Editor’s note: This piece kicks off a series of Community Voices essays related to the urban-rural divide ahead of Lisa Pruitt’s speech at the Westminster Town Hall Forum on Tuesday, Oct. 25. Want to weigh in on the discussion? You can submit a Community Voices piece (instructions here) or fill out our form asking both Greater Minnesota and Twin Cities residents to share what’s driving their votes this election.
Urban folks, it seems, have nary a good word to say about rural folks these days.
The opposite is probably true, too, though I’d hardly know because I exist largely in a media echo chamber reflective of my status as what Fox News calls a “coastal elite.” I’m a law professor at the University of California Davis, and I’ve lived more than two decades in a bright blue state, in the capital of the self-important fifth largest economy in the world.
Because of where I live, what I do, and the newspapers I read, the algorithm that decides what surfaces on my Twitter feed seems to think I need (or perhaps even want) to see hateful comments about rural Americans, because I see a lot of them. Comments like Bette Midler’s tweet last year asserting that West Virginians are “poor, illiterate, and strung out” or UC Berkeley lecturer Jackson Kernion’s tweet “unironically embrac[ing] the bashing of rural Americans” who “are bad people who have made bad life decisions.” (For the record, both later offered pseudo apologies).
I cringe at such rural bashing, not least because I grew up and have deep roots in rural Arkansas, what we’ve come to think of as “red America.”
I’m thus a sort of dual national, if you will, with some built-in empathy for both rural and urban, red and blue. But while I’ve got a foot in each camp, in this age of extreme polarization when battle lines are often drawn along the rural-urban axis, I’m no longer entirely at home in either.
This alienation between my two homes isn’t new. Some denigration of rural folks tracks back to the earliest days of our republic. As Steve Berg wrote in MinnPost in 2008:
“From the Republic’s earliest days, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton presented a town-and-country contrast, with Jefferson’s argument for agrarian virtue winning the American heart. But Hamilton’s cities prevailed in reality, overcoming the crowding, the bad sanitation and the immigrant cacophony to become the generators of American commercial and creative influence in the world.”
Berg wrote that in the context of the 2008 presidential campaign, which elicited a lot of rural bashing as Sarah Palin took on the mantle of Main Street and cast Barack Obama as the cosmopolitan Wall Street candidate. Media backlash against Palin saw New York Times columnists painting rural folks with a broad negative brush, in part because those pundits bought into Palin’s personification of the hinterlands, thus casting all of rural America as “hollow, dim, and mean” and a “rump backwater minority.” The New Republic proclaimed the obsolescence of small towns under the unfortunate headline, “Village Idiocy.”
More recently, we’ve seen a resurgence in rural bashing because Trump’s 2016 victory was widely attributed to the rural vote. This has led to renewed complaints about the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate, which give rural voters more political heft than their urban counterparts, though the imbalance is more nuanced than is typically acknowledged.
While complaints about rural states’ disproportionate power in federal politics are to some extent justified, calling rural residents derogatory names, impugning their intellects, and asserting that they vote against their own interests is counterproductive. In fact, this hateful rhetoric is getting in the way of building the sort of robust progressive coalitions that could solve the cross-cutting problems that afflict both rural and urban folks: rising inequality, soaring inflation, the shortage of affordable, habitable housing, climate change, and myriad others.
Instead of pitting rural against urban, we’d be better off focusing on how the two sectors are interdependent. Rural people and places provide a great deal of what city dwellers need and want. There’s food, fuel, and fiber, of course, the stuff Minnesotans (and the nation) get from the Iron Range and other points across Greater Minnesota. But urban folks should also be mindful of how we increasingly consume the rural, like your world-famous Boundary Waters and these marvelous 10,000 lakes you boast.
As for how we do this – how we step back from this geographically polarized precipice so that we can listen to one another – some pragmatism arises in me, perhaps because I’m a rural kid at heart. I find myself thinking about the rural-urban rift in terms of, well, other types of relationships. Like marriage.
One of my favorite bits of marital advice asks, “Do you want to be right? Or do you want to stay married?” Sometimes, when I hear what urban folks have to say about their rural counterparts, I get the sense that they’re too interested in being right — in proving that rural folks have too much political power or that rural communities get a disproportionate share of federal and state funds, or even that rural dwellers aren’t as smart as they are. That angry one-upsmanship can cause them to lose sight of the importance of the relationship and the value in preserving it.
So, what do urban folks really want to achieve in relation to their rural neighbors? Or, as my husband asks when I am unduly combative (as lawyers sometimes are): “What’s the goal here, Lisa?” Perhaps, this is the question the metro crowd should ask when they find themselves tempted to rag on the rural. And the other way around, of course.
Because as we say in the rural south where I grew up, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Lisa R. Pruitt is the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at the University of California Davis. Her book, “Educated Arrogance,” about what migrating from the working class to the credentialed class can teach us, will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 2024.