Kerri Miller had an excellent program this past month on the election and how the urban/rural divide was possibly a key to understanding the results. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/12/29/growing-urban-rural-divide She wanted to hear from urban and rural voters to get their input and she asked where we think we can find the common ground to get to solutions. I moved to Minnesota from Indiana 2 years ago hoping for more progressive politics. Indiana seemed to be regressing with regard to education, tolerance of difference, and worker’s rights. Minnesota was doing well – good employment (my husband had multiple job offers in Alexandria when we planned our move here), gay marriage had been voted in (indicating a place of acceptance of all people), and rural fiber optic internet was being implemented (the Harn would have faster internet than we’d ever had, even in an Indianapolis suburb!). Alexandria turned out to be way more evangelical and conservative than I imagined. But I now live up north in truly rural Clearwater county and it’s another interesting change because it’s actually more Democratic than I expected. I think Kerri’s idea that we need to find the common ground is on target so I was very interested in this discussion.
Did angry, white, rural voters out-vote their more diverse urban voters? Are political and cultural perceptions between rural and urban all that different? Where are there similarities that can bring us all together?
Dante Chinni (Head of the American Communities Project at American University and writer for the Politics Counts blog) and Jeff Guo (Economics Reporter for the Washington Post) joined Kerri Miller for the discussion. Jeff began with a reference to the work by Thomas Frank What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which contended that rural voters vote against their own interests after being convinced to focus solely on cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage, ignoring issues like jobs and government services. But he then rebutted that concept as off-target with more recent work by Kathy Cramer from the University of WI Madison who says this is an insult to rural people. She found that the rural thinking on politics is rooted in values but also a suspicion of urban people. Rural Wisconsin voters think the decisions are made in Madison or Milwaukee without input from the rural viewpoint and then rural areas simply have to live with these decisions, which often don’t mete out to them a fair share of the resources. This has led to a feeling of not being heard and respected. (An interview done by Guo explains this in more detail https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/08/a-new-theory-for-why-trump-voters-are-so-angry-that-actually-makes-sense/?utm_term=.58996cccf753) This sounds a lot like the rural Minnesota argument. All the decisions are made in St. Paul and all the money goes to The Cities!
So, where is the difference between urban and rural?
Is race a factor? Yes. When you live in a place where there is little diversity, it’s hard to comprehend people different from you. Dante referenced the homogeneity of the rural communities which are often also more religious. But the difference is more than this; it’s about world views which are widely divergent between urban and rural voters.
There was some humor in the program’s discussion of REAL America. I remember that there was a lot of focus in the election post-game about how rural people feel like they are REAL America… that even though the coasts and the cities have LOTS of people, REAL America was represented as rural voters helped elect Donald Trump. Seriously??? We are all REAL PEOPLE. Yes. We are all REAL, People! And we need to stop discounting the fact that we all have value. And each of us can have good ideas and real perspectives on our life… our REALITY.
A caller from Fosston noted the following: Small town people are affected by changes more quickly and visibly than people in urban areas. Rural DFLers are focused on vocational jobs, hard work, and gaining the fruits of their labor without giving it to others. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN to these people meant going back to times before these recent “bad” changes affected their lives. They don’t like the cultural shifts being made as they are against some of their values.
But values of rural people are no more pristine than the values of urban people. We all have morals and just because we may differ in our values doesn’t mean we’re immoral. I believe it’s partly about perspective. Abortion is wrong from the perspective of ending a life of a child. But when viewed from the perspective of a woman’s right to own her body and determine its destiny, a right to choose becomes prominent.
And I think it’s also about pace and information flow. Urban folks move at a faster pace and process a huge amount of social information while rural folks move more at the pace of nature and often don’t even own a computer. Most urban people have known someone who is gay for decades so gay marriage seems long overdue to them. But rural folks can be more conservative in their communications, after all, things are more homogeneous and constant so, don’t rock the boat with some big pronouncement! While gay people may live among them, it is often just not addressed… it’s downplayed, denied, or simply ignored. Gay marriage seems at best, unnecessary, and at worst, a damnation.
In the country, things staying the same brings comfort. Yes, the seasons change but this is gradual and a cycle that occurs every year. Fast change usually means trouble – big winds blow down trees, big rain means we can’t pull in the harvest, a weasel wiping out the chicken coop means no eggs for breakfast for a while. But also there is a focus on community that makes these changes bearable. There is an understanding that we’re out here in the country and we need to stick together to make things work. So when change happens, we come together to cut the trees into firewood, band together to harvest quickly when the weather turns good again, and gift some eggs to the neighbor because, when our flock takes a hit, they’ll be gifting some to us.
For Urbanites, change is fast, constant and often means good things – a new store so they can access goods more easily, the pothole fixed, new neighbors from Thailand bring a welcome food diversity to the annual block party. But there is more frequently a tendency to take care on your own for personal stuff. A/C broken? Call the repairman as you likely don’t have a friend close by who knows how to fix it. Need a cup of sugar? The store is just down the block so you run out for a new bag.
While voter turnout was down, the rural vote percentage increased even while populations dropped. In large part, it seems to be a result of a real disappointment in our economic situations in rural areas. There was a real belief that we needed to “drain the swamp” as D.C. is NOT WORKING. Trump convinced voters that he was the Working Class Candidate. But even people who know he can’t truly fix what is wrong, they like that Trump talks directly to them. He is an outsider of the non-working system in D.C. and that gives them hope. Some of these rural people voted Obama! They had hope for change but over the last 8 years, there has been not a lot of change that is helping their lives. Jobs continue to flounder in rural areas and while health care is available, it’s not affordable. And people are angry. And Trump expresses their frustration in a way that is familiar.
An interesting aspect that I didn’t hear much about in the campaigns but see in the work of Kathy Cramer is that the big crash of 2008 was seen very differently from rural and urban perspectives. Urbanites were hit hard by the crushing job losses and rampant foreclosures while rural people have been dealing with economic hardship for some time. They’ve been tightening the belt since the mid-70s, so while the crash has taken a hit, the difference to normal life was not so shocking. And while some seem to think that everyone rural is against “Obamacare”, many rural voters actually LIKE Obamacare. They see the benefits of kids being on your insurance until 26 and not being able to be rejected for pre-existing conditions. However, they also see how they cannot afford the coverage with the current system that still gives the power of pricing to insurance companies and not individuals. So as much as they like it, they can’t afford to access it. Some urban elites CAN afford coverage with higher incomes, though many of them too find it unaffordable as costs continue to increase dramatically each year. Dan’s company had a 70% increase in health care costs in December.
So where can we find similarities? Where is our common ground for finding solutions?
Dante brought up an interesting point that today we all create our own reality based not only on our day-to-day lives but also on the virtual world where we live much of our lives today. “Everybody lives in a bubble”, he says. When everyone is living in a unique reality, how do we govern?
In Permaculture, the Problem is the Solution. I heard the other day, the problem is that your eyes are so heavy you can’t stay awake. The solution is going to sleep! The problem is the solution!
America is becoming more diverse. This has been happening for some time in our cities and is now increasing in rural areas as well. It means we need to move toward inclusiveness. And I think, with many viewpoints ~ native, long-term immigrant and new immigrant ~ we can find the best solutions; our differences are what can help us find solutions. Knowing each other and our relevant dilemmas and concerns, refusing to discount our differences but taking all the information into account, this is where we might find a common path forward.
I found this in working in Quality for the Steel Mills – and many in marriages see this occasionally with their spouses – everyone thinks they do the most work and get the least benefit. Rural people don’t comprehend the difficulties faced in urban areas and vice versa. And often, the stories of the other place are embellished and changed in ways that prevent us from seeing the reality. In the steel mill, by sharing with each area the hardships in other areas, both downstream and upstream, we could come to solutions that benefited everyone the most and cost the least in new activity or investment. Sometimes people simply didn’t realize how little things they did affected the next person down the line and, knowing it, they made changes to improve the process for the next guy. This was made more effective when they knew the system was being addressed and they too would get help from changes made up and downstream to them.
How can urban and rural work together? The cities can support lots of people and we need to support things like light rail to reduce the fossil fuel usage and increase efficiency. This helps rural people when they come to the city by having more open roadways and/or transportation systems that they can use once they get to the city. What’s good for the metro is good for out-state, or so they say. And in this case, I believe it’s true. Is the reverse true? I believe it is. If we have good programs to support small and organic farms, there is more abundant superior local food which can also support people in the cities. If we have good education programs in rural areas, we create more vibrant economies which provide more jobs and tax dollars, again supporting the state as a whole.
Rural people comprehend self-sufficiency in a better way so we need to listen to their ideas about working together as well. And that needs to mean working together as urban and rural, not just for one group above the other.
What I didn’t hear about was what was TRUE about tax spending. Rural gets a lot of money in roads and bridges. My suspicion was that, per capita spending was higher in rural counties than urban and that tax income was higher in these counties that actually get less. And so it is. http://www.startribune.com/metro-vs-outstate-which-counties-pay-most-taxes-and-which-get-most-aid/289629981/ We have a lot of infrastructure to support for a smaller number of people in “out-state” ~ another irritant to rural folks in MN is hearing themselves described as “out-state” as if they are not a part of the state but some kind of foreign area. Perhaps the funding going rural is put more into infrastructure and not as much in social services. I think our roads are pretty good up here in “Out-State”. From the calls made by rural folks to the program, and what you hear from rural people, what they want is government support, not smaller government. It seems to me that part of the issue is we have representatives that want to cut taxes (reducing the State’s income) while their constituents want more services, improved educational options, better roads, expanded internet. You can’t have both.
With jobs being a major concern, we need to not denigrate vocational work or manufacturing jobs. We need both. Dante focused on the fact that many of the lost jobs are not being taken by people in other countries but by machines. Think about the farms of the past where you milked the goat by hand. Now one farmer can milk 10 or more cows at a time with automated milking stations. In Detroit, the number of auto workers needed to build a car has been cut in half and, as robotics and mechanization continue, this number will continue to decrease. This is a new economy and we need to find new ways to make money. Any manufacturing that does develop in the US will largely be located in the rural South where wages are lower so the North needs to find a new way. Manufacturing work is attractive and, as Jeff notes, “it sounds good to be able to say you do a job where you actually physically make things” and Dante notes that even the hipsters in Brooklyn are proud to say they make their own candles. We all need to understand that the future is not bringing more of the jobs we know and love (do we love them?). Dante noted that we had the Tech bubble, the Real Estate bubble, and then collapse. We are now seeing that 1-2% growth may be the new norm.
I believe we will need a large cultural shift to find solutions. One caller (Marie) noted the difference between Obama and Trump with regard to energy jobs. Obama focused on clean energy, which is forward thinking and leading edge so maybe hard to imagine, while Trump argues for coal, which is nostalgic (and focused in rural areas) but unsustainable. I think we can move forward in both urban and rural areas with clean energy. There are opportunities for jobs as you see with RREAL (http://www.rreal.org/) and CEEM (http://www.cleanenergyeconomymn.org/). It looks like MN is doing a good job on growing renewable energy: http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/03/03/renewable-energy-fuels-21-percent-minnesota-electricity
While the future is unclear, I think we need all our brains working on it. I am glad to be doing my little part of trying to live more sustainably. It’s a work in progress and I’m not sure how it will grow and change as I figure it out but I definitely like not spoiling pristine water with my own waste products, using less energy with LEDs, driving and eating less than I used to, and learning more about supporting my local community. I heard a really good podcast on sustainability from Ethan at the Possibility Alliance that has become a new challenge to me. I’ll keep you posted as I figure out more. http://www.thepermaculturepodcast.com/2015/episode-1523-ethan-hughes/
In the end…
From the interview with Jeff Guo, Kathy Cramer says this about her work with the rural people of WI:
And then I would go back for a second visit, a third visit, a fourth, fifth and sixth. And we liked each other. Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, “You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.” And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings.
I think this is the key. We need to recognize each other as human beings. We all have some things in common. We want to love and be loved, we want a better world for our children, and we want to be safe, comfortable and fed. We need to see the anger and fear as a result of not getting these things and, rather than criticizing it, find the solutions to eradicate the anger and fear. If we stay in the fear and anger, fighting each other, we won’t get very far. But if we work together, we can find a good way forward. Here’s hoping the Minnesota legislators can do this in a way that helps us all.