Book Review by Tom Nelson — The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America (Robert Wuthnow)

Tom Nelson for Wisconsin
3 min readJan 21, 2022
Tom’s Tomes: A book review series where Tom Nelson talks about his latest favorite books.

“Why can’t Democrats do better in rural areas?”

As a U.S. Senate Candidate, I get that question every day. I heard it at the stops on my 72-county listening session tour last summer. Democrats are an introspective and self-flailing bunch. “Is it me? It has to be me! Why is it always me?!”

Robert Wuthnow delivers an answer to this question in his book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America. As the title suggests, it’s about farm families, shop owners, and feed mill operators who have not reaped the benefits of the modern day economy and who have become increasingly disengaged, cynical or even hostile toward the government.

Wuthnow argues that rural America’s view of Washington can fall under two perspectives: first, the government ignores us and is out of touch; second, when it does get involved it just gets in the way and screws up (e.g. higher taxes, more regulations).

Before you say something about rugged individualism, think about what French political scientist Alexis de Toqueville wrote on his travels through 19th Century America: “The village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that wherever a number of men are collected it seems to constitute itself.” Or, think of what economist Thorstein Veblen wrote which Wuthnow notes in his book, “The country town is one of the great American institutions… in the sense that it has had and continues to have a greater part than any other in shaping public sentiment and giving character to American culture.” It’s not that you’re on your own and you are untethered to the rest of the country or community is something that exists only in cities.

Indeed, it is the small towns that display great American traditions such as the county fair or summer parade where a Lions club walks down Main Street handing out candy to kids; where the high school basketball team hoists the state championship trophy atop the shiny, new Pierce fire truck which the Rotarians helped pay for with a raffle. Wuthnow terms this a moral community. Not in the sense of right versus wrong, but rather of local norms that are accepted and define a way of life.

Naturally, some folks fit into this mold, others do not, an attitude Wuthnow calls “othering”. This can be a problem — just ask the owners of large farms that employ immigrant labor. Wuthnow scratches his head because those farms anchor a rural economy. They pay the wages of the electricians who wire the barn lights, the masons that pour the concrete for the calf pens or feed operators that nourish the livestock.

This animates other issues, notably jobs and the economy. Wuthnow observes (he conducted hundreds of interviews over a decade) that the biggest problem is the lack of jobs, but more specifically, quality jobs or career advancement. More than a few families push their children to the big city where there is plenty of opportunity.

Needless to say, these families are not happy. Why did their government allow this to happen in the first place? The government that pushed through bad trade deals is the same entity that does nothing about slow internet, crumbling town roads or chronically low milk prices; that has allowed corporations to crush local grocers and put the main street hardware store out of business.

When I was door-to-door campaigning, farmers told me they were FDR Democrats because they remember the constructive economic change the New Deal offered — rural electrification, conservation corps and Social Security. But they aren’t Democrats any more. All they hear now is how Democrats are for abortion or want to take away their guns. And they only hear about that because Democrats don’t go into rural parts and talk to them (perspective one) and Democrats don’t have anything constructive to offer (perspective two).

If you want to run for office and you want to win — go everywhere and tell folks how you are going to improve their lives. I try to never lose sight of the lesson my dad shared with me when I first sought office: if you miss the economic argument, you have lost the debate. Then you’ve lost the election before you’ve knocked your first door on the first gravel road.



Tom Nelson for Wisconsin

Husband, father of 2, former candidate for U.S. Senate, Outagamie County Executive