November 22, 2006

The ‘Real’ America

Steven Johnson has a great blog post at this week talking about urban vs. rural America. In fact, it has long galled me that some of our more conservative politicians talk like rural America is the only "real" America, while urban America is some kind of decadent invader of America's true culture.

"It’s one thing to celebrate the values of the American farmer and small-town civility. It’s another thing for city dwellers to be lectured about urban depravity and the 'heartland' way of life, when cities are partially subsidizing that way of life," Johnson writes, noting that "Blue states consistently pay more in taxes than they receive in federal assistance; the opposite is true for the red states. Why? Because cities like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco, despite their welfare queens, are tremendous engines of wealth creation."

Whether it's the Boston area for medical science; New York for fashion, media, entertainment and finance; or Silicon Valley for technology, densely populated areas can offer a critical mass of people, institutions and infrastructure that promote innovation and entrepreneurship. It's a fair question: Why do some politicians denigrate these vibrant national centers? But the political results at the ballot box are clear:

"Consider the breakdown of the past election: rural areas voted Republican by a small margin. The suburbs were evenly divided between the two parties. But 70 percent of Americans living in cities with more than 500,000 people voted for Democrats. . . . One of the reasons the Republicans have so thoroughly lost the urban vote is that they have spent the last 30 years demonizing the culture of big cities – from Reagan’s welfare queens to the recent scaremongering about San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker of the House. City dwellers, we’re told, are not part of 'real America.'"

I'd take that one step further, because "suburb" is a sweeping term that encompasses both upscale, wealthy, 2+-acre-zoning communities and more economically and ethnically diverse places. I'd bet that more densely populated "inner ring" suburbs were bluer than the newer, more spread-out exurbs.

In any case, only one in five Americans lives in a rural community. It's about time political leaders of both parties woke up to the fact that urban, coastal America is very much a key part of our country.

There are many wonderful things about small-town America. But there are lots of great things about urban America, too. We're all part of the fabric of the nation and our national heritage that we celebrate tomorrow.


  1. Wait a sec. I’m probably expecting too much when I’d like to see more politicians move beyond the either/or trap

  2. Thomas Jefferson's vision of "a nation of farmers" did not come to pass.
    However (like the NYT article says above) rural "values" and America
    have somehow always been regarged as synonymous. Commentators,
    pundits and artists have glorified "country" ideals: some of the more
    influental of these have been Davy Crockett, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Woody Guthrie, John Ford, Garrison Keelor and (I kid you not) Jeff Foxworthy ... The worldwide popularity of western movies and country
    western music has spread the sterotype that "country" = "good" and
    "urban" = "bad" ... of course, this notion is mainly romantic hogwash,
    but a lot of people buy it ... In the hands of allegedly "populist" demagogues like Joe Scarborough, John Kasich, and Rush Limbaugh,
    the "values" argument comes close to dangerous rabble-rousing. It
    is when "attacks" are orchestrated upon teachers, higher education,
    science, the performing arts, and just about everything else (i.e.
    feminism, liberalism and gay rights) that are viewed as a "threat"
    to so-called "mainstream' America, that we begin to see dangerous
    trends such as provincialism, xenophobia, bigotry, etc. boiling to the surface 9particularly during the political campaign season) ... Somehow,
    it must be realized that there are no "blue" states or "red" states,
    only states of mind! Can these be "altered" or will be become a
    polarized society like one finds in the Middle East or Northern Irenand?

  3. Steinbeck's 1939 Grapes of Wrath and the subsequent 1940 film directed by John Ford were notable cracks in the facade of the "noble peasant" and the book was still censored as of 1987 in Graves County, Kentucky. The standard reasons given are adult language and the tragic, eerily hopeful final scene. The real reason was the virulent anti-government theme that runs throughout, properly illustrating the fear of the ruling classes when "I" becomes "we". Jane Darwell's Academy Award winning portrayal of Ma Joad beatifies the traditional image of the long suffering rural matriarch while allowing her to hurl anti-government invective. In the late thirties, however, law enforcement didn't need Hollywood popularizing another criminal like fictional Tom Joad when they had just buried Pretty Boy Floyd. Thousands of people swarmed the funeral home in East Liverpool to glimpse Floyd's body and town after town came out to mourn as the train took him back to Oklahoma where ten's of thousands attended his funeral. Don't worry about about this endless bullshit Red and Blue state crap, think about children being dressed in red,blue and other gang affiliation colors on the way to visit fathers in prison. A nation within a nation that believes it is totally written off by the mainstream, our consumer culture that believes it is justified and ordained to consume because we can, and it feels good.

    Our "popular" culture still glorifies thugs, on streets and in political office, and very profitably, but the reality is that American human capital, intellectual and workforce resources, urban and rural and in between, can no longer be squandered as in the past. You may think your street is safe. It's not. Nor borders or jobs or f**cking cheap gas or unions or any other fantasies. Out there in the world they don't care what we think is ours, they want theirs. Here is an opportunity for the wealthiest of world citizens to prove this constitution works and is egalitarian and replicable, a demonstration of the meaning of United. I just witnessed over 200 cutting edge Ohio farmers listen to the president of a leading Ohio fuel cell company in rapt fascination as he outlined the pragmatic intersection of advanced technology, biomass energy and agronomy. Our future is and will continue to utilize urban and rural, high tech, low tech, displaced, emerging, entrepenurial, traditional, immigrating and remediated labor forces in a carbon constrained world, no room exists for, nor is tolerable, partisan or otherwise divisive ideology.

    Footnote: Sturgis House, the East Liverpool funeral home mentioned above, is now a beautiful bed and breakast, albeit with a somewhat macabre display in the basement, worth a visit.

  4. I think the overall culture in this country (if you can speak of such a thing) is neither urban nor rural, but suburban, and its origins are in the small/medium sized towns. The fact that only one in five lives in a "rural community" (whatever the definition is in this particular case) doesn't mean that the remaining 80% share the urban viewpoint, and are therefore being disenfranchised. What percentage of people actually live in a truly urban environment (not counting suburban settings within the limits of big cities) ?

    I would say also that, in today's world, the "critical mass of people, institutions and infrastructure that promote innovation and entrepreneurship" that you speak of are provided by the entire urban area considered as a unit, including the suburbs. The highly urban core city provides some things that can't exist in the suburbs, but the reverse is also true, and economically vibrant places are going to have plenty of both.

    This doesn't address why some politicians or other opinion leaders find it necessary to denigrate the cities, but it might explain why it's not outright stupid for them to do so.

  5. One reason the rural states seem over-represented on our national agenda is because the U.S. Constitution makes it so. The Senate has two senators from each state, regardless of size. Twenty-six rural states, representing a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, have a majority in the Senate. Small wonder that the rural states get more than their share of federal dollars. The system was designed to entice the small states, such as Delaware and Rhode Island, to agree to the federal Constitution, but it's now helping the midwest and far-west states that weren't even around at the time the Constitution was written.

    The Electoral College is likewise biased in favor of rural states, since each state has Electors equal to its membership in the House of Representatives (which is proportional to population) plus the Senate (which is not). Hence in 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote 266-271. Bush won more individual states (30 vs. 21), and the extra two electoral voters per state pushed Bush over the top in the Electoral College count.