THE BIDEN-HARRIS ADMINISTRATION MUST ADDRESS THE URBAN-RURAL/SMALL TOWN DIVIDE
As a life-long Democrat who grew up in the deep South during Jim Crow, I could not be prouder of the election of the Biden-Harris ticket and the party’s goal of addressing income disparity and other social issues. At the same time, I have a deep concern that the Democratic Party will lack the political resolve to undertake the major initiatives necessary to heal the urban-rural/small town divide. It will not be enough for the new administration to rely on rhetoric about its compassion for Americans who feel resentment towards what they perceive as urban elites. And It will take more than increased spending on established programs like rural broadband. Rather, it will take major initiatives designed to address the very real economic and social anxieties of rural and small-town Americans.
Like many who left small towns for an urban college, I have now lived most of my adult life in a metropolitan area. My youth was spent in a Friday Night Lights culture comprised of sincere born-again Christians who were nevertheless proud supporters of George Wallace. My upbringing is as alien to my current Ivy League educated friends as if I had immigrated from a foreign country. But having lived in both worlds—one rural and the other urban--I appreciate the emotions of the voters in each sphere. This understanding causes me to be pessimistic over the future of our democracy if we do not address the current divide and optimistic if we do.
I have been involved in Democratic Party politics, served on local and state agricultural commissions and consulted the USDA on rural development programs. In 2016, I tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Clinton Campaign to develop a rural economic development initiative focusing on traditional rural areas and small towns. Following the election of President Trump, I again unsuccessfully tried to convince national organizations to propose major legislation in this area.
Even before last month’s election, the press was full of stories about the urban-rural gap—the world of Whole Foods versus Cracker Barrel-- and pundits such as James Carville were warning about the electoral impact of the cultural arrogance within parts of the Democratic Party. Republicans were effective in characterizing Democrats as the party of the urban elite and, as noted by University of Virginia professor Dr. Guian McKee, the 2020 election showed an ever-deepening polarization between urban and rural/small town Americans. Some election analysis has shown that President Trump received approximately 55% of the vote in rural and small towns in 2020 nationwide and in some areas substantially higher.
During the Democratic presidential primaries, there were candidates such as Senators Klobuchar, Booker and Warren who issued detailed plans to help Americans living outside major urban areas. But, for whatever reason, addressing the needs of rural Americans was not a major issue during the televised portions of the Democratic 2020 Convention nor was it a central component of President Biden’s general election campaign.
As books such as Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good suggest, it is not hyperbole to warn that the failure of the new administration to address the urban-rural divide may dangerously undermine democracy in the United States. The resentment among many rural Americans is palpable and the reasons behind this resentment are not unknown. As many histories on fascism have shown, the threat to our future is real if this anger is not confronted.
There are four actions that the Biden-Harris Administration should undertake to address the urban-rural schism. First, President-elect Biden should appoint a special envoy on rural and small-town America Issues comparable to that established for John Kerry on climate change. This act alone would show the new administration’s commitment to addressing the concerns of Americans living outside urban centers.
Second, President-elect Biden should establish a bi-partisan commission (headed by the new special envoy) to ensure that rural and small-town Americans have the same opportunity to find jobs, own homes, send their children to good schools and have access to healthcare as the Democratic Party is advocating for its urban base. A major task of this new commission should be to work with stakeholders to enact a “Rural America New Deal” to help bring about such equal opportunities.
Third, the new administration needs to appreciate that what is acceptable and workable in an urban environment does not necessarily fit the realities and culture of rural communities. The new special envoy for rural America should be specifically tasked with working with state and local leaders in how best to avoid actions which may be perceived in rural communities as overreaching by the Federal government and in violation of cultural norms. Part of this effort should be the exploration of ways to ensure that Federal regulations are more accommodating to social values in rural communities.
And finally, the bi-partisan commission suggested above should explore—in partnership with the private sector--the creation of a modern rural/small town version of the Works Progress Administration or a new Civilian Conservation Corps to help improve rural America’s infrastructure and standard of living. Not only would such programs create economic opportunity in rural/small town areas but, by having urban and rural citizens work together, they may help breakdown the “us versus them” mentality which often exists between urban and rural Americans and possibly address the elitism which is the focus of Professor Sandel’s concern in The Tyranny of Merit.
Even if the Biden-Harris Administration were to view the urban-rural divide from a purely parochial partisanship perspective, it should consider the agenda outlined above. In Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide political scientist Jonathan A. Rodd describes in detail why the Democratic Party cannot prevail at the local level (including Congressional Districts) without it becoming more appealing to rural voters. Thus, from a solely electoral standpoint, it should be a priority for the Democratic Party to establish programs to demonstrate that it cares about voters outside its urban strongholds.
As commentators such as have Fareed Zakaria and Anne Applebaum have noted, the resentment of those individuals who feel alienated is not just based on a lack of economic opportunity but by a feeling of being marginalized by those in power. And while Washington cannot cure all the reasons why rural and small town Americans may feel resentment toward who they perceive as urban elites, at a minimum the Biden-Harris Administration can send a clear message that it hears their concerns and is committed to trying to address them. The implementation of the measures suggested above—showing a commitment to rural and small-town America’s economic future and an appreciation for the cultural difference which exists between urban and rural/small town communities—would be a major step toward addressing the divide threatening our democracy.