Sheriffs and the problem of rural representation
Since the election of Trump, the largely urban-centric press has tied itself in knots to explain his appeal. Many have resorted to the stereotype of the white, rural, largely working-class voter who adores Trump out of a lack of economic options. But, in an understandable quest to sympathize with people who are, on their face, pretty unsympathetic, the press has created new heroes for the far-right and spread misinformation about rural America.
Take, for example, Shane Bouvet, who appeared at the Grand Rapids rally with Sheriff Dar Leaf. Bouvet was an active men’s rights advocate before he became a Trump supporter (or perhaps the two are indistinguishable), using social media and far-right channels to raise money for what he claimed was an expensive custody battle with his ex. The Washington Post wrote a profile on him, depicting him as a down-and-out single father who couldn’t afford shoes to attend Trump’s inauguration. Trump later sent him $10,000 which Bouvet said went to his father’s cancer treatment. The press miscast Bouvet as a struggling out-of-work miner even though he was a part-time FedEx courier and an extreme, very-online Trump supporter who had been trying for years to achieve political relevance. Bouvet became someone the mainstream press thought represented the typical Trump voter: disenfranchised and disillusioned. But in reality: Bouvet is running for the Michigan legislature and got a big boost from Trump and the WaPo (which did two whole stories on him) even though the state Republican party gave him the cold shoulder.
In other words, Bouvet is a political opportunist and, from the looks of his Facebook page, substantially more bougie than his origin story. (As an aside, I find it highly unlikely reporters found him naturally-occurring in a diner and suspect local Trump boosters pointed him out because of his extreme on-line trolling personality.)
How does this relate to sheriffs, you might be asking? For some time, I have been pointing out that sheriffs derive political power because they tap into a sense of disenfranchisement. Because sheriffs are elected on a county level, they are able to rally a majority of non-urban voters by reciting the same shibboleths about the moral decay of liberal urban-dwellers, the dangers of immigration, and the loss of an imaginary “true America.” Like Shane Bouvet, they use an imaginary fable of “realness” when their political identities are constructed.
Take an interview by Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones, which was recorded after the super-spreader “Re-Open Cal Now Public Policy Conference.” Sheriff Jones has positioned himself as one of the So-Cal COVID truthers, posting misleading and false information on Facebook under the guise of “just asking questions.” After he spoke at the conference, unmasked of course, he gave an interview where he explains the role of the sheriff in rural politics.
Below are some excerpts from the interview, which you can watch here: (All ellipses are an attempt to help Sheriff Jones makes some semblance of sense.)
Those areas which are more conservative, don’t have any voice in California. All of the state legislation, all of the state-wide elected officials…are all elected from San Francisco or Los Angeles…Sheriffs, generally speaking, are a more conservative category of law enforcement than chiefs of police in the state and we have the additional responsibility of maintaining the Constitution and being that sort of safeguard between onerous official imposing things and the security of the folks that we are elected to…we are in a unique position because we are elected…Our mandate is to the voters, not to the politics….I understand the frustration because they have absolutely no political voice in this state.
Look, he’s got a point. A lot of California is not particularly liberal and a lot is quite rural. Bakersfield is basically West Texas. Sacramento’s local politicians are much more conservative than the state government. And a lot of California is rural. (* Putting a note here to say that much of SoCal is owned by corporations like Wonderful who manage to control everything from the water boards to law enforcement. So rural doesn’t mean bucolic.)
I think there’s a point to be made about rural disenfranchisement. Some scholars argue that county elections and the prison industrial complex favor white rural populations in terms of economic development and policy at the expense of more diverse urban communities. But, while the population of incarcerated people remains disproportionately Black, a lot of towns that benefit from the PIC aren't white either. A lot of rural communities aren’t white; they are Black, Latinx, and Native American. And if this point about rural dominance were true, then they would have the best broadband access in the nation. (Law professor Lisa Pruitt is one of the best experts on this topic.)
But I don’t think that Sheriff Jones nor Shane Bouvet nor those involved in the January 6 insurrection are representative of rural America. The fact that the media continues to press this narrative provides more fuel to the fire and helps get more sheriffs like the ones I wrote about in this Slate article elected. (Though it looks like there’s media pushback now.)
What these sheriffs do quite effectively is tap into the widespread feeling of disenfranchisement without offering anything that would uplift distressed rural communities. This appeals to middle-class whites who can afford to stew in their resentment but doesn’t do much for the actual working-class poor, who are more likely to be the targets of over-policing than the beneficiaries. Take Sheriff Jones, who in the same interview I quoted above calls for “regular people” to be “activists” even as he completely downplays the role of sheriff as law enforcement and says he runs a “company.” But, he seems to forget that his “company” arrests, jails, and shoots people, and some of his employees rioted at the Capitol.
All of this relates back to the insurgents of January 6. It would be more pleasant to imagine that they were all working-class men, sort of an ideal depiction of the laid-off mineworker or steelworker. But they weren’t. (A hotel in DC isn’t very cheap after all.) They were ex- and current military, law enforcement, business owners, and wealthy entrepreneurs and real estate brokers who flew private planes. Now, they share some of the discontents of the white, rural working-class – namely racial resentments – that Trump and the “patriot movement” have used to rally people to their side.
(Note: I am using the term “patriot movement” to refer to far-right groups, which are diverse in ideology, that do not align directly with the Republican party and that have a conspiracy-laden mindset leading them to believe the various lies about the election, etc. They tend to identify as “patriots.”)
The tactic of turning economic insecurity into racial resentment is as old as time. Post-civil war, white ex-plantation owners managed to rally yeoman farmers to their side even though this was not an obvious alliance. Andrew Jackson himself was no fan of Southern gentry. He was pro-working-class all the way. But, he realized that tying his political future to racial resentment would allow him to build a coalition. So he did.
Sheriffs are the perfect vehicles. Some people were surprised that far-right militant groups like Proud Boys were not uniformly pro-law enforcement. Others have posited theories about this, but I will point out that sheriffs are a different form of law enforcement. They are not urban police. They are elected, which gives them the ability to claim populist will, and they are often in direct conflict with urban and state police. From their earliest manifestations, sheriffs set themselves up as a contrast to modern policing, not a continuation, even though today many large sheriff departments have accrued the technological trappings of police.
I think there’s a tendency among the urban intelligentsia to ignore sheriffs as a sort of relic, harboring the idea to let rural populations have their sheriffs because it makes them happy or assuming that sheriffs aren't particularly meaningful in the fabric of politics or mass incarceration. But, as we have seen, the sheriff is the elected official who ties racial resentments together with actual oppression through mass incarceration. The Republican party may fracture (we will see), but it will have little impact on sheriffs. Instead, sheriffs will become one of the most important elected officials for the far right. There are, after all, 3,081 opportunities for sheriffs. Only one for president.
Scamming Sheriff Update
A few sheriffs popped up with legal troubles this week.
1) The Washington State Supreme Court held that Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher may have committed a felony when he backdated an internal review of himself. The ruling means that a recall election against Sheriff Hatcher can go forward. The basis of the allegations was the misappropriation of ammunition for his own use. But, it also looks like there are other weirdly suspicious actions, like a house in Montana that the sheriff says is his primary residence. My favorite tidbit: he asked his wife (whom he is in the process of divorcing) to cover some of his mounting legal expenses after the county refused.
2) Kershaw County, South Carolina Sheriff Lee Boan and his deputy are being sued for excessive force. The incident involves the arrest of Tony Sims in a parking lot, where, according to the complaint, Deputy Jonathan Goldsmith arrested Sims for driving drunk (Sims was waiting for a friend to pick him up and wasn’t driving at the time), handcuffed him, beat him until he was unconscious, and then tased him. Sheriff Boan was aware of Goldsmith’s history of excessive force.
3) Clay County, Florida, Sheriff Darryl Daniels was charged with three misdemeanors related to his use of senior staff to solicit campaign donations (allegedly, he threatened to fire senior staff if they didn’t support him). Sheriff Daniels was also accused of having an affair with an employee and then trying to arrest her for stalking in order to prevent an investigation.
4) The Durham County, North Carolina, sheriff has a new ghost car. Huh.