The Country-City Split

In his recent Znet commentary, “Don’t Blame the People,” Andrej Grubacic makes what seems to me to be one of the most important points that can be made post-election: the need to go to the places where the people live who vote time and again largely against their own interests and values.

He states that it worked in Yugoslavia, where eventually “political parties [and activists]…went into the Serbian countryside to meet those ‘uneducated and fundamentalist’ Milosevic voters…and after a “few years spent in the ‘desert of Serbia’,” they “managed to find a model of communication which precipitated a shift in general mood, and, in final consequence, led to a mass refusal of Milosevic’s agenda.” So Grubacic “would suggest that instead of moving to Canada, we should move to the Mid West, move, that is, in a sense that activists should go where they are most needed,” that is, “move” into the “desert of America,” the countryside and towns of rural America.

Even in a state like Pennsylvania where the citizenry has managed (barely) to vote Democratic in recent presidential elections, 53 of the 67 counties voted for Bush, leaving the urban centers to carry the day for the Democrats. I suspect the same is true in most states. It is certainly true of much of the nation as a whole; the states with big cities largely and crucially go Democratic, while the country(side) goes Republican.

What seems to me to be one of the least discussed and least acted upon political phenomena in the U.S. is that country and city populations are significantly opposed—though not wholly—on issues, and in attitude toward one another, and in the voting booth. Progressives talk about and work on the race, gender, and wealth gaps all the time, which of course are real and need much attention.

Apparently a majority of white males has not gone for a Democrat since 1964—Lyndon Johnson, who of course was a Texan, a state with symbolic meaning essentially synonymous with “country.” Mark off Chicago and a few big cities on the coasts and the Democratic party ceases to exist as a national party (for national elections).

And so the Democratic party might do well to ask itself what right it has to “rule” the nation even if it were to squeak out an electoral or popular vote. Its supporters are in many ways not representative culturally and geographically of the civilization that covers the vast majority of the countryside. To help solve the problems of race, gender, and class, it might be necessary to focus increased attention on solving the problem of the country-city divide.

If Democrats care about regaining the presidency, they had better immediately forget about ever running Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Captain America himself and anyone else from New York or Illinois or any other recently Democratic state. They had better run someone from Florida, Ohio, Missouri or another key, currently Republican, state.

And Democrats and progressives would surely do well to somehow work moreso in the “countryside”—after all, folks in the countryside did not ask to be blinded to much of reality any more than people in the cities asked to be rendered incapable of doing much about shaping it. Both these phenomena are forms of incapacity, alienation, and weakness. Plenty of hostilities, tensions, and suspicions are as real as rain between city and country (far apart from the voting booth), but someone needs to reach out and bridge the distance, and, in reaching, to learn, as Grubicac dares to suggest—of course, only the first step.

The experience I can offer is anecdotal. I would judge that by far the biggest prejudice culturally ingrained in me growing up in a virtually-all white part of Pennsylvania Appalachia (some years there were zero students of color in the high school) was against city people, “flat-landers,” and cities in general.

Yes there was plenty of racism and homophobia and isms of all sorts but expressing outright pride in being white or heterosexual wasn’t much done, to my knowledge. On the other hand, people sure were and sure are proud of being “country” (along with being “American” and being “family”), and this year, not atypically, the presidential vote went 62% Republican.

Despising people “from the city,” one or another, went hand in hand with despising much of the world, and others who differed in various personal ways. Despising corporations and government was big too, but not as big as despising city folk and cities and the like, which seemed a real threat, uncivilized and strange, in plenty of ways.

Through seven years of college I almost always or always felt alienated, or felt I was made nervous, by professors who came from or seemed to come from cities, which was exactly how I thought of it. Then after several years of teaching college, I wondered if I myself didn’t seem alien to those who seemed to come from the country(side).

Whether or not this is true, the larger point is that country city was the thought language I used to mark off the main zones of distance and tension. Everything else—issues, race, gender, class—felt far less problematic. The city-country cultural gap often seemed to me to be the thorn in the side of our being able to work together—teacher student, student teacher.

Nearly a decade ago, I told a professor in graduate school who I had come to know well that I thought what divided us sometimes (a lot, I thought to myself) was that he was from the city and I was from the country. He replied, “Don’t worry about that.” About what? I have never felt able to adequately answer that question. Maybe the question is answerable on personal or professional grounds, but I still can’t help thinking of it…that way. What way? Geographically? Geo-politically? City-country.

As long as Republicans are largely defined as standing for and with the “country” and Democrats are largely defined as standing for and with the “cities,” everyone may likely continue to be exploited. The country-city gap seems to me to be as real of a political problem as racism, sexism, and classism and maybe more fundamental, more intractable, and much more overlooked—and so, it seems to me, deserving of far more of Democratic and progressive attentions and efforts. Is a united “city” and “country”—a real key to an inhabitable hospitable future, to any future at all? Or is this something too difficult too threatening to contemplate, this ridiculous, fatal divide.

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