In 1998, I retired to Cleveland Heights, OH, the home town of my early years. At the turn of the century, it undertook a citizens’ review of its quality of life. Politically, the city was overwhelmingly liberal and ever so thoroughly enlightened. As one entered the city, signs declared it a nuclear free zone. Demographically, it was slightly more than half white, slightly less than half black, with a growing number of blacks qualifying for Section 8 housing. It was predominantly Christian, with a large minority of Jews, of whom a large minority were Orthodox. I signed up for the committee on diversity and attended its only meeting. The chair was a white woman; the other members were a half dozen or so white women and men also dressed casually, three black women dressed as the professionals who they were, and me, the only senior, dressed in jeans and a work shirt, and wearing a Stetson.
In the discussion, the whites did most of the talking, mainly about the importance of welcoming Section 8 blacks to the city and integrating them into the community. The black women and I did most of the listening; they ventured occasional, bland comments, but I stayed silent until the very end. As the meeting neared its conclusion, I spoke up, noting that the committee on diversity was not very diverse: three quarters white, one quarter black—not the proportions of the city population. I noted the absence of black men and Orthodox Jews, which I interpreted to mean that not everyone in Cleveland Heights believed in integration and that some objected to it as hostile to their culture, race, or religion. I posed two questions. Was integration an appropriate community goal? Was the committee prepared not only to recognize diversity, but also to respect it? The chair, noting the hour, adjourned the meeting. After the others left, the three black women thanked me for saying what they thought but felt that they could not say. Later, in the lobby, as I was leaving, the chair came up to me and, obviously furious, sneered, “You look like one of those cowboys who beat their wives,” turned, and strode away.
I recalled this episode recently in my ruminations about the current state of affairs in the Democratic presidential primary contests. For months, a large but slowly shrinking number of candidates have been campaigning for voter and financial support. I have given to a few of them: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar. Only one of these women begins to understand the electorate outside her ideological boundaries. None of them (and, by the way, none of the other candidates) offers a vision of America larger than the sum of their fix-it remedies, some dubious, for a hyper-inflationary healthcare system, a hypo-deflationary educational system (both public and private), structural under- and unemployment, and sundry other humongous problems like climate change/global warming, environmental degradation, infrastructure deterioration, inadequate housing, inhumane immigration policy—to name some. Any vision of confronting these problems and adjusting to their solutions cannot be narrowly limited to piecemeal solutions however expansive or expensive. It must include culture—religion, social mores and customs, political and personal values—at the local level and the effects of demographic, social, economic, and technological change. No one-size-fits-all-and-we-of-the-government-know-what-size-that-is approach can appeal to those who feel left out and looked down upon. I am thinking of rural and small-town America.
It would make a lot of sense for Democrats pay attention to rural and small-town America and to campaign for its restoration and revitalization, if only for pragmatic, political reasons. The Electoral College privileges land, not people. The residents in rural areas and small towns in America occupy most of its land and thus have more of its power in the aggregate than do the residents of big cities in urban America. Political power makes them important, though no one would know it from urban, mostly liberal, attitudes toward them.
Such attitudes are a national misfortune. The need to give attention to rural America transcends, or should transcend, political calculation. For example, consider coal-mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia, now the sites of their own Great Depressions. The towns are decrepit, homes and churches deteriorating, schools dilapidated or shut down, stores shuttered, medical services diminished, roads in disrepair. Many people are under- or unemployed; though proud, poverty-driven to survive on federal and state welfare of one kind or another; under-or uneducated; and ill-nourished and unhealthy in many ways. The opioid crisis is not only a serious health problem in itself, but also a symptom of an even larger, more complex problem. As older people die and some of the younger people move away, the population shrinks, the tax base erodes, services decline, and the blight spreads. What non-rural Americans can want their fellow Americans to live in such conditions? If urban Americans care about minorities, why do they not care about this minority?
The well-meaning with their good intentions most commonly advocate job-training for work elsewhere as a remedy. It is a remedy proposed by people who do not live in rural areas and small towns, and who do not appreciate their church suppers, sewing circles, high-school football teams, and hunting and fishing seasons. Yes, I speak in terms of folksy stereotypes but do so to indicate the truth of social rituals which bind rural-area and small-town neighbors to one another and the land. Most love where they live, with whom they live, and what they do. They resent outsiders coming in and telling them what their problems are and that the solution is to be more, and to live more, like the outsiders. As one who has driven across Kansas from east to west dozens of times, I understood a Wichita Eagle editorial which responded to a USDA report on the High Plains with a two-word heading: “Butt Out.” (I read the report; the USDA, not the paper, got it right; the paper was fronting for agribusinesses; the editor did not like my letter saying so.) Of course, not all love where they live: the realities of perpetual poverty drives many to crippling despair, to various addictions (methamphetamines, opioids, etc., and, of course, alcohol) or to suicide. Still, if I were a local, I would likely feel as they do in resenting outsiders—read: urban liberals—dissing them and their way of life.
Local solutions should be developed to solve local problems. Back to my example. The coal-mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia are beautiful, but scarred. Coal mining has ravaged and damaged mountains and rivers with excavation—the greatest sin being mountaintop removal—, mine tailings, and effluent discharges. Although they have harmed the environment, coal companies have not repaired, and are not going to repair, it, and federal and state governments are slow to do it. But lemons can be made into lemonade. If repairs were part of a larger, integrated program for environmental restoration and economic recovery, many social problems could be addressed as well.
I, an admitted non-expert in regional planning, imagine this solution: an integrated program to provide opportunities for residents to remain in their homes, rebuild their communities, have good employment, and, by diversifying the economy, protect their way of life from the uncertainties of reliance on a single industry. To these ends, I propose a consortium of federal, state, and local governments relying on local residents and resources to restore the environment and revive the economy. These governments would contract only with locally owned and staffed companies to do the work which governments ordinarily contract with large corporations to do. The local workforce has most of the knowledge and skills to do the work associated with such remediation efforts. Coal companies, instead of being charged and fined for failures or refusals to do environmental remediation, would be required to contribute facilities, equipment, and any locally unavailable, long-term technical support to these companies. Federal and state agencies involved with small business start-ups or environmental restoration (e.g., Small Business Administration, Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency) would provide financial, technical, and management support, as necessary.
Government contracts would create revenue streams for local residents and other local businesses. As their work in environmental restoration tapers off and concludes, the companies transition to related construction work. The parallel growth of other businesses reduces or eliminates the need for government contracts. As the environment recovers and the economy revives, towns improve existing and build new housing (owned or rental); upgrade schools and teaching staffs; attract tourists needing accommodations and restaurants; promote sports like hunting, fishing, riverboating, skiing, and cycling (using abandoned rail lines); and promote local arts, crafts, and manufactures. Because of improved quality of life, towns also campaign to attract start-up technology firms to relocate and thereby further enhance the community.
Different geographic areas have different cultures, capabilities and resources, and problems and solutions. What may work for Kentucky and West Virginia, according to my imagined program, would not likely work in other areas, like the rest of Appalachia, the upper Old Northwest, the Great Plains, the Northern Rockies, the arid Southwest. But a similar approach can. Anyone who doubts that rural-area and small-town residents can help themselves with government help, if they want it, needs to watch Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl. The key point is to assist local populations by ensuring that they take the lead to preserve by making viable what is valuable to them. Politicians of all parties should want to promote self-support and self-determination in rural areas and small towns, and thereby demonstrate the respect for those “other Americas” which deserve it.