This nation was majority rural from its first official Census in 1790 right through the Census of 1910. But in 1920 the Census showed for the first time that the majority (slightly over 50%) had shifted to the urban landscape, and that trend away from the countryside has not stopped through the most recent enumeration. The last time I checked the stats, we were pushing 80% "urban" (which takes in all those sprawling suburbs too).
Only 20% of our vast population now live in what the Census defines as "rural" America. Yet that 20% has exerted a relatively huge emotional and cultural pull on our self-image. America saw itself in the Joads in "The Grapes of Wrath," it recognized its country courage in Sergeant Alvin York. In times of crisis, Americans tended to see themselves as innocent and wholesome country folk ... even while those urbanites were draining the countryside of its workers, its raw materials, and often its self-esteem.
The most rural section of the country -- and therefore, statistically, the most out-numbered -- is still the South. Ironically, and despite the lampooning its taken in the urban press as dumber'n a 3-dollar dog, the South has nevertheless exerted a powerful hold over the imagination of the whole country for a solid century. That hold has extended to actual real power. By 1994, the most popular music in the U.S. was country music, the most popular spectator sport was NASCAR (the invention of mud-daubber country boys), and the three most powerful politicians were Southerners: Bill Clinton in the White House, Newt Gingrich in the U.S. House, and Trent Lott in the U.S. Senate.
Rural America may have been withering on the vine demographically -- drive any back-road and observe with regret the abandoned farms -- but its cultural and spiritual and psychological influence was HUGE. What you make of that paradox -- and the sometimes tragic transmigrations of our people that underlie it -- is up to you, but there it is.
Politically, the national GOP seems strapped to the rural past like heavy cargo on a floundering ship. Republicans have all but conceded our urban cores to the Democrats. Meanwhile, they have played their trump cards -- God, guns, and gays -- with fearless repetition and effectiveness in the suburbs and in the farmlands. But messages that depend on prejudice and social fear of strangeness seem to be wearing awfully thin, especially in the suburbs but also now in rural areas. In 2006, the Democratic resurgence in North Carolina was nowhere stronger than in the most rural section of the state, the western mountains and foothills.
What makes sense about Congresswoman Virginia Foxx's recent noticeable vote against the animal cruelty bill is that she was trying to appeal to rural sensibilities, as she understood them. But what's more than dangerous about that vote, and about a whole bunch of others she's made, is that those sensibilities are in flux and those voters are in play. After all, rural America has NOT prospered relative to the rest of the country during the last six years.
Now comes Sen. John Edwards, prepared to point these inequities out. According to Rob Christensen in the N&O, Edwards is making "a major pitch to capture the rural vote." "Rural America has been ignored for too long," Edwards said in Nashville. "Across America, too many small towns have turned into ghost towns."
"What we are going to say to rural America is: 'Look around you,' " said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, Edwards' chief strategist on rural America. "You can leave Raleigh and drive to Des Moines, Iowa, and every small town you go through it looks like Sherman went through, except he didn't burn anything."But you have to get off the Interstate to see what Mudcat Saunders is talking about.
God bless John Edwards for turning his gaze to the rural. Maybe other Democrats will follow that lead. It's certainly a more positive vision of America he's offering that the constant fear that Rosie O'Donnell is going to marry her lover in the Cane Creek Baptist Church and then confiscate all our guns.
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