The Midterm Elections and the Rural-Urban Divide in U.S. History

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (). The idea of a "Chick=f=lay+ section of America is really a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (2012). The idea of a “Chick-fil-A Country” is really just a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Ah, the American press. The third estate. Delivering the hard journalistic facts to an information-starved American public. Okay, so those are the ideals that the more idealistic fools among us would wish upon U.S. journalism. Instead, we have programs like Meet the Press, now hosted by renowned Beltway fluffer Chuck Todd, who, like famed NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, has two first names. In a recent segment in which he discussed the upcoming 2014 midterm elections, the goeteed sage decided to frame the current political narrative through the lens of that most American of institutions: fast-food. You see, Todd believes that the current liberal-conservative divide in American politics has split the country into a “Starbucks Nation” and a “Chick-Fil-A Country.”

“Starbucks Nation” is characterized by big cities, where effete, spineless, multi-cultural, non-open-carrying, socialistic, Starbucks’ latte-sipping, atheistic, possibly homosexual, tax-raising urban liberal hippies vote for the Democratic Party and thus, plan to destroy America. “Chick-Fil-A Country,” by contrast, is characterized by small-towns — the real America — and is populated by white, gun-humping, (Protestant Christian) church-door-darkening, tax-cutting, flag-waving, freedom-oozing, military-worshipping, free-market-mouthing, conservative Chick-Fil-A patronizing rubes who vote Republican to save America. According to Chuck Todd, it’s the political battle between these two competing demographics — “the Democrats who live in the big cities” versus the “Republicans that live in the areas between suburban America and rural America” — that will decide the 2014 mid-term elections.

This is your press, America. And while Chuck Todd should certainly be taken to the proverbial woodshed for reducing American politics to a dualistic smackdown between competing styles of fast-food (believe it or not, there actually are small-town Starbucks AND big-city Chick-Fil-As!), he is nonetheless echoing a very old — and very real — divide in American culture: the clash between the rural and the urban; between the small-town and the big city.

Culturally, the Seattle-based Starbucks, as purveyors of crappy, overpriced coffee and mass-marketed faux-European cafe kitsch, is often used as an all-purpose stand-in for air-headed progressive urbanity (“Putting soymilk in your ten-dollar mocha-chai-pumpkin-Twinkie-latte AND supporting gay-marriage?! How sophisticated!”). By contrast, Chick-Fil-A has a conservative, middle-American image. Its founder is an evangelical Christian, and the chain’s critique of all-things queer-o-sexual made it a rallying point for right-wing, small-town Americans who wanted a big helping of culture-war conformity alongside their value-priced, coagulated chicken globules.

But regardless of how overly simplistic it is to associate Starbucks with liberal city life and Chick-Fil-A with small-town conservatism, Chuck Todd can get away with this kind of superficial bunk because there’s a very real history of urban-rural clashes in American history. Todd is referencing that history in his bone-headed, fast-food-based take on the 2014 midterm elections. After all, as the Wall Street Journal reported early in 2014, it’s a well-established fact that in modern America, cities tend to be havens for liberals while conservatives are mostly concentrated in rural areas and small towns. This type of political divide is the legacy of an American cultural proclivity towards viewing cities as bastions of openness, impersonality, and chaos in contrast to the supposed stability, conformity, and slower-paced, value-driven life of the countryside.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they're ordering the new Trotsky latte.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they’re ordering the new Trotsky latte.

As historian Paul Boyer writes in his book Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920, the urban-rural divide in American life is as old as the republic itself. The first wave of mass urban growth during the Jacksonian era struck fear into the hearts of American agrarians. “Urbanization posed profound threats to the social and moral order they knew,” Boyer writes, and, as a result, critics of urban life unleashed “somber warnings about the prevalence of intemperance, gambling, sexual immorality, profanity, and Sabbath breaking in the cities.”* To 19th-century America’s moralizing country-bumpkins, “the urban order represented a volatile and unpredictable deviation from a familiar norm.”*

Perhaps America’s most famous of all agrarian apologists was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The archetypical Founding Father spent most of his life touting the importance of an agrarian ideal in which America would ideally be populated by independent, virtuous yeomen farmers far-removed from the tempting licentiousness of the cities.

In his famous 1784 book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson waxed nostalgic about how rural and small-town life provided a bulwark against the dastardly influence of urbanization. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” Jefferson wrote. “It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” And what did Jefferson think of the cities? Although he wasn’t totally adverse to the growing importance of urban commerce, he nonetheless took a defiant stance in favor of the countryside, writing that, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Ouch.

The influence of Jefferson, a southerner, echoed during the buildup to the Civil War. In the antebellum period, northern and southern opponents tended to cast the sectional conflict as a clash between a rural, slaveholding South and an industrial, urbanizing North. But such black-and-white distinctions were products of politics and culture, not reality. Historians have since shown that while the South was indeed more rural than the North, it had plenty of cities and industry, and while the North was more urbanized and industrial than the South, it was still a mostly agrarian region that sent far more farmers than factory workers to the battlefields.

But such nuances didn’t matter to pro-slavery politicians like South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond, who invoked the rural life to defend southern slavery against supposedly hypocritical, anti-slavery urban northerners who criticized the South’s peculiar institution while simultaneously ignoring the wage-slavery in their midst. In his famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech,” Hammond argued that southern slaves were, “hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our [enslaved] people, and not too much employment either.”

Unlike southern slaves, Hammond claimed that northern workers were, “hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns.” “Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South,” he boasted. The virtuous southern rural lifestyle, Hammond argued, was superior to northern urbanization because it kept only a specific group of (black) people enslaved, whereas wage-slavery affected whites and spread like a disease through northern cities. Checkmate, countryside!

Even decades after the Civil War, however, the allure of the countryside as an antidote to urban ills maintained a powerful hold on some folks in the conservative South. In the early twentieth century, a group of southern agrarian intellectuals railed against the influence of so-called “New South Boosters,”  who sought to remake the post-war South into a northern-style industrial urban powerhouse.

In their seminal essay collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, the agrarians made their case for the inherent virtue of Dixie’s rural and small town lifestyle. “Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian,” they wrote, “the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations.” The rural lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the “evils” of urbanization and industrialization, especially “overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth.” Like that of Jefferson before them, the echoes of the agrarians ring loudly in modern American discourse that presents the conservative small town as morally and spiritually superior to the liberal big city.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

While America’s rural areas are declining in population, the old historical preference for the countryside now surfaces via “traditional” residents of small-town America who put their faith in the Republican Party as the last bulwark against a creeping, urbanized, secular, liberal culture. As Josh Kron of the Atlantic wrote a few years back, “the new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside…the voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.” This demographic reality is why 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin adopted her best “aw shucks, gosh darnnit'” tone to claim that authenticity reigned not in cities, but rather “in these small towns” and “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America,” the residents of which were apparently “hard-working, very patriotic, and very pro-America.”

Palin’s speech is the type of hayseed-mongering that rural and small-town conservative voters lap up like St. Bernards at a cotton candy convention, and it’s a major component of the Republican Party’s electoral playbook. The same folks who were inspired by Palin’s neo-agrarian rhetoric are the same folks who get a major culture war hard-on when they buy a Chick-Fil-A sandwich just to spite teh gayz. And it’s these same conservative, small-town and rural voters that urban, lefty, Starbucks slurping, gay-marrying pinkos are dismissing as relics of a barbaric age.

Chuck Todd’s Starbucks vs. Chick-Fil-A approach to American politics may be slightly moronic, but it does make a certain kind of indirect sense when you consider the long urban/rural divide that his fast-food metaphor is clumsily referencing. And while this divide has been — and continues to be — a real thing, let’s not overlook the myriad complexities of American history that caution against total, black-and-white approaches to regionalism. Both cities and small towns have their virtues and vices; there are liberal farmers and conservative hedge funders; and pretty much everyone in America has, at some point in their lives, ordered a Starbucks coffee or chomped on some Chick-Fil-A waffle fries.

So while rural/urban divisions will probably never go away, we’ll all be better off if we try to identify our similarities as well as our differences, wherever we live. The reality is that most small towns aren’t idealistic Mayberrys, but they aren’t necessarily backwards hellholes either. Moreover, while they can certainly have higher crime rates, most cities aren’t morally deprived war zones. The charm and slower pace of the countryside can house deep-seated prejudices just as the dynamic multiculturalism of the city can conceal some very real feelings of anomie and alienation. The world is more complex than a simple urban/rural divide would suggest, despite its historical provenance. And as for Chuck Todd: lay off the fast-food, man, Jefferson would have wanted it that way.

* See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 5, 4.

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12 Comments

  1. What I loved most was being reminded of my Political Communications class when I realized that though I vote more conservative, I meet all the indicators of being a liberal in terms of where I live and what I enjoy, thereby throwing political survey folks off target.

  2. Interesting post – you see the same ‘rural celebration’ in interwar Britain with the Conservative Stanley Baldwin. More generally, though, I think there was an opposite trend in Europe – i.e. urban life (or more specifically, the values and language of the male urban middle-class) was seen as ‘desirable’/’authentic’, & the rural population as hopelessly backward and ignorant, & their only hope for improvement was to become more like their urban counterparts. You see this particularly with ‘nation-building’ in states like France and Italy, where local rural customs, languages, traditions, etc. are suppressed and supplanted by those of the urban middle class. I wonder if the difference between America & Europe in this regard might be do to the nature of immigration in the US – i.e. the ‘other’ in American who needed to be assimilated were mostly in urban centres, not the countryside.

    • I think you’re right about American immigration being associated with urbanism. At least this was certainly the case with later period immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, when a well-established Anglo-American population could easily look at New York’s burgeoning groups of eastern European and Irish immigrants and scoff at their supposed “anti-Americanism.” Even today, conservatives in America who prioritize small-town and rural values associate the city with non-white, non “traditional” human elements such as blacks, hispanics, etc. Thanks for reading!

  3. Part of it might be a left-right issue. In the USSR, most of the high-ranking Communist leaders originally came from the cities and towns. And they tended to view the peasants as backward and reactionary, sometimes with horrific results. So maybe leftists tend to view country folk as backward and ignorant and right-wingers tend to view cities as hellholes and inauthentic. So since Europeans tend to be left-wing, the negative view of the country folk predominates, and since Americans tend to be right-wing, the negative view of the cities predominates. (I realize that this doesn’t explain Asian nations like China and Vietnam, though.)

    • There are more left wing Americans than right wing ones. Of course that all depends on how you define each wing. Regardless of how many on either side, the center is the key to winning elections. Since the Democrats have won five of the last six presidential elections I would say they tend to the left, but not in any meaningful and majorly dominant way. The conservative views just do not appeal to most of the center.

      • I think you’re referring to the idea that most Americans don’t want to embrace the term “liberal” even though they may hold genuinely liberal beliefs. This is because the Right has been so effective at making it a description of worthy of scorn. Although I would argue that if you’re defining American political success by “the center,” then America is indeed conservative, because if the modern Democratic Party is considered the “center,” then the “center” is actually quite a bit to the Right.

    • Those are very good points, but I should also note that rural culture in America hasn’t been universally associated with right-wing beliefs. The Populists who became politically active in the South and the Plains in the late 19th-early 20th centuries were, of course, quite radical in a leftist sense. It’s actually amazing to look at a modern-day rural conservative state like Kansas and contrast it with its radical, progressive agrarian past. Then again, even many of the Populists were culturally conservative even as they espoused economically progressive beliefs. These days, however, most strains of rural, progressive radicalism have been eliminated from U.S. culture, and that’s damn sad.

    • Well, hopefully it will make an impact for the better. The U.S. is becoming more and more urban every year, so in some ways it’s bound to change things.

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