Over Thanksgiving weekend, I visited my hometown in rural Iowa. Once a thriving community with a variety of cafes, grocery stores, a five-and-dime, a clothing store, 3 farm implement dealers, 3 car dealers, a couple of hotels and more, it now features more empty storefronts and museums than active businesses…casualties of interstate highways that bypass all but the largest cities, corporate farms that have reduced the farm population by roughly 90 percent, big box stores and online retail.
Is it any wonder that many of the few remaining residents of such towns are frustrated?
As they have watched their town fade away, they have seen job opportunities fade along with it. Their home values have declined. And the decreasing tax base forces them to choose between larger property tax assessments or declining infrastructure.
They mistakenly believe that their income taxes disproportionately benefit large cities (however an Indiana study found that taxpayers in 46 metropolitan counties paid 82.5% of the taxes but received only 76.7% of the expenditures). They feel that their economic futures are no longer in their own control, but in the hands of a group of greedy corporations and politicians. Many believe urban “elites” are the source of all their problems. After all, it was the millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street who used their money to gamble on derivatives leading to the Great Recession.
It’s largely because of their circumstances that they have become susceptible to fake news. They believe (rightfully so) that the mainstream media ignore those living in “flyover land” so they tune rightwing blowhards who skillfully pander to them by channeling their frustrations and outrage against liberals, immigrants and urban welfare recipients. They have been led to believe that the sensational crimes reported on evening newscasts show that city dwellers are a violent and lawless bunch. Many believe the cities are filled only with criminals and people with advanced degrees who lack common sense. And far too many believe the fear-mongering politicians who tell them that our nation is being over-run by criminals and terrorists.
Instead of finding common ground with the millions of similarly underpaid, overworked and overstressed people who work in large cities, they have been led to believe that they are rivals…indeed, enemies.
I am convinced that, more than anything else, this is what has led to our political divide.
The people living in rural communities similar to my hometown – those that have been persuaded that big city elites are conspiring against them – have an outsized influence on our national politics. Though only 14% of the US population lives in rural areas, the rural population has a disproportionate representation in the US Senate and, therefore, the Electoral College. Indeed, it is primarily because of their frustrations that Donald Trump now sits in the Oval Office despite receiving nearly 3 million fewer votes.
Given this, how can we bridge the rural/urban divide? How can we improve the economic opportunities for rural Americans and help the struggling rural communities?
We can start by telling them the truth – that their cherished lifestyle isn’t coming back until they make some difficult choices and accept monumental change. Despite the promises of some politicians, it’s unlikely that manufacturing plants are going to return to many of these towns and, even if they do, most of the work will be done by robots. And small, independent retail stores are unlikely to return as long as most Americans prefer to shop online and in big box stores.
Ironically, the most likely scenario for rebuilding our rural communities and for bridging our political divide is to commit to an aggressive (and necessary) response to climate change. Decreasing carbon emissions will require less dependence on imports and more demand for local production. It will require that fossil fuels be replaced with sustainable energy sources. Finally, it will require a reduction in the amount of cropland devoted to corn, soybeans and cattle. Instead, much of the land will necessarily be used for locally-grown produce.
In other words, the side effect of heading off climate disaster is to stop arguing and improve the circumstances of all Americans, rural and urban alike.