Rural Americans have been voting Republican for more than half a century. And while Democrats have periodically attempted to convince rural voters that their economic interests are ill-served by the GOP’s agenda, they have mostly failed. That’s because Republicans have used a kind of fake populism—populism expressed chiefly through culture war, rather than through policy—to maintain their white, working-class base.
Portraying Democrats as out-of-touch coastal elitists, the GOP has turned rural voters against universal health care (despite lower rural life expectancies), climate action (despite growing threats to crops), immigration reform (despite reliance on migrant labor), and wealth redistribution (despite higher levels of poverty in rural areas). Now Republicans have trained their sights on public education, including rural schools. Painting classrooms as sites for “woke” indoctrination and vilifying teachers as “groomers,” they’re hoping to convince rural voters to turn on public education. But this is proving a riskier tactic than they expected.
Ronald Reagan’s brand of Goldwater conservatism—distinguished by a libertarian obsession with tax cuts, privatization, and deregulation—has been Republican orthodoxy for decades. And viewed through that ideological lens, public education looks like a staggeringly expensive, big-government welfare program. Yet defunding schools has long remained a wildly unpopular proposition, even in red states. Reagan’s attempt at a private-school voucher program, for instance, was one of his rare stinging defeats while in office, and his successors took great pains to depict themselves as supporters of public education.
Attacking the public schools is a bold move anywhere, but particularly in rural America. School districts are often the largest employers in rural communities, and they still serve as vital cultural anchors. In some communities, the schools represent the last remaining piece of public infrastructure.
Yet the GOP’s campaign may be working. In primary elections in Kentucky, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas, GOP voters punished rural lawmakers who opposed private-school choice programs. “For Republicans, school choice has emerged as a litmus-test issue on par with being pro-life,” argued Corey DeAngelis of the American Federation of Children, an advocacy group founded by Betsy DeVos, and whose PAC has plowed money into local races.
But picking off Republican legislators may prove easier than breaking the bond between rural residents and their schools. In Croydon, N.H., a small town that went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020, an effort to replace the local elementary school with a “micro-school”—a stripped-down, mostly online model of education operated by a for-profit venture—met with furious pushback. When locals realized that DeVos’s rallying cry of “funding students not systems” actually meant transferring the burden of paying for education onto parents, they revolted, convening the largest public gathering in town history to overturn a deep cut to the school budget.
While proponents of private-school vouchers and so-called education savings accounts point to polls showing sky-high support among Republicans, enthusiasm flags when voters perceive such programs as undermining their public schools. In Iowa, where half of the population lives in rural areas, voters are broadly opposed to the private-school voucher plan flogged by Governor Kim Reynolds, who has made hostility to public education a central theme of her time in office. According to a recent poll, strong majorities of Iowans across party lines say they want to see public schools funded and protected rather than money shifted into private alternatives. Nor does Reynolds’s portrayal of Iowa public schools as promoting “drag shows for young kids, pornographic books in school libraries, [and] elementary lessons on pronouns” appear to have resonated with voters. Another poll found that 81 percent of Republicans trust Iowa’s public schools—only slightly less than the 86 percent of Democrats who hold that opinion.
By staking out a position that is so at odds with the views of a key party constituency, the GOP has created an opening for Democrats, who have mostly written off rural voters in recent elections.
In Texas, for example, Beto O’Rourke is trying to capitalize on opposition to school vouchers in deep-red counties. He’s running newspaper and radio ads in rural areas, urging voters to “reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan to defund” public schools.
But the Democrats also have an opportunity to expose the hollowness at the core of Republican populism—a movement that feeds off of rural resentment, yet offers nothing in the way of concrete policy options to reverse rural decline. Indeed, school choice measures that drain funds from rural schools will only serve to hasten that decline, undermining institutions that communities have fought to protect and preserve.
In recent years, an ascendant “New Right” has embraced the idea of so-called “common good conservatism” that takes aim not just at the left and “woke” ideology but also at libertarian economic orthodoxy. Adherents like J.D. Vance make the case that the libertarian worship of individual choice, consumerism, and laissez-faire economics has left rural America behind. But there is no more libertarian policy than treating education as a consumer good in a marketplace, as Milton Friedman first envisioned in 1955. Indeed, the GOP’s vision of school choice today, embraced by New Right populists and libertarians alike, is far more radical than what Friedman originally proposed. What’s billed as “education freedom” detaches the very concept of school from place, instead offering an endless stream of “learning options” available for purchase by consumers.
Scrape away the incendiary rhetoric and there is nothing new in the GOP’s push to privatize public education. Leaders in the Republican Party have long been opposed to the taxes that pay for education, to the social safety net services schools increasingly provide, and even to the democratic form of governance that characterizes public education. It’s an old ideological aim dressed up in a Trump-era sales pitch. It’s more faux-populism, offering plenty in the way of sound and fury but little in the way of substance.