May 29, 2024

To Reach Rural Voters Support A Rural Life

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If you say you know the cause of a problem, you had better have a good understanding of what’s at the heart of it. Too often, those who look at rural America do so from an urban experience and drop-in-for-the-moment research. They don’t have the lived experience. They come away with shallow generalizations.

In a column in the New York Times, Paul Krugman writes that at the heart of rural resentment is technological change that has eliminated rural jobs.

“Business types and some economists may talk glowingly about the virtues of creative destruction, but the process can be devastating economically and socially for those who find themselves on the destruction side of the equation,” He writes. “It’s a big part of what has happened to rural America.”

Krugman says this reality is laid “out in devastating, terrifying and baffling detail in ‘White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy,’ a new book by Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman.”

He is “terrified” by the political backlash he sees happening in rural America against the foundations of democracy. He is baffled by political alignment of rural Americans with a candidate and party that doesn’t support its best interests as he sees them.

Technological advancements in agriculture have undoubtedly allowed one farmer to farm 1,600 acres instead of 160 acres. This has led the agricultural workforce to decline by two-thirds in recent decades. Meanwhile, advances in crop genetics have multiplied yields by five times.

Just 20 percent of coal miners remain due to advances in mining technology and methods, and advancements in wind and solar energy.

New tech advancements favor business expansions in large cities with the more educated populaces rather than rural areas, he writes.

“Technology, then, has made America as a whole richer, but it has reduced economic opportunities in rural areas,” he writes based on Waldman and Schaller’s book.

Rural American men have a lost sense of dignity because they are more likely to be unemployed than the metropolitan counterparts, Krugman writes. Really? Have you looked at rural Minnesota’s unemployment rate? It is at historic lows. There are more job openings than available workers.

Krugman misses the core of what has been happening in rural America.

Rural America has seen substantial population loss because families are now much smaller. Two children are far more common than five, six, or seven. We lose too many of our young people to jobs in the metropolitan areas.

In too many of our rural counties, today’s population is smaller than it was at the turn of the century – the 20th Century – 1900. Our school populations have fallen by a half to two-thirds.  Churches have closed or merged because of a lack of parishioners. Main street businesses that have survived with fewer customers. 

We’ve seen the destruction of Main Street caused first by big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart locating in regional centers, followed by other big box stories. 

Main Street’s decline has been accelerated by the internet. While promising to energize the sales of small-town entrepreneurs, it further eroded the health of established community businesses while providing little economic benefit to rural communities through new employment, new tax base, or new economic energy.  Billions of dollars invested in broadband expansion fueled the exodus of local dollars to billionaire owners of corporations like Amazon.

Adding to our sense of loss is the disappearance of small-town businesses and their replacement by regional and national chains. In sense, even the most remote rural communities have become “commuter towns.” We don’t have to drive out of town to bypass a local business; we do it on the internet.

What we are left with are small towns with less vitality, less local investment, fewer contribution from local stores, and a lost identity. Our main streets were once buzzing with energy and activity. Now too many stores are empty. The local theatre is gone. The roller rink where kids and adults gathered, the bowling alley, and the soda shop where people could hang out and talk with one another, are gone.

Finally, and essential to the identity and pride of so many of our small towns, is the loss of the local newspaper. Through its pages, communities were bonded by a common story involving their people’s struggles and successes. The stories of our students and schools, church events, social clubs, feature stories about local people and businesses, births, deaths, anniversaries, and sporting events created a common story in which we all had a part.

In America, 76% of the communities are under 5,000 population – more than 14,600. These communities can’t sustain a news operation with digital revenue alone. 

In solving America’s digital divide, we’ve created deep civic, political, and social divides among its citizens. As people lose local news, they turn increasingly to national, and state political news provided by extremely partisan outlets. Fake news outlets, created for and run by political parties or corporations, are spreading.

Even where solid news reporting still exists, too many say they get their news online. What we always ask those who say their news comes from a social media site is, “Define news.” It certainly isn’t the news about their hometown – that comes from your community newspaper.

On the state and national stage, Democrats demand tolerance for their ideas for changing society, while conservatives demand to be left to decide who or what they will tolerate. Force behavior, even if it is seen as the right, moral, or compassionate path to follow, and it will be vigorously rejected. 

What really gives rural people their identity is their small town and rural way of life. They’ve seen it dying. They’ve seen little done to bring it back.

If you want to connect to rural America, help rebuild “Main Street.” Help us support local ownership. Help get our mail delivered on time. Support our community newspapers. Help us fill up our classrooms and provide daycare to families.

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