I’ve been brooding a lot over the fragmentations and hostilities of American life, and the gloomy predictions of a “civil war”. Since America’s divisions tend to fall along lines of urban and rural, a traditional “war” featuring some sort of widespread armed conflict is unlikely and impractical, but the “sides” are pretty clearly arrayed, and we seem incapable of talking to or understanding each other.
I especially thought about the growing differences of Americans’ realities a couple of weeks ago. We were driving home from South Carolina, where for the past forty-plus years our family has enjoyed a summer week at the beach. We used to take the state’s (relatively) major roads from our place at Litchfield Beach to Columbia, where we accessed the interstate, but since the advent of GPS, we’ve been able to save time by following directions along the lines of “take a right through farmer Brown’s sorghum field, then go 500 feet and turn onto narrow, scary unpaved county line road…(Okay, that may be a bit exaggerated, but it is amazing how desolate some parts of our country remain, and how long you can drive without encountering human habitation…)
What isn’t exaggerated is the isolation through which the GPS took us. We would go miles and miles without passing a gas station or seeing anything remotely resembling a town. We would, however, occasionally pass a trailer that had seen better days, often with an equally-dilapidated truck or van sitting in an un-mowed yard. Other times, we would pass a more substantial small home sitting forlornly in a field, alone and–so far as we could tell– far from neighbors or shops.
I cannot help wondering about the people who live in these homes. Do they have internet access? Television? Where is the nearest school, and do they have children who attend that school? Is there a library anywhere close? Where’s the nearest grocery? (Given the number of churches we pass on these trips–far, far more numerous than gas stations– I do know there’s a church near by, although I have no idea whether it is the “right” church…)
So here’s the thing.
Living in the heart of a mid-sized city, my experience of American life is radically different from the experience of the folks who inhabit these precincts. It isn’t a matter of “better” or “worse” (although we all have our prejudices)–it’s a matter of really dramatic distance. The skill sets of people who must fix their own cars, grow much of their own food, and rely on their immediate families and fellow religious congregants for the bulk of their human interaction is obviously different from that of city dwellers who live near multiple other people–most of whom don’t go to their church or share their backgrounds or experiences.
Although I’d be the first to admit that I have no way of knowing, I’m pretty sure that the things I fear are not the things these folks fear. It’s also likely that the things I know and am familiar with are very different from the things they know and are familiar with, just as our respective skill-sets are likely to be very different.
How do we talk to each other as Americans? What does being an American mean to each of us? Are there areas of agreement, of commonality?
Research confirms that MAGA true believers come disproportionately from these very rural environments, and that many of these inhabitants deeply resent the “elitists” and “woke folks” they think occupy urban America. Urban dwellers can be equally dismissive of rural folks.
Against this backdrop, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that many urban and rural residents feel misunderstood and looked down on by Americans living in other types of communities. About two-thirds or more in urban and rural areas say people in other types of communities don’t understand the problems people face in their communities. And majorities of urban and rural residents say people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do.
A 2020 study by scholars at Washington University found that the urban-rural political divide is rooted in geography and not merely differences in the type of people who choose to live in these places. How close people live to a major metropolitan area (defined as cities of at least 100,000) and the population density of that urban environment significantly affect political beliefs and partisan affiliations. The researchers found that “The distance we live away from a metropolitan area shapes what we think about the political world and the partisan labels we adopt.”
There really are two Americas, and they are increasingly at odds. Perhaps it isn’t “civil war”–but it’s uncomfortably close.