On the urban-rural divide in North America

In 1960, in Grade 11, living in a hamlet about 30 miles outside of Winniped, I participated actively  in community activities including church. That involvement enabled me as an 16 year-old to attend what was then called the Tuxis and Older Boys Parliament staged annually in the Manitoba legislature building between Christmas and New Year’s.

I’m somewhere in the upper right quadrant of this photo.

“The Older Boys’ Parliament program began in Ontario as part of the TUXIS movement (“Training Under Christ In Service”). Its original sponsors included various Protestant churches, such as the United Church of Canada, the Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, the Salvation Army, and a variety of service groups such as the YMCA, De Molay and Kiwanis organizations. The movement’s goal was to foster the development of the physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being of the person as inspired by the biblical passage Luke 2:52, which reads: ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.’ Youth Parliaments, only one of many TUXIS activities, were designed for religious as well as parliamentary training. Though most YPs were at one time part of the TUXIS movement, only the TUXIS Youth Parliament of Alberta retains the name to this day. Notable former Manitoba members from this period include Bill Norrie, Robert Steen, Wally Fox-Decent and Howard Pawley [and, I will add, Lloyd Axworthy].”
(Read about  the evolution of this organization, including its decision to amend its religious and gender restrictions here: http://www.ypmanitoba.ca/about/history/)

Like all members ‘elected’ to this ‘parliament,’ I was required to give a short speech introducing myself and commenting on some issue of importance to me. At first, I had no idea what to talk about. But fairly quickly, I grasped an insight I’d not had before: the deep divide between us who came from the rural areas (“the rubes”) and the “city slickers.” Very nervously, I stood up and spoke my piece about “urban-rural prejudice.” Until our participation at this event, most of the rurals from the Urals, I think, believed we were equal to the urbanites. Discovering that we were seen more as big frogs from small ponds came as a shock, and a cause for concern and even action.

I’m reminded of that time 56 years ago because I’ve been trying to figure out what happened in the US elections of 2016—why the prognostications of so many pundits, and pollsters, and talented, well-educated, broadly informed reporters and editors turned out to be wildly off target. And among the many factors emerging in the post-Trump victory analysis, one element that keeps popping up is that so many of the august predictors simply didn’t know or understand the size, nature, or determination of exurban or rural America. Trump supporters from the Heartland were written off simply as racists and misogynists, “deplorables.”

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people—now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks—they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

The next day Hillary walked back her assertion somewhat: “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong.”Clinton went on to say [however] that Trump had nevertheless repeatedly engaged in “deplorable” behavior throughout his campaign… “I won’t stop calling out bigotry and racist rhetoric in this campaign….

What many reporters and op-eds failed to give adequate play to, I want to emphasize, was what she stated immediately after the bold faced paragraph above:

But the other basket—and I know this because I see friends from all over America here—I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas—as well as, you know, New York and California— but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

She clearly understood that part of Trump’s supporters, which the urban elite needed to  reach out to and comprehend . I don’t think her supporters heard her either. Clearly, it was that “half” of Trump supporters, especially in the rust belt of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio whose support even one-of-their-own Michael Moore couldn’t cajole, folks who were so pissed off with the liberal elite whether in the Democratic or Republican leadership, that they simply refused to listen to anything she had to say.

Incidentally Bill Clinton, who built his presidency on forging a “…New Democrat” Party [that] co-opted the Reagan appeal to law and order, individualism, and welfare reform, and made the party more attractive to white middle-class Americans” (Miller Center) also understood that “basket” of the electorate that urban elites could not fathom:

“The other guy’s base is what I grew up in,” the former president said during a campaign stop in Fort Myers, Fla. “You know, I’m basically your standard redneck.”

The former president also recounted a moment during the 2016 Democratic primary when he went to campaign for Hillary Clinton in West Virginia—a state that they lost and predicted they would lose long before voting even took place.

“[S]he said, ‘There’s no way that we can carry it,’ and I said, ‘No way,'” Clinton said Tuesday, recounting a conversation he had with his wife about campaigning in Mountain State.

“First of all, [West Virginians] only watch Fox News,” he added to laughter. “But to be fair they think we only care our political base and the people that agree with us culturally. And it’s not true, but that’s what they think.”

Clinton said that when he got to West Virginia, he was met by a bunch of pro-Trump protesters. He said he invited them into his rally and encouraged them to reconsider their support for the GOP nominee.

“If you really believe that you can make America great again, knowing I know what it means as a white southerner,” the former president reportedly told the protesters.

Clinton told his audience Tuesday, “what [Trump]s slogan] means is, ‘I’ll give you the economy we had 15 years ago and the society you had.’ In other words, I’ll move you up on the social totem pole and others down,” Clinton said.

His comments came as part of a larger appeal to his audience to reach out to undecided voters and even pro-Trump supporters to tell them the Democratic nominee’s campaign understands them and wants to include them.

“Don’t engage in our version of all this screaming,” Clinton said. “Go out there and look people in the eye who aren’t going to vote for her and tell them we still want them to be part of America. Tell them we need them (my emphasis).”

“I know how they feel,” he added in reference to angry and frustrated voters, many of who have gravitated towards Trump. “And I’m telling you, the older you get, the worse it is if you look in the mirror every day and you think you can’t do anything to change the future.”

Clinton’s campaign stump speeches often include references to his childhood growing up in Arkansas, including his memories of pre-Civil Rights attitudes and the general unpleasantness of using outhouses. (Washington Examiner)

But most of Hillary’s supporters were deaf to these admissions and admonitions, I think. Whether the Democratic Party, and, for that matter, urban elites in other countries including Canada are willing to unstop their ears and open their eyes and realize that the main conflict in modern democracies is not simply between the top 1% and everybody else is anyone’s guess. Better listening is needed, and soon…. And, yes, among those who opposed Trump but voted for him anyway, and who are now capable of listening to some of us on the other side, there needs to be some unplugging and eyes-opening, too.

To be continued….





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