How To Bridge The Divide Between Urban And Rural America

Someone holds a sparkler in front of the American flag
Unsplash / Trent Yarnell

I recently read an article about a journalist from the “Elite” Coasts of America, onboard with a think tank, venturing into the “wilds” of Rural America. It was called “On Safari in Trump’s America,” and it gave me pause to consider the divisiveness in which urban and rural Americans have come to see one another.

The goal of the article, and of the think tank’s, appears to be to find some mutual understanding of Rural Americans and how their processes led to the election of Donald J. Trump as our POTUS in 2016. I can only assume that this article was written by Coastal “Elites” for the same, but is the Coastal “Elite” understanding of rural Americans so insultingly out of touch that Rural America is a place where the word “Safari” suffices to provide comparable explanation?

To any ruralite reading this article, the title immediately appears to seek to offend their simple senses. And to clarify: these senses, while simple, are not stupid.

A defense of the use of this term may be that the writer was on a “hunt for truth” or “expedition to observe” but the truth of the matter is that the word “Safari” is indicative to thinking of a subject for exploration as not only foreign, but animal. Treating Rural America simply as “Trump Country” and those who live there as something only “other,” or even animal enough to be “safari-worthy” fare seems like the first failure to understand that which one seeks to understand. This kind of thinking, and its perpetual spread through mainstream outlets, is exactly the kind of divisive thing that defeats what seems to be their purpose: to understand one another, to hopefully find a way to come to a point of unity.

To the writer and think tank’s credit, they did have what could pass as noble intent, but execution does not always fall in line with intention. On the nose, it all comes off as a shallow form of condescension. If someone from the Coasts, or Metro America, wants to understand “Trump Country,” then having an on-the spot, though candid, five to fifteen minute conversation with a bunch of “Country Folk” is only going to provide a shallow basis of understanding, or reaffirm preconceived notions for their base. Without the ability to even truly understand people, how can one attempt to develop a strategy around them to be effective in change on any matter?

There are those on the Coasts and in the metro regions of America that truly do understand their Midwestern counterparts though. These people are the children and relatives of the modern American ruralite, people who’ve actually been immersed in and understand the culture of Midwest America. This is a pool of knowledge I see too often left relatively untapped. It takes more than a few days worth of fifteen minute conversations on tape to understand a person, let alone an entire swath of disenfranchised people that’s been vastly ignored — even forgotten — for the better part of the last decade.

If you want to understand people in order to engage them and institute positive change, it’s going to take more than a bus tour. It’s actually really arrogant to believe that the Coastal “Elite” is going to swoop in and “save” Rural America from itself, with nothing but a tape recorder and a few coffee house conversations. Even modern day missionaries know what’s required of them is immersion and a true commitment to the people they are reaching out to if they wish to affect change.

Some would argue that at the least these Coastal “Elites” have attempted some measure of understanding their Midwestern counterparts and that the situation has not been replicated on the other side. But of course American ruralites aren’t going on multi-million dollar ideological pursuits — they have neither the money or manpower for such a thing. And when they do venture into the worlds of their urbanite counterparts? They’re met with ridicule and scorn, especially after the election of Donald J. Trump.

Even before the age of Trump, there was a divide between the Urban and Rural cultures in America. The derogatory terms “city slicker” and “country bumpkin” weren’t cultivated as a result of 2016. Hillbillies and the “uncivilized” countryside of America have been entertainment and comedy fodder for as long as I can remember, but as the number of rural Americans continues to decline, the further away from the truth these intimations become, and the more divided our nation becomes. The disparity in population loss and growth for the past few decades has really made Americans rather far removed from each other.

It’s a tad disingenuous for a think tank to say they have open minds and are only there to listen when in fact they’re taking a shallow listen, and only to an end at that, as a tool for their own agenda in the future. And when they’re finished, when they’ve gotten what they purportedly came for, they’ll go back to their cities and write about opinions that disagreed with theirs or gave them hope. But they’ll say nothing about the depths of where those opinions came from, and what continues to drive them, let alone will they do anything to help them.

When Trump supporters, or any rural Americans for that matter, have the privilege of visiting the big cities of our nation, they go to the monuments and memorials to get a better sense of their history as Americans. They take a lot of pride in our nation’s history and see it as an essential piece of themselves. It reminds them of the American dream and even gives them hope in times when hope can seem bleak.

They also partake in the fun touristy things that aren’t available where they live, whether that’s all of the fantastic food, the amusement parks, and yes, even the duckboats (anyone who denies the fun factor of these, or ridicules people for enjoying them, is a jerk). And after they’ve seen all the shiny, cool things that the metropolises have to offer? They recognize some of its shortcomings too.

My sister’s mother-in-law spent a week in Chicago and noted how fast everyone moved and how unfriendly everyone seemed. “People just keep their heads down here,” she said in a kind of sad bit of wonder. When my husband and I visited Los Angeles, we spent far too much of our time in precarious commute to the places we wanted to see. We discussed at length how we would hate to lose so much of our time, which already feels limited, to transportation alone, and we didn’t know how people in L.A. do it. In some of the most heavily-trafficked and tourist-filled areas of New York City, the smell of urine assaults one’s senses as homeless people lie in singular heaps until they’re made to move by police on the beat (in L.A. the homeless people just hang out at the beach).

To rural Americans, who are constantly berated for the motto of “rugged individualism,” these observations make liberal urbanites seem hypocritical. We don’t have a bunch of homeless people on the streets because we’ve got churches and the community. We accomplish that without much help from, and sometimes even in spite of, the government. The experience of poverty certainly still exists, but it seems to exist in a different way. While we’re lacking duckboats and museums with million dollar art installations, we seem to get by with what we can. With the economic powerhouses that metropolises tend to be, as well as all of the government and media focus on them, ruralites actually have a hard time understanding why big cities have so many extreme and systemic issues in the first place.

Even if an American ruralite had the gumption to attempt to stop one of these fast moving city dwellers in their tracks, to ask them about their lives in the city or why they supported Hillary Clinton, I can’t be certain that the urbanites would oblige them either the time or a considerate, well thought out answer. This isn’t necessarily because urbanites are callous and thoughtless people, but because even in my short experience as a Chicagoan, total strangers talking to you in the city is weird. Complete strangers that stop you in the street are usually either trying to harass you, sell you something, or scam you.

But in the case that a Trump supporter from Rural America was able to meet with a handful of Hillary supporting urbanites at a city center to talk politics, the urbanites with Her would have to put aside any lingering animosity about the election results. They would also have to put away any notion of teaching something to the ruralite. This is because when simple “Country Folk” enter into cities, as well as engage in conversations with the locals, they usually acknowledge their own limited capacity for understanding in such situations. For an intellectually honest discussion to occur, there has to be enough respect on both sides to attend with a certain degree of humility. That is to say that one recognizes they are talking to and trying to understand other people, not projects — or worse, animals.

Rural America is not a place for a “Safari.” It’s also not “Trump Country.” As I’ve written before, it’s my country; it’s your country. It’s our country. From Coast to Coast, and everything in between, it’s all the United States of America, and regions and labels aside, we are all Americans. TC mark

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