The Great Schism

As far back as Sodom and Gomorrah in The Holy Bible, cities have been seen as centers of sin and degradation and were often presented in stark contrast to rural towns and areas, which were considered the wellspring of sobriety and piety. This duality has run through the history of civilization, and it has influenced every facet of the arts, politics, and social mores for every society.  Country life was pure and wholesome, the city was rife with immorality and greed, and each viewed the other with distrust and condescension. 

As with any stereotype, there is perhaps some truth buried there.  Cities are often a place where people flee to escape the shackles of traditional beliefs and morality in order to reinvent themselves free of constraint; rural areas are generally populated by those who are comfortable with the values bequeathed to them by their parents and grandparents and so are more suspicious of change for change’s sake.  However, this does not necessarily translate into the more insulting stereotypes of ignorant and bigoted rustics pitted against conniving and degenerate urbanites.  The truth is, of course, far more complex, and both good and bad individuals can be found both in the country and the city—neither has a monopoly on either decency or vice.

We are, however, today experiencing an unusually high degree of disconnect between our major cities, which are invariably controlled by Democrats, and rural areas, which are almost exclusively controlled by Republicans.  The great electoral prize for both sides are obviously suburban voters, who do not generally align as rigidly with either of our two major political parties.  The geographic entrenchment of both parties—Democrats in big cities and college towns with Republicans controlling virtually everywhere else—was a vivid and telling aspect of the electoral map in 2016, and these differences have seemed to only further hardened in the years since.  The mutual cultural and social disdain that urban and rural residents have historically directed at one another has now taken on an acutely political dimension that is further dividing our nation.

There are obvious economic reasons why this divide has worsened in recent decades.  As cities have become ever more reliant on technology and finance jobs—manufacturing having been mostly driven out decades before—escalating real estate prices and their ripple effects on retail and services have created urban economic conditions that are extraordinarily (perhaps even dangerously) bifurcated.  At the top of the pyramid, we see wealthy and cosmopolitan urbanites who see themselves as citizens of a new internationalized economic order that allows them to generate enormous personal wealth.  Everyone else is left to scramble to scratch out a daily existence made enormously challenging by a cost structure that makes even paying for basic daily needs such as groceries a significant problem.  

Because of the extraordinary disconnect between the very rich and very poor that is now characteristic of city living, America’s urban areas are filling up with the homeless and the hopeless, and city streets are increasing being overrun with street encampments, rats, feces, and discarded needles, which unsurprisingly leads to louder and louder calls for government action to “solve” a problem that is largely attributable to highly restrictive zoning laws and wild real estate speculation, both tacitly if not openly encouraged by city leaders, that serve the needs of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Those who live in rural areas of the nation look at the obvious dysfunction of many of our nation’s big cities and the desire of big city politicians to keep raising taxes to pay for more services to deal with those dysfunctions—and are repelled.  The idea that some Republican politicians in Illinois are now floating to cast Democratic Chicago adrift like a plague victim in a lonely lifeboat is related to proposals in California to separate the major cities on the coast from the inland areas and the eternal dislike of so many New Yorkers for New York City and it’s seemingly parasitic ways.  Rural residents look at the crime, filth, and insane costs of city living (“$25 for a PB & J?  Seriously?”), want to stay as far away as possible—and believe government is too often held hostage to the greed, immorality, and corruption of big city politicians whosneer at their simpler and perhaps more sensible lives.

Given the choice between free spending urban Democrats who apparently have never met a tax or fee they didn’t like and rural Republican politicians who often view government as a necessary evil, it is hardly a surprise that so few of the “Deplorables” voted for Hillary Clinton, whom they saw as just another big government swamp creature, in the 2016 election.  However, looking at it from the perspective of urban voters who felt that Hillary Clinton’s loss was an outcome of the racism, sexism, and xenophobia indicative of “white frailty”, the election results only confirmed their worst stereotypes of the ignorant and bigoted country rubes parading around with their assault rifles, abusing their simpleton wives, denigrating their repressed daughters, and mocking those who are not white and Christian.

This mutual incomprehension is more comprehensible when you look at the manner in which politicians often actively work to divide us in order to solidify their own block of voters.  Only today I read of one Democrat in Congress calling Republican voters ignorant and a Republican in the Senate calling Democrats extremists.  Add to this the incessant cable news gabfests that seem to exist only to create a ready demand for Prozac and the unending bile of so many on social media and what remains of the legacy mainstream media, and we can more easily recognize why efforts to understand have been replaced with a desire to destroy.  

The urban/rural divide is also driving an electoral dynamic that is creating a great deal of ill will at the moment.  Given the enormous pluralities for Democrats in coastal big cities, we could continue to see Presidential elections where the popular and electoral college votes continue to diverge as they did in 2016.  Even if a Democrat can win 100% of the vote in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere and so win the popular vote, it may not result in national victory if the rest of the nation is turning into an inland ocean of Republican red. 

This may not be a concern in terms of purely local matters, but given the ferment concerning the larger national issues that continue to divide us—particularly immigration and abortion—it is leading to efforts in many state legislators to circumvent the electoral college by pledging those states’ electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote, which will have the net effect of disenfranchising the voters in those states if their statewide totals are at odds with the national ones.  Whether these bills will be able to survive the inevitable appeals up to the U.S. Supreme Court is almost beside the point.  These efforts are indicative of a complete lack of faith in our traditional democratic processes and a frightening disregard for the collective wisdom of our nation’s voters.  Of course, why would anyone have faith in the judgments of either “Deplorables” or “extremists” when it comes to choosing a President?  It seems many now feel the American election system must be rigged in order to generate the desired outcome, and this is further corroding an already strained relationship between elected officials and voters.

Watching reporters after the shock of the 2016 election fan out into the middle of the nation like 19th century explorers off to investigate some exotic foreign land, it was hard not to wince at their incredulity when they came face to face with perfectly decent people who own a gun but have no plans to shoot up a school, believe homosexuality to be a sin but would still love their son or daughter regardless, praise their neighbors but insist they reside here legally, and would rather raise a child with Down Syndrome than “murder” a baby with an abortion.  By the same token, it hurt to listen to harrumphing pundits explain the problems caused of “low information” (read: stupid) Americans who voted for fear and hatred by pulling the lever for Donald Trump and other Republicans rather than encouraging their viewers to respect the election outcome, analyze the pros and cons of differing viewpoints, and thereafter work to find common ground in order to solve our nation’s problems.

City and country may never see eye to eye, and we have seen other great historical movements—the crusade to pass Prohibition a century ago springs immediately to mind—that have pitted our rural and urban areas against one another in a battle for the soul of our nation.  However, this disconnect, this great schism between the two, is at least one of the factors driving our terrible political polarization today, and the continuing geographic self-selection by urban Democrats and rural Republicans is a significant factor in making it even worse.  

Perhaps like a terrible fever this battle between brothers and sisters will break and subside into a more generalized moderation of thought and action, but I am not counting on this any time soon unless we consciously work to dial down the inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising attitudes in all regions of our nation.

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