick Thornton’s childhood Ohio home, taken last year. (Patrick Thornton/CQ Roll Call)
A cornfield near Patrick Thornton’s childhood Ohio home, taken last year. (Patrick Thornton/CQ Roll Call)

I’m from the rural Midwest. I now live in Washington, D.C. All of this talk about coastal elites needing to understand more of America has it backward.

My home county in Ohio is 97 percent white. It, like a lot of other very unrepresentative counties, went heavily for Donald Trump.

My high school had about 950 students. Two were Asian. One was Hispanic. Zero were Muslim. All the teachers were white.

My high school had more convicted sexual predator teachers than minority teachers. That’s a rural American story.

In many of these areas, the only Muslims you see are in movies like “American Sniper.” (I knew zero Muslims before going to college in another state.) You never see gay couples or even interracial ones. Much of rural and exurban American is a time capsule to America’s past.

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And on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, they dug it up.

The first gay person I knew personally was my college roommate — a great man who made me a better person. But that’s an experience I would have never had if I didn’t go to college and instead decided to live the rest of my life in my hometown. 

That was when I realized that not supporting gay marriage meant to actively deny rights to someone I knew personally. I wouldn’t be denying marriage rights to other people; I would be denying marriage rights to Dave. I would have to look Dave in the eye and say, “Dave, you deserve fewer rights than me. You deserve a lesser human experience.”

When you grow up in rural America, denying rights to people is an abstract concept. Denying marriage rights to gay people isn’t that much different than denying boarding rights to Klingons.

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I have some extended family in rural New Jersey. Some of them had never been to D.C. before visiting me. They had never made the short drive to see the Constitution in person. They had not seen the Apollo moon lander, nor George Washington’s Revolutionary War uniform. 

Thornton, around 4 years old, being chased during a game, in the yard of his childhood (Ohio) home. (Courtesy Patrick Thornton)
Thornton, around 4-years-old, being chased during a game in the yard of his childhood home in Ohio. (Courtesy Patrick Thornton)

And they certainly have not seen the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. They’ve never seen the extent of American greatness or its messiness.

To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.

We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.

We must start asking all Americans to be their better selves. We must all understand that America is a melting pot and that none of us has a more authentic American experience.

If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent apartments to black people. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and criminals. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration.

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I have friends and acquaintances who are Trump supporters. They genuinely do not understand today’s shock, particularly from minorities. These Trump supporters do not understand that many minorities believe the people who voted for Trump endorse his racism and bigotry — that those voters care more about sending a message to the political establishment than they do about the rights and welfare of human beings.

And, of course, people on the coasts could stand to meet more rural and exurban people, to understand why they are anxious about a changing world and less economic opportunity. But rural and exurban people need to see more of America. People do not understand the depths of how little rural America travels and sees other people and cultures.

I’m from the Midwest, and I love the Midwest, but it’s not representative of modern America. We cannot fetishize it as “real” America. It’s part of America — a great, big, beautiful, messy republic — but just a part. 

What we are seeing is a reaction to a rapidly changing world. A world that is becoming more connected. A world that is more diverse. A world where education and skills are necessary for good jobs.

Change has not been kind to the Midwest and rural America. 

And rather than embrace it, rural and white working-class Americans are twisting and turning, fighting it every step of the way. We will never return to the days where a white man could barely graduate high school and walk onto a factory floor at 18 and get a well-paying job for life. That hasn’t set in for much of the Midwest.

This doesn’t mean that coastal Americans can’t empathize more with their fellow Americans and try to find solutions to these problems (nor does it mean that there aren’t many struggling working-class people in coastal states). And it certainly doesn’t mean coastal Americans haven’t contributed to this divisiveness.

Let me tell you about the Ohio I know: It’s the birth place of the Wright Brothers and our first astronauts, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. It’s where the generals who won the Civil War came from and the politicians that led Reconstruction after our darkest hour.

It’s a place where no matter how improbably the Browns lose year after year, people keep showing up, always holding out hope for next year. It’s a place of deep pride.

It’s not flyover country. It’s a place worth visiting. 

We are all real Americans, and it’s time we start empathizing with one another more.

P.S. This piece started as a tweetstorm on Twitter. I got a message from a high school classmate who now lives in Arizona. He had this to say, “I can’t believe what you tweeted was true. I never thought of that before.”

When you are in the white bubble, you just don’t know it.

Patrick Thornton is Senior Director of User Experience at CQ Roll Call.