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Commentary: Rural America


Until I was eight years old I lived on the edge of a small town in eastern Illinois.  Every morning I looked out on big sky and corn or corn stubble.  I also lived as an adult in Kirksville for 18 years.  Kirksville is not as small as Oblong, Illinois but it is definitely rural.  All told I’ve lived half my life in rural America.

My early days in the country were especially formative.  I recall them being simple, quiet, safe and boring.  We did not farm, possibly the first generation of my line of Smiths not to.  Life was family-oriented: both sets of grandparents and an aunt and uncle lived on my one-mile walk between grade school and home.  One day was pretty much like the next.\

Even though I’ve enjoyed living in Columbia for 23 years and really enjoyed being a teenager in suburban St. Louis I continue to think about rural America, especially since it has become so important politically.

Most of us are in fact country people.  Even if we live in places like Columbia or have lived in large cities we are country people by virtue of our ancestry.  Most of our ancestors lived on the land and off the land for many generations – I’m talking about our ancestors in the eastern hemisphere.  America did not become a majority urban nation until the 1950s.  There is something primal about the land.

Actually it goes beyond primal.  For some it is atavistic, which is a biological term that means the reappearance of characteristics of some remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations.

Many from the country share several attributes: a strong emotional connection to the land, a strong emotional connection to family, traditional values, a yearning for order and peace.  Many are deeply religious.  Many are conservative by temperament if not politically.

If you want to experience this in the media go to the cable channel RFDTV, where you can “get news on agriculture, information important to rural America and seniors, plus programming that is family friendly.”  There is nothing else like it on television.  One show is high-tech ag.  The next show is live music and chatter at Dave’s Diner.  The next show is FarmHer, devoted entirely to women in agriculture.  The next show is Little Britches Rodeo.  The next show is the Gospel Hour.  You get the idea.

A couple of months ago a podcaster from Kansas wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Return to Rural America.”  She quotes a Gallup poll that found that, while 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, most respondents wished for a rural life.

The Christian Science Monitor recently reported on “a prairie trend of young people drawn by family ties and affordable entrepreneurship, returning to small town homes around college graduation, opening restaurants or starting small unconventional farming operations.”

When you look at the political map of the U.S., rural America is mostly bright red.  Because of quirks in the U.S. Constitution it has a disproportionate impact on electoral politics, especially the makeup of the Senate and the presidential election process through the Electoral College.  Yet much of rural America is ignored, if not disdained, by the coastal elites.  “Flyover Country” is a real thing.  From 35,000 feet they look down on what appears to be emptiness -- “look down” in both the directional sense and in the sense of condescension.

Meanwhile, President Trump, ironically a life-long, through-and-through city boy, effectively exploits grievances and problems, both real and perceived, in rural America, while the coastal elites wonder how long it will take for these country people to wise up.

Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.