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Rurality, Race, and the U.S. Presidential Election: Reflections from the Heartland

Authors: Ann Oberhauser*, Iowa State University
Topics: Rural Geography, Political Geography, Social Geography
Keywords: rural populism, 2016 presidential elections, U.S. Heartland, social identities, political polarization
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/8/2020
Start / End Time: 4:55 PM / 6:10 PM
Room: Virtual Track 4
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper focuses on the political landscape of the U.S. Heartland to examine the significance of social identities and politics in rural geography. The 2016 presidential election was a watershed event in U.S. politics, signaling a decline in political moderation and a sharp right turn to partisan polarization, authoritarianism, and ethno-nationalism. Rural areas in several Heartland states swung further to the right than other regions, raising questions about the role that shifting political and social identities play in rural geography. The growing presence of populism and authoritarianism in the U.S. and other European states stem from divisions and animosity that often target marginalized groups such as immigrants, racialized minorities, Muslim people, and others who are seen as threats to the economic security and hegemonic social identities of a society. This research uses mixed methods to determine the relative contribution of three factors reputed to have caused the swing to Trump support in the U.S. Heartland during the 2016 presidential election, rurality and two measures of social identity, education and whiteness. The analysis examines how these factors tend to bind rural voters into communities of racialized identities and thus drive political polarization. These frameworks and empirical results contribute to our understanding of broader political movements and social identities, and provide insights to local dimensions of contested political cultures. The findings present a challenge to scholars seeking to promote political moderation and participative democracy, but also have implications for broader national and global analyses of political culture and whiteness in rural geography.

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