February 24, 2024

Grant County Herald

Community news from the prairie to the lakes

Sense of Community Antidote For ‘Gut Level Hate’

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For many who treasure America’s representative democracy, what has been happening in recent years is frightening. They’ve seen the foundations of what was considered an unshakeable creation of the nation’s founders, one that had survived a civil war and a period of deep racial division, fractured.

While we’ve always had our political differences, those differences have deepened and become far more bitter. Death threats against politicians, public officials, reporters, and our courts increase.

In a column in The New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall writes:

“Divisions between Democrats and Republicans have expanded far beyond the traditional fault lines based on race, education, gender, the urban-rural divide, and economic ideology.

“Polarization now encompasses sharp disagreements over the significance of patriotism and nationalism as well as a fundamental split between those seeking to restore perceived past glories and those who embrace the future.”

We are becoming a more diverse country, and some find this impossible to accept.

Continuation of these changes is inevitable. Whites are a shrinking part of the U.S. population. Rural areas continue to lose population even as they become more diverse. Metropolitan areas grow, gaining political sway, and tend to lean left.

Changes are coming too fast for those who have enjoyed a privileged status and too slow for those who have suffered persecution. It’s a painful process, but despite setbacks, America has always moved forward with individual and societal freedoms.

Today we suffer “the gut-level hatred and mistrust that now defines our politics, so that almost whatever issue one party puts in front of its voters will rouse the strongest passions,” Edsall writes. 

Political parties pander to these passions knowing they are essential to winning primary elections, the elections that shape today’s politics with candidates on the fringes winning. It is about making voters feel threatened viscerally, stoking anger and resentment.

We aren’t immune from this “gut level hatred” in rural America. We have many in our rural communities who have readily embraced these destructive, polarizing views of America. But maybe our small communities have a way of inoculating ourselves against the worst effects of tribal hatred.

In our small towns, where we get to know one another personally, we are much more likely to see those we disagree with as not threatening strangers but good people with a different point of view. It is hard to vilify the person you laughed with last night as inherently evil. We understand our differences but see the goodness in our fellow citizens.

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and author of “Democracy Rules.” She offers insight into why “gut-level hatred” infects American politics.

“For local government to work properly, there must be local journalism to hold politicians and policymakers to account. But local journalism has been collapsing in many parts of the world. This makes it more difficult for citizens to connect to civic life, both locally and, eventually, nationally,” Mueller says.

While local journalism holds those in power accountable, just as importantly it binds a community together.

In a recent story for the PBS NewsHour Judy Woodruff traveled to a small town in the Texas Panhandle. It’s ranching and oil country.

Like nearly 2,500 other American communities, it had lost its newspaper. The Canadian Record closed its doors due to lost advertising, subscriptions, and local businesses. Its people no longer read stories of their local governments, who is running for office, the deaths of fellow citizens, or community events.

“Local news is something that reminds people of what they have in common, both their challenges and their shared identities, their shared culture, their shared community,” Johanna Dunaway, a professor and research director at Syracuse University’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship, told Woodruff.

National news, she says, “tends to frame politics in America through the lens of the major conflicts between the two parties.… One of the things local news does is reminds people that, oh, that person, they may be of the other party, but they’re facing the same challenge that I’m facing,” Dunaway told Woodruff.

In a small Texas town, where you would think the population is entirely Republican, The Record’s editor Laurie Brown was a reporter first, but one whose editorial opinions would lean toward Democratic positions. Still, she was widely respected by those who disagreed with her. Her saving grace in their eyes was that she was one of them and told their stories. This connection that moderates passions and allows for conversations instead of bitter arguments is disappearing with the loss of community newspapers.

One person who dearly misses The Canadian Record is rancher Steve Rader. “Our paper spoiled us. They did so much work. And it was so colorful and beautiful, and they celebrated our successes and our tough times,” he told Woodruff, tears coming to the eyes of the big Texas rancher.

“It feels personal,” Woodruff said to him. “Oh, yes, yes. Yes, that paper was a part of our life,” he replied.

Rader said he often didn’t agree with what Brown wrote in her editorials, “but she always made me think.”

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote a column last week with the headline, “The country has come apart. Rural America has a cure.”

“At a time when hooligans have hijacked the national discourse with disinformation and paranoia, the Rappahannock News operates in a calmer place where the slow rhythms of rural life are newsworthy — and where, regardless of political views, its readers are unified by a powerful sense of community,” Milbank writes.

“In tiny Rappahannock County, the newspaper still serves as the hymnal of our civic religion. It’s a tradition that we need to rescue in rural America — and emulate in our cities,” he says.

As America changes, the stories that bind us together as fellow citizens, that provide us understanding and compassion, are disappearing. The loss of these stories may be part of the root cause for our hostile political divide today.

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