These days, “us versus them” seems to describe the whole world: Israel versus Gaza, ISIS versus non-Muslims, cops versus African-Americans, theocrats versus secular folks, Republicans versus Democrats… Choose your team–there are plenty of them.
When I wonder why Americans can’t “just get along,” as Rodney King memorably put it, I think back to a wonderful rant published by the editors of The Stranger, an alternative newspaper published in Seattle, in the wake of the 2004 elections. Looking at the red and blue of the election map, they noted that cities were bright blue dots in even the reddest states–that urban areas comprised an “urban archipelago” with political values and attitudes vastly different from those of rural America.
Researchers have confirmed their observation: virtually every major city (100,000 plus) in the United States of America has a political culture starkly different from that of the less populous areas surrounding it.
As New York Times columnist Gail Collins noted a couple of years ago, people living in densely populated urban areas understand the need for government–paved roads and public safety and garbage collection. That farmer out at the end of the gravel road who rarely gets a visitor (and isn’t worth the effort of the burglar), doesn’t see much reason to pay taxes.
Living with lots of people who are different from you shapes a certain worldview, an identifiably urban value structure. As the authors of the Urban Archipeligo wrote in that seminal essay,
Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center…: We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity. We’re for a freedom of religion that includes the freedom from religion–not as some crazy aberration, but as an equally valid approach to life. We are for the right to choose one’s own sexual and recreational behavior, to control one’s own body and what one puts inside it. We are for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…..
Unlike the people who flee from cities in search of a life free from disagreement and dark skin, we are for contentiousness, discourse, and the heightened understanding of life that grows from having to accommodate opposing viewpoints. We’re for opposition…. Republicans have succeeded in making the word “liberal”–which literally means “free from bigotry… favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded”–into an epithet….
Let’s see, what else are we for? How about education? Cities are beehives of intellectual energy; students and teachers are everywhere you look, studying, teaching, thinking…. It’s time to start celebrating that, because if the reds have their way, advanced degrees will one day be awarded based on the number of Bible verses a person can recite from memory. In the city, people ask you what you’re reading. Outside the city, they ask you why you’re reading. You do the math–and you’ll have to, because non-urbanists can hardly even count their own children at this point. For too long now, we’ve caved to the non-urban wisdom that decries universities as bastions of elitism and snobbery. Guess what: That’s why we should embrace them. Outside of the city, elitism and snobbery are code words for literacy and complexity. And when the oil dries up, we’re not going to be turning to priests for answers–we’ll be calling the scientists. And speaking of science: SCIENCE! That’s another thing we’re for. And reason. And history.
Is this stark “we versus they” picture fair? Of course not. There are plenty of thoughtful and measured inhabitants of rural precincts. That said, the inclusive culture created by the urban worldview is one of the reasons so many marginalized folks–LGBT people, Jews, atheists, artsy nonconformists– tend to migrate to cities.
The problem is, the people who live in densely populated cities have demonstrably less political voice than their country cousins; most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural values are vastly overrepresented. State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas, and the people who populate state legislatures have gerrymandered voting districts to keep things that way.
Representative government just isn’t very representative these days.
Until we address gerrymandering—and the efforts to suppress the votes of minority voters—the values of rural areas will continue to be over-represented, and the views of folks living in the urban archipelago will continue to be ignored by policymakers.
And that’s not good for democracy.