A Historian Reflects on the Rural-Urban Divide and Election '08

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Mr. Herman is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Central Washington University. He is currently a research fellow at the Clements Center at SMU.

While recently driving from Washington state to Texas--it takes three days, by the way, if you drive all night on day three--I was again trying to explain to my wife why academic history isn't boring. We had been reading aloud to one another from a memoir by our neighbor, an aging beat writer who washes windows for a living and writes hearty, cynical, entertaining stuff for boring-but-liberal people like us to read.

Yes, I admitted to my wife, history isn't as fun to read as John's book, which talks about his experiences on the road back in 1981, when he was going across the country with his own artist wife (my wife is also an artist) and drinking beer with the cranky, trash-talking, imaginative people he met on the way. Yes, I told my wife, a lot of what we historians write is tedious. Sometimes we offer a good narrative but we're not so interested in the sequence of events as in the interpretation of events. We shy away from popular histories that chronicle great men or women, or wars, or triumphs against the odds, not to mention cranky, trash-talking imaginative people who we meet on the road. We leave that stuff to journalists and beat writers like our neighbor, John. Once in awhile, however, the tedium of interpreting events becomes fascinating.

When she asked me to name one such occasion--when tedium became fascination--I was quick with an answer. We were driving through rural country-eastern Colorado, which called to mind Hal Barron's Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the North, 1870-1930, a superb book on the origins of the rural-urban divide in U.S. history. In fairness, I should mention that I had the privilege of taking a course from Barron in my college days, but that is not why I liked the book.

In Mixed Harvest, Barron examined people historians usually ignore: ruralites. In particular, he examined the way rural people reacted to progressive reform efforts that emanated from cities. As one urban progressive argued in 1913, the "challenge" of the nation was to "teach [residents of] the country . . . the social efficiency of urban life." Barron found, however, that in the upper Midwest and North, rural people opposed reforms proposed by urbanites. Country people refused to pave roads, send ministers to seminaries, and replace one-room schools with modern "consolidated" schools. They refused not because they couldn't afford improvements--or not only because of that--but because they resented being told that they were inferior and behind the times.

By the 1920s, Barron found, rural Northerners (as well as Southerners) were tuning their radios to country music stations and, in general, defining their way of life as different from and better than that of urbanites. The idea of rural virtue was not new. Jefferson himself proclaimed that American farmers were better citizens than European factory workers and the industrialists who employed them. But there was no separate "rural culture" in the U.S. until the late nineteenth century. Rural culture could only come into existence in opposition to urban culture, and urban culture could only come into existence when city folk, having reached a critical mass, began to view themselves as different and superior to their rural cousins.

Barron's insights into the origins and nature of the rural-urban divide give new meaning to American social and political history. Even today--perhaps more so than a century ago--the U.S. is not merely split between white and non-white, male and female, or poor and rich; it is split between people in cities and those outside them. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, the divide between red state and blue state was, demographically speaking, a divide between rural and urban. In red states, urbanites tended to vote blue, whereas in blue states, ruralites tended to vote red.

Evidence of that divide appears everywhere. Not too many months before our move to Texas, my wife and I were sitting in a café in rural Washington state when a man at the next table reported loudly that, while on the freeway, he had sped up his monster truck in order to pass some "tree-hugging hippy f***s" in a hybrid vehicle, spewing his diesel exhaust to taunt them. At another table in another local restaurant, we overhead a knot of old men--veterans--condemning John Kerry for treason. When I hear such things, they make me mad but they also make me reflect on the rural-urban divide. When I was a graduate student in Berkeley, California, I heard the same sort of animus, though it was directed at "middle America" rather than environmentalists and liberals.

One of my graduate school professors argued that "cultures form in opposition to one another." Though that's an oversimplification, there is truth to it. We--whether we are urban or rural, blue or red--participate in the creation of our enemies. Political opinions, those of conservatives and liberals alike, are the opinions of people riven by jealousies and resentments that they themselves don't understand fully, or only dimly understand. Being what we are, social animals, we define ourselves in relation to groups, and groups define themselves in relation to other groups.

Those observations became ever more acute to my wife and me as we drove endlessly through the heartland. When we hit Wichita, the ratio of steeples to people increased exponentially. By the time we got to Oklahoma, in the wee hours of the morning, we were making jokes about every church we saw. We were slap-happy, road-weary, giddy. We were also in enemy territory. Both of us consider ourselves to be vaguely Christian but we're not THAT kind of Christian! We're tolerant and easy; they're authoritarian and spiteful. We like the sort of Biblical history written by John Dominick Crossan; they prefer Biblical history by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; we think women should be in the clergy; they think women should keep silent in church.

I am not condemning myself or my wife for feeling estranged and critical as we passed through the red miles of the heartland. The problem comes, however, when people of our ilk, urban, educated types, engage in that sort of behavior en masse, often without being aware of it. Sometimes we communicate slights to rural people intentionally but mostly we communicate slights through our demeanor, our speech (in acts as innocuous as using good English), our choice of automobile, our politics. We don't intend to act superior but we do it anyway, and rural people do the same to us. In the process, both sides do their ideals and values a disservice.

And in fact--I insisted to my wife and to the frightened cat that traveled with us, buried in some dark nook amid the tumble of luggage in the backseat--we rural and urban people, blue and red people, share ideals. Both sides believe in human rights, though there is an enormous difference in emphasis. We urban liberals may not like the fact that rural Christians define human life to include zygotes but, as Nicholas Kristof of the NYT keeps telling us, we should not disparage their efforts. Yes, they want to convert people, but they are also putting enormous amounts of money and manpower into helping the developing world, and they have often taken the lead in "progressive" causes like fighting genocide in Darfur.

If we learn anything from Mike Huckabee's campaign success, moreover, it is that the Christian right--the rural right--is not really all that far to the right except on issues like abortion or immigration. They, like liberals, often want to help the poor, even if that means taxing the rich. They are not necessarily opposed to a national health care plan. Nor are they necessarily in favor of capital punishment. Why then do rural people tend to appear on the right and urban people on the left? What separates us?

That question is one of the great riddles of American political history, and it helped make the case to my wife that academic history isn't invariably boring and pointless.

One of the most interesting things that history can help us understand, for example, is the instability of the rural-urban divide. As Barron tells us, ruralites and urbanites have had no use for one another since at least the turn of the last century but they don't necessarily coalesce around timeless left-right oppositions. A hundred years ago, I pointed out to my wife, much of the heartland was not red but bright blue whereas much of urban America was not blue but bright red. One might go so far as to say that the modern Democratic Party that attracts so many urbanites was born in a manger, whereas the modern Republican Party that attracts so many ruralites was born in the caverns of Wall Street. In the late nineteenth century, rural folks in the Midwest, West, and South tended to vote Democratic or Populist; whereas urbanites, both wealthy businessmen and middle-class reformers, voted Republican. Only in the past few decades have ruralites swung decidedly to the right, though one might argue that urbanites began their swing to the left as early as the 1930s. Why has that great switcheroo occurred?

I glanced at my wife; she was still listening. The cat had come out of hiding briefly to sit on a lap; she too was listening. I was on a roll, I thought to myself. To understand why ruralites moved to the right, I continued, we have to understand why they once gravitated to the left. We have to understand, in other words, the problems faced by farmers after the Civil War. That is something that only historians can tell us, I assured my wife. Though the nation prospered between 1865 and 1900, farmers did not. They received low prices for crops due to overproduction and they paid high rates to railroads that shipped their goods. To address their problems, farmers lobbied legislatures to regulate freight rates; set production quotas; pooled capital to buy farm machinery wholesale; and started their own banks. When those tactics fell short, farmers created the People's Party, or "Populist Party," which appeared in 1889.

As we U.S. historians well know, Populists were socialists. They demanded that the government nationalize railroads and abolish banks. They also promoted the direct election of senators, a progressive income tax, the introduction of initiative, referendum, and recall, and the 8-hour day. And they aimed their rancor at Wall Street and city people: investors, industrialists, bankers, lawyers, even small-town merchants, all of whom were identified with the Republican Party, and none of whom were "producers." City people--Republicans--it seemed, were tricksters, gamblers, and people of lax morality. If you don't believe me, read Hal Barron, or Richard Hofstadter, or John Hicks, or any of the newer works on Populism.

In 1892, the Populist Party reached its apogee, electing nearly four dozen congressmen, half a dozen senators, and four governors. Four years later, the Populists elected a governor in Washington and nominated a fundamentalist Christian, William Jennings Bryan, for president. His candidacy was perhaps the most anti-urban in U.S. history. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor a crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind on this cross of gold," inveighed Bryan, as he attacked the gold standard and the urban plutocrats who supported it.

How come is it, then, that ruralites moved so dramatically-or at least seemed to move so dramatically-to the right in later decades?

Here's what history can tell us, I informed my wife, and here's why history isn't boring. During the New Deal, Democrats took the nation off the gold standard, built massive irrigation and hydroelectric power projects, and championed subsidies for ailing farmers. Though subsidy programs have changed over the decades they have not diminished. In 1999, eight western states received agricultural subsidies that equaled 100% of their net farm income. Too, the GI Bill lifted thousands, maybe millions, of impoverished farmers (or their children) into the middle class. Eisenhower's interstate highway system meanwhile made it cheaper to transport goods.

With help from the government, farmers in much of the country, especially big farmers, have done well since the 1930s, despite occasional recessions. Farmers and the communities they support have thus enjoyed the luxury to focus on moral rather than economic issues, a luxury that Populists lacked (I think Richard Hofstadter and the consensus historians would agree with me on this point). Urbanites, at least those not trapped in ghettoes, have also enjoyed prosperity, which has similarly tilted their interests away from economic issues and toward moral issues like birth control, civil rights, gay rights, gun control, and peace. Prosperity, far from fostering solidarity, has helped create a politics of morality with urbanites on the left and ruralites on the right. Gerrymandering, moreover, has established lopsided congressional districts that favor partisan zealots over moderates. Result: intransigence, friction, and politicians who govern for their base, with ruralites on the right and urbanites on the left.

My wife was silent. "Well, what do you think?" I asked. More silence. She is thinking of enrolling in a history Ph.D. program the moment we get to Texas, I thought. Then the reply. "So the last time this country's ruralites saw eye-to-eye with urbanites was during the Great Depression and basically nothing short of another depression can bring us together again. Nothing changes unless there's a disaster. That's not a very exciting message." How my brilliant wife could be so recalcitrant, so pessimistic, so eager to dissolve the mystery of time in the damning accusation of teleology and materialism?

No, damn it! History doesn't run on tracks. It's not a train, whatever Howard Zinn thinks. History is mystery! People move in strange directions. People decide on their fates. I mean, consider the past seven years, since we supposedly elected GWB, he has made the urban-rural divide worse than it's ever been. He's a divider not a uniter. He's an exacerbater. Every time he speaks he sounds like he's a moralistic father lecturing teenage children. Pols on the left--Hillary Clinton is occasionally guilty of this--can be equally tendentious. I happen to agree with her politics, and even with some of the policies of John McCain, but the only people in the race who don't come across as superior and didactic are Barack Obama. Barack can change history! He can bring rural and urban back together!

Preaching, I was preaching, I was just like a Baptist minister, giving a call and expecting a response ... and ... my wife is not a demonstrative sort. She is meditative. She's an artist. This was no epiphany. She understood it all before I said it. We went back to making fun of steeples and reading aloud from our neighbor's book, and the cat moved back into the dark tunnels between suitcases, cynical, still afraid.

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More Comments:

Grant W Jones - 3/16/2008

This is just a test.

Mike A Mainello - 3/11/2008

Who are the subjective ones? 90+% of people believe in "civil rights". It is just that I believe your implementation of these rights are wrong and causing the problem.

I believe all people should be treated equal and to the same standards. Most "academics" believe that the playing field is not level and should be tilted to favor certain people. All this does is create anger in the group being tilted against and entitlement for those receiving favoritism.

Daniel J. Herman - 3/10/2008

You're right, I get too zealous, and I do live in a glass house. It's instructive to read comments on one's writing. Thanks for the suggestion ... I myself should read Cronon's book.

Sorry, Mr. Loewen, for saying "grow up." But I do think it's a bit too easy in the academy to shut down debate by making a moral statement about race, or lack of attention to race, suggesting that the speaker or writer is a "soft bigot." Race matters hugely, but one should not dismiss arguments that don't focus strictly on race.

Tim Lacy - 3/10/2008

Mr. Herman,

Another book your wife might enjoy, on the rural/urban divide, is William Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis." If she can slog through the chapters on commodities, there's a payoff.

And, on growing up (in defense of Mr. Loewen), you might beware of your glass house: "We went back to making fun of steeples... ." Despite your qualification on this earlier in the article, you did choose to end on this--err cynical---note.

- Tim

Daniel J. Herman - 3/10/2008

Yes, yes, I totally agree. But the race question has been discussed, a lot! Too, I mentioned civil rights as one of the moral issues separating rural and urban. My point is that rural whites don't just vote against civil rights; they vote against white urbanites who support civil rights.

It's interesting that Loewen (like so many historians) jumps straight for the "racism" jugular when he sees the opportunity. How can you ignore race!!!! How dare you!!!

I'm not ignoring race I'm just trying to say something that hasn't been said. Grow up.

James W Loewen - 3/10/2008

... is race. How can a historian write such a long article about rural and small-town America, while driving through and past sundown town after sundown all the way from Washington to Texas, and never mention race?
Hamilton's comment is accurate: the parties changed. The biggest change, as noted by the Edsalls, was in their racial policy. Between 1890 and 1940 the U.S. went deeply racist ("the Nadir of race relations"), and NOT just the white South. Towns went sundown all across the North, and certainly from Washington to Texas. Meanwhile, neither party said much about race in those years, the Democrats even less than the Republicans. In the 1960s, however, they changed. Nixon's "Southern Strategy" played at least as well in sundown towns and suburbs across the North as in the South, and still does, to a degree.

R.R. Hamilton - 3/10/2008

I do not take the view that rural and urban voters "changed" -- with urban voters becoming liberals and rural voters becoming conservatives. The better answer, as I think both logic and history show, is that the PARTIES "changed": How does the Democratic Party of 1936 compare with the same party of 1896? Is there a reason that the party's nominee of 1928 actually campaigned against the party's 1936 nominee?

More facts: In his landslide loss in 1972, McGovern won six counties in California. In 2000, with Gore winning easily in California, Bush won HALF of the McGovern counties. Can this be explained by a "change" in the voters in those counties in the 28 years between 1972 and 2000?

More: Look at the electoral maps of 1916 and 2000 (both razor-thin elections). They are nearly mirror images of each other. Did New England and Dixie switch populations?

I could go on and on, but it's late.