Interrogation

“What Is the Source of Disenfranchisement for Rural Americans?”

How natural resources, regulation, and the dangers of farm life contribute to this nation’s intractable urban-rural divide.

Workers chat beside a Consol Energy drilling rig.
Workers chat at a Consol Energy drilling rig exploring the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, on April 13, 2012.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Eliza Griswold’s new book, Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, tells the story of the Haneys of Amity, Pennsylvania. Stacey Haney, a single mother, signed a lease with a fracking company. When it started operating on her land, her kids became sick, and her community was turned upside down. Through Griswold’s narrative, the reader gets to examine a number of the problems plaguing modern-day America: environmental destruction, a government unable or unwilling to sufficiently protect its citizens, and clear divisions in how people in different areas of the country view inherently political issues.

I recently spoke by phone with Griswold, who spent seven years reporting the book, and who is also a poet and translator. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what urban America still doesn’t understand about Appalachia, what the people she met in Amity really thought of Trump, and how rural America is both under- and overregulated.

Isaac Chotiner: What is it that is “fracturing” America?

Eliza Griswold: These days we are hearing so much about this rural/urban divide. What does that really mean? What is the source of disenfranchisement for rural Americans? Much of it stems from natural resources. Rural Americans have paid for the energy appetites of urban Americans for more than a century.

I think a lot people in urban America would hear that and say, “Well, the people who are voting for candidates who are less interested in environmental protections are coming from rural America, and the people who are voting the opposite way are coming from urban America.” What do you say to that?

The urban American understanding of how regulation plays out on the ground in rural America is woefully inadequate. First of all, we don’t understand how for more than a century in many places in Appalachia, rural Americans have had their land ruined, as well as their health and their communities, in a search for the natural resources that feed urban Americans.

On top of that, if you talk to farmers, if you talk to Appalachian farmers … First of all, none of them simply farm, they have two jobs. Often that second job has to do with resources. They are either coal miners or former steelworkers. But how regulation plays out in their life on a daily basis has to do with farming, and farm regulation has driven many small farms out of business.

So, there’s this huge double standard where, if you talk to a pork farmer in Amity, he’s going to tell you that he has to pay $100 every time the vet comes out to take his shots. And that he has to fence his stream and the cows can’t go into the water. And he can’t drive his tractor across the stream either. Yet for more than a century, extractive industry has been able to come in and do whatever it wants to do. Until finally, here’s oil and gas, here are frackers who are actually paying money for mineral leases. Who are urban Americans to come in and wag a finger and say, “You don’t have the right to make any money off your land.” They don’t even understand how regulation practically works on the ground.

Are you saying that there are all these regulations that are imposed on smaller farmers, which has made it harder for them to earn a living, and yet, at the same time when they try to make money off their land from leases or something else, urban America wags their finger and tells them, “No, you should be doing something else”?

More or less, yeah. I mean, for more than a century there’s been very little money to make off of mineral leases. Coal rights have been severed from surface rights for more than a century, OK? Nearly two centuries, since after the Civil War. So, in many of these communities where fracking is taking place now, industrial coal mines have already come through and when an industrial coal mine comes under a farm it almost by definition taints the water supply. People have lost their farms for a very long time to coal mining. They’ve lost their water.

What this book is about is restoring the complexity to the rural experience. Often urban Americans think they know better than the people who live in these places themselves and a lot of the book is explaining how people who live in rural places have a very sophisticated understanding of the history of leasing the minerals under their feet.

Right, but as your book explains via the Haney family, at the same time, people who end up leasing out their land do often end up getting screwed over by the environmental and health consequences of doing so.

Absolutely, absolutely. I began reporting this book long before Donald Trump existed in our political imaginations, right? Seven years ago. And yet, what I didn’t know I was reporting at the time was really a story about citizen heroes in Trump’s America, because these people, Stacey Haney and her family and her neighbors, this is Trump country and their families are Trump voters, and yet they stand up to defend themselves against this corporation.

OK so I’m a person who lives in urban America and I’m not a Trump voter.

Shocking.

You’re saying essentially that urban America is often condescending or paternalistic, but you know that environmental issues are important, environmental regulations are in many cases important. What would be a responsible approach to these issues?

Well, first of all listening. Some people feel they’ve never been listened to. We’re not talking about fracking itself, we’re talking about the political divide. How do we heal this political divide? Right? And the first answer would be by paying attention, but paying better attention. Thinking that our attitude as urban Americans is somehow more educated in the basics involved in extraction. That’s bullshit. People who live in rural America understand what extraction costs them.

I guess what I’m trying to understand is whether you think the overarching problem is that the regulations on rural America are too onerous or not onerous enough?

Yeah, regulation is arbitrary. It’s shoddy at best. So, quite often I myself as an urban American and many of the people in this book assume as better off Americans that regulators are doing an adequate job when in fact in many cases they aren’t. There isn’t a blanket statement to be made about regulation as a solution here.

Did you notice any changes on the ground as Trump came onto the political scene and came to dominate our political conversations?

Yes. I noticed a troubling level of confidence with people asserting racist and aggressive points of view, as we’ve seen elsewhere.

Is there a way that you think that these resentments toward urban America, which you say partially is reasonable because of the lack of understanding of rural issues, but obviously part of it is an unreasonable racism, combine or become enmeshed?

Absolutely. I mean, like any other human reality, it’s complex, so there’s no saying rural Americans are right, or admirable, or that these are attitudes we have to understand, or that rural Americans are the source of the problem. The reality is it’s messy and dirty. As a reporter, since the election of Trump, what’s changed the most is that I understand some of the readers we’re writing for need more help than I knew. Does that make sense?

It depends. What do you mean?

Once upon a time before Trump, when I would write a story, Syrian refugees coming to the United States or the crisis for religious minorities in the Middle East or something like that, I would simply be doing my best to set down an obvious problem that I felt people needed to pay attention to. And I assumed the audience would understand the problem once it was pointed out. What’s changed the most for me is that I think much more about the issue of audience, because the audience that I write for doesn’t know as much about the rest of the country as we might and as we should.

I assume you do not think Trump is going to be great for rural, poor Americans. That his presidency is not going to be great for them.

You are correct in that assumption, Isaac.

So, given that that’s the case, and given that rural Americans in states like West Virginia or Kentucky may see their Medicaid cut with Trump as president, it seems like they may not be acting in their own self-interest when they support him. I’m trying to understand why, given that you think they have a better understanding of many of the issues than urban America does, they are making this voting decision that may be calamitous, not just for urban America or the world, but that may be calamitous for their own livelihood?

Because they hate the government more than they hate corporate influence. [That goes] back to the Revolutionary War. I mean, on Main Street in Washington, Pennsylvania, if you look in a store window, there is a portrait of Alexander Hamilton hanging upside down. It’s a huge fuck you to the federal government today. And that dates back to 1791, when this area rose up against the federal government for imposing its first tax.

When you look back—and you got to know people really well—do you see their vote for Trump as more a vote of anger and sort of a sense of, like, everyone’s fucked us over and we’re going to express that? Or do you have a sense that people voted for Trump largely because they really thought he could solve their problems?

Really both. Voting for Trump [was] throwing a brick at a Park Avenue apartment, yes. But did Trump come to Appalachia, particularly to southwestern Pennsylvania, and promise that people would finally make money because he was going to unfetter regulation for coal companies and oil and gas companies, and thereby that trickle-down money would reach people’s pockets? Yes. So it was both anger and frustration as well as a hope in the future he’d deliver.

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