We sat on the rusty fence of their pen under the sweltering Texas sun, our dusty cowboy boots hooked on a rail. Our pleas fell on deaf ears. Just talk to us. We know you can talk. We promise not to tell anyone. We’ll keep it a secret. The only reply was the constant hum of the cicadas, punctuated with an occasional bleat from one of the goats.
My cousin and I corralled the goats into the pen and they all curiously gathered around, staring at us with rapt attention. They stood frozen in a semi-circle, except for one or two that bullied their way to the front to get a better view.
When we were not baling hay, painting a barn or herding cattle on our trusty steeds, we remained vigilant in our efforts to entice the goats to speak. A simple hello or howdy would’ve sufficed. Goat whisperers, clearly, we were not. We never got a word out of them.
Many of my summers were spent on the ranch with my cousins. Although many hours were spent talking to goats, searching for horny-toads, and canvassing the land for arrowheads, we were expected to contribute to the day-to-day tasks to keep the ranch operating. Fences needed mending, sick animals needed care, and the earth needed to be plowed.
I was just an interloper, a summer apprentice. However, I was greatly influenced watching my family navigate the land, the animals, the weather. To those navigating the urban jungles, country-life probably seems simple. Although my cousins all have a college-degree, perhaps it’s not always necessary on a ranch. The intellectual pursuits of academia don’t compare to experience when dealing with disease and drought. Very little is actually simple.
I reflect on these experiences when struggling to understand the growing divisions in our country, especially the rural/urban and red/blue polarization that has come to define our landscape. Until recently, it was easier to straddle the divide. For me, growing up between the rural/urban poles, it still seems easy. What is hard is understanding how, as a nation, we’ve allowed ourselves to become so psychologically balkanized.
Several of the top 10 farming states, based on number of farms, lean red — Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kentucky — and of the others that lean purple (Ohio and Iowa) or blue, their rural countryside is red. Take Illinois as an example (9th of the 10 top states), perhaps the bluest of the 10 states. Chicago in Cook County and the surrounding counties hold 65% of the population, and this area colors the state blue. The countryside, however, is a different hue.
Like other states, county colors in farming states can change shades depending on political candidates, but this phenomenon is not new in our modern political history — large urban areas often trend blue while rural areas, red. This electoral characteristic is routine. The divisions, pedestrian.
This red/blue dichotomy as illustrated below, has been relatively static, notwithstanding the mid-century Republican shift in the South during the Civil Rights movement. And even then, leaving aside racial issues, Southern Democrats really had more conservative views, namely small government and strong national security.
Rural/urban geography offers some insights into why rural areas are predominately red, whereas urban areas are largely blue. Let’s start with the family. As depicted in the red/blue chart above, red families tend to focus more on self-discipline to develop a self-reliant adult. The relationship is often built on both respect and fear. Based on my own experiences, the rural family unit is tight and often hierarchical. My cousins often considered me boorish due to my lack of formality with our elders. “Yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” were the proper responses to your elders. My “yeps” and “yeas” elicited looks of disapproval.
The rural family is often a benevolent dictatorship. With daily threats to survival — the rattlesnake in the grass, the charging bull, or a slip into a feed mixer or hay baler — a second chance is not always forthcoming. If you don’t listen the first time, there may not be a second time. Discipline isn’t seen as elective, it’s mandatory.
To be sure, there are plenty of dangers in the urban jungle, including more exposure to violent crime and traffic accidents. The latter may be controlled somewhat with greater discipline, but the former is more arbitrary.
Religion also plays a role in these family dynamics. As noted in the red/blue chart above, rural families tend to be more theistic. When your livelihood depends on your natural surroundings, something that cannot bend to the will of government regulations or human engineering, belief in a greater power seems, itself, natural.
Urban areas rely more heavily on government involvement to dictate outcomes. Despite how hard we may try to direct the weather and environment to serve our will, nature always seems to defy our mortal efforts. Perhaps where government intervention doesn’t prevail, prayer offers hope.
But religion doesn’t only offer hope. In rural areas, removed from some of the social safety nets that are more prevalent in urban America, the church serves a need. In urban areas with high population density, there is more need for government intervention to dictate and regulate human interaction, which in part translates into the desire for a large, regulatory government. In rural areas, people depend more on the goodwill of their friends and family — a goodwill that often comes from religious origins. Community organization traditionally serves as the backbone to rural culture. Given this focus on self or community reliance, the regulations necessary to govern human interaction in dense urban areas are often seen as intrusive in rural areas.
This communal response played out recently in the now-largely-forgotten shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. In contrast to the shooting in Parkland, Florida, the response to the school shooting in Texas was more insular. The mourning in Santa Fe was contained within the community, and despite its gravity did not spill over into the national dialogue.
Gun violence in the United States is concentrated in densely populated urban areas, whereas in rural areas gun injuries are typically the result of accidents. In Texas, guns are generally associated with hunting, not mass shootings. When I was growing up, most pick-up trucks in Texas had a gun-rack. We were grateful for the accessibility when we stepped into the tall grass only to hear a familiar buzz of a rattlesnake, or to target a coyote that may prey on a kid (that’s a baby goat for my urban brethren).
My own experiences in the American rural heartland are bucolic. However, not everything in rural America is peachy. Rural communities, given their geography, are typically tied in some way to agricultural, logging or mining industries. Compared to their urban counterparts, they lack the same academic and economic opportunities, and talent often migrates to the cities in search of employment.
Rural areas offer less job opportunities, and with the automation of a lot of the agricultural sector, employment in rural areas continues to trend downward. Additionally, with higher median ages and less education, the labor force participation is lower and the opioid crisis is higher in rural than in urban areas. With less job opportunities and more people out of work, rural governments struggle with a declining tax base, resulting in cuts to public sector spending that too often impacts public education.
However, the argument that rural red states are generally poorer due to conservative policies misses the point. The cry that if only rural citizens went blue their economic situation would improve, is fallacious. No matter what “color” rules rural areas, geography and geopolitics will continue to constrain policy-makers.
Despite some of the outlined similarities that trend towards more conservative attitudes, rural communities are not heterogeneous and differ across the country in a variety of attitudes, industries and populations, but their general rural geography and demographics, and therefore their geopolitics — political calculations made on geographic and demographic factors — is more homogeneous.
States like California and those on the eastern seaboard have more access to global trade resulting in a very different economic infrastructure, especially in their urban areas, than the redder and more rural states of the American interior. While much can and should be done to equalize education opportunities across the United States, allowing for greater social and economic mobility, this will not change static geopolitical factors that impact both policy-making and socio-political attitudes.
Ultimately, these differences work to our advantage. We have a uniquely diverse geography that has lent itself to the rise of leading (largely urban) industries in technology and international finance, while also being the world’s largest agricultural exporter. The United States is also one of a handful of countries that is food self-sufficient. Political differences aside, these two distinct rural/urban geopolitical factors combined have greatly influenced America’s global leadership.
The rural/urban and red/blue divide has been a constant throughout American history and is in large part the foundation of our strength as a nation, but we’ve come to pander to the fringes that now threaten to pull us apart. Focusing on the strength and complementary nature of the different geopolitical realities within our own country is not only in our national interest, but also vital for our future prosperity.