I live in the country. I have a farm. I’ve spent most of my career in high-tech: I’ve lived in the city, too. So I’m fluent in two languages: urban and rural.
I rarely post here about politics, since politics doesn’t get the cows milked. And this isn’t about politics anyway: it’s about mindset. I’m just using the election as an example.
Take a look at the 2016 presidential election map, showing the results by county:
The Urban/Rural Divide
What we’re looking at here is not a division between Republicans and Democrats, but between rural and urban. The urban areas mostly voted Democrat; the rural ares mostly voted Republican. What’s up with that?
Let’s do a cross-check. Here’s a map of population density by county:
Pretty close, right?
The City Mouse and the Country Mouse
For all the talk of diversity and cultural tolerance, the mutual incomprehension between America’s city and rural populations is awfully high, and generally unacknowledged.
It’s not a new thing. Aesop has the fable of The City Mouse and The Country Mouse dating to around 600 BC, whose moral is:
A modest life with peace and quiet is better than a richly one with danger and strife.
Of course, the moral isn’t about the city vs. country per se, but it allowed “city mouse” and “country mouse” to become proverbial phrases.
A New Phenomenon?
While the social split between city mouse and country mouse has been around forever, the political split is new, at least at the national level. It actually became dominant during Bill and Hillary Clinton’s political careers.
Here’s the 1992 presidential map, where Bill Clinton won his first term:
Notice all the blue in the heartland states, especially along the Missisippi and Ohio river valleys. That’s missing in his wife’s 2016 results.
And here’s the 2008 Map, where Obama won his first term:
Even in victory, the Democratic Party had lost quite a bit of the heartland, becoming more and more “the party of the city mice.” The Big Tent is smaller than it used to be.
Speaking as someone who isn’t a member of either party and has no particular insight into the process, my concern is that any city-mouse, country-mouse division at the party level will lead to lousy policy decisions by whichever party is in power. Our policy decisions are bad enough already.
(I’m curious to see whether a Republican administration plus a Republican Congress shows a country-mouse bias. But I expect it’ll all be drowned in the bipartisan Washington D.C. “follow the money” strategy, which is more of a fat-cat thing.)
So here we are, with a city-mouse, country-mouse split in our country that’s masquerading as a division between two parties. And hardly anyone seems to comment on this.
I once had a San Francisco resident ask me if it was difficult for me to live “among all those ignorant country people.” He seemed to believe that, as soon as the sidewalk ends, you step right into a scene from Deliverance.
I’ve also met people who believe exactly the same thing about San Francisco! Go figure.
My answer to his question is, “No, not at all. In the places I’ve lived, people tend to be about equally ignorant. They’re just ignorant about different things. (They’re also about equally prejudiced.)”
What’s to be done? Well, my mind-control machine is on the fritz, so I don’t have a quick solution. But the Cubs won the World Series, so all things must be possible! So I leave you with the following two proverbs. Go spread the good word!
When you feel especially good or bad about a group of people you’ve never met, you’re probably wrong.
And the second is from my grandfather:
You kids: knock it off.
3 thoughts on “Flyover States and the Election”
Robert, I like you have lived in both the city and the country. I grew up in the country and have lived there periodically. I’ve been working in agriculture for the last 15 years, and, as you say, know the mindsets of both worlds. I’ve also been registered as an unaffiliated voter for years.
My experience points to the fact that there is a significant economic divide between urban and rural residents, although there are also some very poor areas in cities. In my opinion, a lot of it boils down to the economics of agriculture. Most farmers that grow and produce commodities are stuck with a market in which they have no leverage. These kind of farmers have no choice, but to be price takers. Although farmers have never been rich, by any means, there was more competition for their products, probably through the 1970’s. Every little farming town had mills where they could sell their grain, many had slaughter houses for livestock and poultry and dairy processing facilities, some had livestock markets and bakeries, etc. Since the 1970’s many of those independent businesses that provided agricultural services have been bought up and consolidated into huge corporations. Today, many, maybe all, agricultural sectors are dominated by 2-4 large corporations, which has eliminated any price leverage farmers used to have. There is a term for this kind of market: oligopsony. As a result of this market distortion, farm prices for most commodities has been dropping steadily since the 1970’s, in real dollars (adjusted for inflation).
In the last 15-20 years the direct sales of farm goods to consumers has emerged to address this inequity in the market. Folks all over the country, like you have helped build this movement. It is not only helping farmers to make more money (shouldn’t farming, which we are often told, and is, a business, provide farm businesses the same kind of income potential other businesses enjoy?). Selling directly to consumers helps farmers significantly increase their income per acre, which in turn attracts young people to farming (imagine that!). Not only is this model significantly increasing farm income per acre and beginning to lower the age of farming communities where this is taking place, but it is also helping create other agriculture related jobs in the community (reestablishing food processing, distribution, agritourism, etc.) and raising the income for everyone. My hope is that this is just the beginning, and we will see this continue with farmers growing for regional wholesale markets so that the kind of food consumers want and produced in a way they support will begin to find more shelf space in grocery stores and supply institutional markets. This outcome would greatly benefit rural economies. However, not coincidentally, this outcome is also dependent on both rural and urban residents. Imagine that!
Mike, thanks for writing!
You make good points, and I totally agree with your central point, that producing commodity products is a lot different from most other ways of making a living, especially ones with worldwide reach, like grain. If I’m selling #2 corn as plain old #2 corn, I’m in competition with every other producer of #2 corn, and if the market price is low (as it usually is), the only way I can make money is to sell something else. Not necessarily a different crop, but as something (anything!) other than commodity corn sold on the commodity market. For example, I’m sure the local corn maze makes more money per acre than it would if harvested normally.
Direct sales to consumers can be a good market, but a lot depends on where your farm is. I’m half an hour from Corvallis, which is a premium market, but limited. To expand significantly (as we’d have to if we made our living solely from farming), we’d have to expand into the Portland market. Portland is a two-hour drive, so we’d either have to go up the night before and sleep in the van — I don’t do the “drive at 3AM thing” anymore — or find a distributor and aim at restaurant and grocery store sales rather than farmer’s markets. Of the two, I’d prefer distribution.
But I agree that direct selling is a glittering opportunity, and probably most people should start there. It’s simple, inexpensive, and gets you the one-on-one interaction with customers that you’ll need to get really good at producing and selling things that people are eager to buy. It’s especially easy to work this if you’re within striking distance of a major city. If I were in the emptier part of Eastern Oregon, it would be out of the question. If I were closer to Portland, we’d probably have a lot more hens!
Still leaves the question, “Why the difference?”.
Thanks for noting the change from 1992 to current. Makes it even more difficult to pin-point. The citizen demographics seem to be relatively constant in the last 30 years. Wealth/poverty. Density. Age. Religion. Etc. What’s the change to shift?
One could expand further and see the difference in the South from pre-1965 to current. So it is racial attitudes?