Rural versus Urban

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.


  1. Hi Sheila ….enjoy reading your column . I subscribed after your beautiful article about Paul Chase ( my son). I can understand why you two were friends. Keep up the good work. Lorraine

  2. Hi Sheila. That goes for me too. I love reading your blogs. Also, knowing that you and Paul were friends gives me another connection to him. You are a brilliant writer and I am a great fan of yours:-) Beth (Paul’s sister)

  3. Wow, just wow. America in a nutshell. Masterfully done Sheila.

    There’s another word for all that you describe. Freedom. Based on the thought that “if it ain’t for everyone, it ain’t freedom.

    The wise and brave of the Revolutionary, Civil, and world wars knew that, and many gave their lives as testimony to the glory of freedom. Those of the feminist and civil rights movements were equally committed. Now those who fight the battle against extreme wealth redistribution now or more as a consequence of anthropogenic global warming in the future are adding to the armies of freedom.

    The struggle for progress against the apathetic and the armies of stasis will never end. Nor should they.

  4. While The Stranger article contains considerable truth I find it inflammatory and unfortunately contributing to the divisions that already exist. I am presently an urban dweller and parts of my life have been in rural settings. Rather than emphasize the divisions I suggest we could do well to look at how the cultural variations can inform each other and reduce division.

    Rural folk have little use for the government sourced social network programs that urbanites support and value, I think because they are used to being those networks for each other locally. Rural folks may fear and be intolerant of very different (religions, life styles, cultures) when
    viewed as groups but are quite neighborly with individual neighbors. Urbanites are more tolerant conceptually of different groups but less neighborly.

    Rural folk tend to be less demanding of infrastructure while urbanites tend to be over dependent and often have unrealistic expectations of infrastructure.

    I could go on. I just wanted to point out that there is much that urban and rural can learn and gain from each other if we work to ignore and disempower those who are generating difference and manipulating us all for their own gain without consideration for either urban or rural people.

  5. Respect for feedom has traditionally been an American value, not rural or urban. What’s changed is a man made cultural predisposition that more government means less freedom, whereas our ancestors believed that more proper government meant more freedom. Government was our protector of our freedom as long as we had democratic hiring and firing of those who govern.

    What Paul sees as urban/rural differences, I see as dysfunctional culture implanted by those who it serves.

    All of the efforts that I mentioned previously were the resolution between cultures of freedom and cultures of imposition. So far freedom has always triumphed. May it continue to.

  6. Urban, suburban, rural; are all parts of the whole with different needs, likes & dislikes, values and views of the world around them in general. This is a society. As Sheila quoted Rodney King before; “Why can’t we all just get along?” This would include recognizing, accepting and supporting the differences, the similarities, the fact that we all have needs which we believe are most important. We all need to understand that our tax dollars will not all go to support the individual’s preferences but will be spread around, often foolishly by elected officals through special interest groups and often overlooking true need for the majority. I remember during President Obama’s first campaign, he commented about these special interest groups, that he considered a women’s knitting circle as a special interest group who also considers their needs to be important. He recognized that we all have needs and not all of these needs – or wants – can possibly be fulfilled by government with our tax dollars.

  7. I am a recent subscriber and enjoy your blog. I have even recommended it to friends. That said, I am frustrated by this blog–and so many others–failing to recognize that their are as many liberal, or if you prefer, progressive Christians as there are righty Christian haters. My late father once instructed me that, “There are all kinds of thieves in politics. The biggest difference is that Democrats tend to take from the rich and the Republicans always take from the poor.” He ended that educational session with, “And son, you ain’t rich.” I accepted his word then and I have witnessed its correctness over the years. But I am offended by liberals who assume that since I am a pastor of a small rural church that I must be a bigot, or ignorant, or a racist. My congregation as a whole is very conservative–this is Indiana. But when they hired me I told them I was a Democrat and a Liberal (capital “L”) and I wasn’t going to change. What I have found is that there are many members who are simply ignorant of what stands behind the issues but will listen, at least in part, to reason. What I have also found is attacking them is counterproductive as well as un-Liberal and un-Christian. I will continue to be a liberal–but I will always resent the categorizing of all Christians as ignorant and/or evil.

  8. I grew up in a rural area and can today am a city dweller and lover, but I can tell you that it’s overwhelmingly more city people who want to tell country people how to live than vice versa. You don’t see too many rural folks heading into cities telling them how they ought to live in the way that urban opponents of modern agricultural practices or environmental advocates will come into rural areas and try to decry and disrupt.

  9. Amen Rev. McCalester. Well said and right on target.

    Three of the 4 most powerful legislative leaders in Indiana’s state legislature are neither rural nor urban but suburban legislators representing voters of above average incomes. By committee assignment, procedural rules, and other means, legislative leaders decide what other legislators get to vote on, what is funded, and what is brought up in caucus. Seldom do the balance of legislators ban together to overwhelm the wishes of their leadership and then at some peril to those seen as catalysts for such efforts. Legislative leaders also recruit candidates to their liking in rural and other districts and decide which of them receive campaign assistance.

    Rural legislators sometimes complain that Marion County in particular receives state tax funds for non-necessities (such as the natatorium and a new football stadium with a roof when we already had one) at the expense of badly needed funds for governmental essentials statewide. And sometimes rural and urban legislators have issues in common when the suburbs make out better than everyone else.

    Gerrymandering IS a problem, but it has everything to do with self-preservation of partisan majorities and leadership positions. Rural v. urban issues barely register on the richter scale.

  10. How is it, then (speaking to Aaron, specifically) that a legislator from Ohio County (population 6,100) gets to decide on the number and kind of seats in the City County Council of Indianapolis/Marion County, the economic engine of the State? I can see more than 6,100 people from the balcony of my apartment.

    How is it that someone like Tim Wesco – one of 10 kids, home-schooled, educated at his parents’ online Christian “college,” culturally and economically illiterate – gets to wield so much power at the Statehouse on matters which don’t impact him?

    My people are from rural Indiana, and they’re inbred, racist, homophobic, theocratic morons who need to be told what to do. They are beneficiaries of the economic output of cities, not contributors. F ’em.

    (Yes, I understand that that legislator’s district isn’t just that County of 6,100, but the point it made.)

  11. “Modern agricultural practices”

    By that do you mean things like CAFOs which are poisoning the water and soil that the rest of us rely on?

    Do you mean big agro that shuts down small farmers for “stealing” patents on seeds because they happened to be downwind from a Monsanto field?

    Do you mean farms using millions of pounds of petrochemical fertilizer that pollute the air we all share?

    And most of that heavily subsidized with federal tax dollars, growing food to feed animals instead of people, animals which end up in McDonalds as inedible, unhealthy garbage?

    Yeah…I have no problem telling those folks that what they’re doing isn’t sustainable, is killing the planet, and needs to change…particularly when they’re living off of Federal Farm Subsidies and protected by Federal Farm Insurance paid for – nearly entirely – with money generated by people who live in cities and suburbs.

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