Time to talk politics for the first time in 10 years of this blog. There's not a single hard fact in this post.
With the ends of the political spectrum spewing bile at each other, it's difficult to try to see things from the opposite viewpoint to one's own. I'm a liberal; I hadn't even heard of Breitbart, much less read anything there, until 2016, though conservative friends would sometimes ask me about things that they were getting from news sources I ignored - remember "Jade Helm," the military exercise that was supposed to install martial law to take away weapons? [If you're a liberal, you may be asking "WHAT?!" as I did] When it didn't happen, the conservatives congratulated themselves on stopping it, though it wasn't real. In the mean time, sales at gun shops skyrocketed and the temporary ammunition shortages that that caused fueled the crazies who said "See, it's happening!"
It's apparent that most liberals - and certainly Hillary Clinton - have no idea why Trump won the last election, claiming fraud or xenophobic "bag of deplorables." I think I see things clearly now, though I may be wrong. I believe it's simply a matter of a generation seeing that they are not doing as well as their parents and certainly not as well as they hoped and seeing even less hope for their children. The problem is that rural problems are being framed in urban terms.
We in the cities think we know what poverty looks like: we've seen panhandlers. You don't see that in rural areas, because it wouldn't make sense. There you have people forced to sell homes and move into cheaper mobile homes where there are no trailer parks, but there are hook-ups in Wal-Marts. People are walking the aisles in the stores all night to stay warm. People are buying (I hear) heated dog kennels for their children to sleep in when the heat's been cut off. You may see "People of Wal-Mart" and laugh at the people you see, but they're doing the best they can under the circumstances. You're mocking people for being poor (and shame on you). The same goes for the "Fixed It!" posts where someone has jerryrigged things haphazardly with what was available - when you have no money to do it right, you do it somehow. Again, stop mocking the poor.
I've never bought anything at a Wal-Mart because I despised their business model of: moving into an area, selling at below cost to drive out the competition (absorbing the loss among thousands of profitable stores), forcing those who used to run their own businesses to work for them, and then jacking up the prices when they had a monopoly in the area. They then often closed stores, forcing people to go to a different Wal-Mart further away. Not trying to save a dime here and there by shopping at Wal-Mart seemed the way to stop them. The thing is: when you're down to your last dollar, saving that dime becomes very important. You cause a bigger problem down the line because you need to live through this moment before you can think of the future.
There are places where the number of people health insurance went from 10% to almost 90% and these places often overwhelmingly voted for trump. They didn't buy insurance because they couldn't afford it and now have it because they must; though the cost drops from (say) $800 per month to $200, that's $200 they can't save or need for other things. This discount is seen as an unwanted government handout. Add to this that it was declared a tax by the SCOTUS and it's seen even less favorably.
What's worse, people are paying for something they're not using - men are notorious for not going to doctors. If you're rural, the nearest doctor may not be convenient; anything not routine sends one to the one hospital in the county and often to the nearest sizable city. I can see men saying, "I feel fine and I'm told my blood pressure is high, my blood sugar is high and my cholesterol is high. They want me to start taking three medicines I can't afford and are telling me to exercise, change my diet and stop drinking and I don't want someone telling me how to run my life."
Acute problems become chronic problems and when chronic problems again become acute, they become emergencies. After a trip to the emergency room, there's a prescription for opioid. Then starts a new chronic problem.
Substance abuse and suicide
The rates of opioid addiction continue to rise throughout the population, regardless of income, location or age. The rates of suicide and overdose among rural white men is exploding. The rate of death from alcohol-related reasons is skyrocketing among rural white women; they're killing themselves, but more slowly. The despair in rural communities is almost palpable.
Corporate farms and agribusiness
Because of the economy of scale, family farms are dying and replaced with corporate farms. Fewer people are needed to farm, but there are few other jobs in rural areas. It's been shown that a dollar spent in a small town recirculates ten times before leaving the area. Money made by a corporate farm leaves immediately. Money earned by those who work there most likely goes online to Amazon or to chains like Wal-Mart.
Small towns are dying. A good measure of health is the presence of a high school; consolidation removes local identity - and you need young people to keep a town going. Slightly larger towns centered in agribusiness - turkeys in Worthington and vegetables in LeSueur, for example - are growing, but the population increase is from immigrants. There are no longer high-paying unskilled jobs, as was once seen in the automobile industry, but these low-paying jobs are being taken by those for whom it is a step up, rather than a step down. Perhaps what's seen as xenophobia is the belief that, if those taking the low-paying jobs unionized or demanded higher wages, then opportunities would open for others (though I assume the typical isolation by language and culture are involved).
The jobs that are available in cities are skilled. It's cheaper for a business to have people pay to go to school for their training than to train them themselves, so people go into debt to get training for a job they might not get and which will not last and is not transferable. The common alternative is to join the military, which trains one for nothing useful in civilian life and causes one to return to the same condition, only older and less likely to be hired; deaths of former military by handgun are almost epidemic.
Success at the cost of one's soul
There are some towns that have had great success due to tourism. The classic example in Minnesota is Lanesboro, which I loved in 1980 as a sleepy town of quaint buildings by a river. Having whitewater brought tourism, which brought money, which brought businesses catering to tourists and redesign for tourists (the bike paths are excellent now). Rents went up, so older businesses closed. Congestion during summer weekends kept locals from their hangouts. "No Trespassing" signs erupted everywhere. Like gentrification of industrial areas in large cities, these tourist meccas have a boom and a bust. As Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded." When the tourists dislike the crowding, they find new places and leave the boom town less able to survive than previously.
God, Guns and The GOP
What do we as "big city liberals" do to change the situation? We have to visit small towns. Many small towns have a yearly festival; last year I went to several that had a race to run and people were interested in why I visited - oddly, none suggested what one should see or do there. Hunting will give reason to visit, something you can't do in the city and a sign that you're not a "take our guns away liberal."
Buy the local newspaper, use it to find out what there is to do there and do it. Find out what the important issues are, what the local angle is, how much right-wing propaganda has filtered into the opinions.
Attend the local church. Conservative churches, especially the charismatic ones, bother me, but it's a good place to be welcomed, usually over cheap coffee. The church tends to reflect and reinforce the local views; going in as a liberal and a Christian, you can gradually nudge messages toward greater mercy, acceptance, tolerance and forgiveness.
Consider what you could bring to the area. One of my favorite stories is of the Californian who opened his Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, SD because of the low costs. An openly gay black Buddhist, he was overwhelmingly welcomed, as he'd been the first to move there and first to open a business in at least a decade. Of course, I know of opposite stories as well, including a lesbian couple whose house was set on fire by their neighbor when they moved to the country.
If nothing else, bring food you love. More than anything else, I find people in rural areas, particularly recent arrivals, seeking a change in fare. It's hard to hate a man with whom you've shared a meal. I often think that circulating metro food trucks through small towns would be genius (if probably highly unprofitable); attending small-town festivals, there's always food trucks selling fry bread and sno cones, but little else. I am always amazed how hard it is to find fresh produce in a farming community.
I'm just old enough to remember Dixiecrats. The rural poor of the Bible-belt south elected Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The rural poor elected Trump and for the same reason: hope. Winning them back starts with not dismissing them as bigoted rubes, but meeting them and bringing a message of hope.
There are races to run this weekend in Elko, Henderson, St. Bonifacius, Fairfax, Redwood Falls and Howard Lake. There's something you could run every weekend and the 4th of July is coming, when there are dozens of small town races. Try it!
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