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The Right Road Lost

An introduction to Unseen America.
Postcard Unseen America Final

Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
     In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
     About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough....

                  —Dante, The Inferno (translated by Robert Pinsky)

LINCOLN, Nebraska — On November 9th, 2016, many Americans awoke not only to the shock of Donald Trump's election as president but to the feeling that the middle of the country was suddenly foreign to them, a place that they had utterly misjudged and misunderstood. Journalists, in particular, fell into a period of self-reflection, as many of us struggled to understand how we had missed (or dismissed) the seething discontent and rage that gave sudden rise to Trump. It wasn't just that the polling was off. We had somehow failed to register the stories of people who live far away from the centers of gravity in the media universe, which lie along the nation's edges.

What followed was a predictable, and often misguided, overcorrection. National newspapers and magazines hustled to get stories from "Trump Country." Publishers went searching for the next J.D. Vance, someone who would guide us through the American Inferno while reassuring us that we bear no responsibility for losing the right road. Of course, there was no single reason why traditional Blue States turned red or why some Red States turned redder. Maybe it was economic anxiety. Maybe it was racism. Maybe it was a sense among rural and exurban voters that, having been left out of the national conversation for so long, they had nothing to lose by electing a political novice with an arsonist's respect for institutions. Whatever "it" might have been, the backlash among Rust Belt and white suburban voters was powerful, complex, and baffling.

Not surprisingly, the countervailing desire to make the problems of middle America small enough to generalize and minimize was equally strong—and has brought us right back to where we started. Another election cycle is upon us, and the middle of the country remains as enigmatic to most coastal observers as it was four years ago when Trump took his fateful ride down the escalator and into the Oval Office. We in the journalism business are back to talk of caucuses and debates, profiles of auto workers and farmers. We're projecting economic outlooks and scrutinizing polling data. We're all four years older, but we don't appear to be one day wiser.

With all that in mind, I undertook this project for Pacific Standard, asking a group of freelance reporters, most of whom grew up and still live away from the coastal media centers, to tackle topics relevant to their communities and their experience of the misunderstood middle of the country. The subjects are specific but far from parochial. These stories confront overt violence and discrimination on tribal lands and the border region, but they also expose the subtle bigotry of declining access to basic resources, such as education and public information, that hastens the cycle of depopulation and polarization in rural areas.

Read more stories from Unseen America.

Read more stories from Unseen America.

Together, these stories present a much more complex view than the quadrennial parachute drop by cable news reporters into "flyover country." More importantly, they contain a unifying thread: a sense of abandonment, a feeling that when something goes wrong in rural America, no one is coming to the rescue. If anything, the hurdles for these communities are made higher by the failures of government. Not Republican obstruction. Not Democratic capitulation. But bipartisan indifference to a voting block too small and too impoverished to buy a place at the political table.

These aren't untold stories, but they are largely unheeded. If we truly want to redraw the political maps, first we have to meet these communities where they are and hear them out.

Find all the stories in the Unseen America series here.