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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

The Real Cause of the Rural-Urban Divide

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

During the upcoming political campaigns, we will hear a lot about the growing rural-urban divide. Rural areas will be labeled as Republican and urban areas as Democrat. Far less attention will be devoted to the millions or rural Democrats and urban Republicans. The “red states” are dominated by rural voters and the “blue states” by urban voters. The presidential election will be decided by people in the “purple states;” those of us in the red or blue states don’t seem to matter.

The rural-urban divide is a reflection of growing feelings that a lot of us don’t matter – or at least matter far less than a few others. While the divisiveness of partisan politics tends to widen the rural-urban divide, its basic cause runs much deeper. Partisan politics is used to convince people in both rural and urban communities that people in the other community are the source of their problems. The motivation is to keep both from seeing the real causes of their problems.

The real problem is that both rural and urban communities have consented to a culture that puts a higher priority on economic growth than either economic opportunity or social equality. The vast majority of ordinary Americans, rural and urban, have not benefited from economic growth, as we have seen during the past few administrations of both Republicans and Democrats. Those in positions of economic power are committed to defending the economic status quo, including their control over the political process. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have had the courage to address the real cause of the rural-urban divide by challenging the corporate aristocracy.

Enough about politics – perhaps too much already. I was raised on a small farm and have spent my entire

professional life working with farmers and people in rural communities. My wife and I recently moved to Fairfield, IA, a town of less than 10,000 people, because I wanted to finish my life in a rural community. So, I will share my view from the rural side of the divide. That said, I know the view from the urban side can be equally disturbing.

In the name of economic progress, we have allowed many rural areas in American to be turned into “economic colonies.” Historically, colonies were territories that were under the “political control” of another state or nation. An economic colony then is a territory under the “economic control” of some outside economic entity. Territories were colonized politically for a variety of reasons, including to spread the ideologies or cultures and religions of colonizing nations. Political colonization has always been accompanied by economic exploitation of the natural resources of colonies. Economic colonization is different in that the primary, if not sole, motivation is economic extraction and exploitation of the colony’s natural and human resources. Economic colonization is different also in that the colonizing entity often is a multinational corporation rather than a state or nation. We have allowed our rural areas to become economic colonies of corporations.

Political colonization has been around since the beginning of recorded history. Ironically, during the in the Ancient Greek era of “city states,” a city that founded a colony was called a “metropolis.” The European political colonial era spanned the period from the 16thcentury through the mid-1900s. Conflicts arising from colonization was a major cause of World War II. The process of decolonization or granting of independence to political colonies proceeded rapidly following World War II – for a variety of reasons. Eventually, the denial of political independence and freedom to colonies became morally indefensible in the global community.

With the fall of political colonization, economic colonization became the primary means by which powerful nations extracted and exploited the resource of other territories, regardless of their political affiliation. Economic colonization is still carried out by nations. However, the corporate colonialism of today is even more troublesome, because global corporations have no allegiance to any nation and are not under the control to any state or national government.

The basic strategy of political colonization was first to try to convince the leaders of the prospective colony that their people would be better off if they relinquished political control to the more advanced colonizing nation. The native people were told that colonization was necessary to allow them to join modern civilization and to develop their economic resources for the benefit of themselves and their children. Bribery of native leaders was a common tactic. If bribery failed, threats were sometime more persuasive. When persuasion failed, military force was employed. Annihilation of the native population was sometimes used as a last resort to complete the process of colonization. The strategy of today’s economic colonization are much the same. The process begins with persuasion but quickly turns to bribery and threats. If all else fails, “regime change” is a last resort, but only works when corporations are supported by nations.

Now to the crux of my thesis: We have allowed many parts of rural America to become economic colonies – most notably colonies of global energy and agribusiness corporations. Mountain-top-removal coal mining, fracking for oil and natural gas, and industrial agriculture are prime examples of rural economic colonization. Political leaders in rural states and communities have been coerced and bribed into subsidizing corporate extraction and exploitation of rural natural and human resources under the guise of “rural economic development.” Rural people have been told they must accept corporate domination of their communities in order to secure the capital needed to provide local jobs and tax bases needed for rural public services such as education and health care. Logical alternatives are routinely dismissed. Rural people are told the only way to avoid being “left behind” – economically, socially, and politically – is to invite corporation investors into their communities.

AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

As with political colonization, we now see the consequences of the false promises of corporate colonization. We see the same kinds of social and economic decay in rural America that we have seen in previous political and economic colonies around the world. The economic and social devastation of some rural areas is not unlike that in previously colonized “third-world” countries. I will not bother to dwell on the negative ecological, social, and economic impacts of the corporatization, as I have addressed the negative impacts of industrial agriculture in previous posts. The bottom line is that rural America is suffering the inevitable social and ecological consequences of economic colonization – while global corporate investors reap the economic benefits. Increasingly, the corporations exploiting rural America aren’t even U.S. corporations.

Many people in rural Americans apparently have become convinced that their problems are caused, or at least could be solved, by people in urban areas. Those in positions of economic and political power obviously kindle such false perceptions to as a means of diverting attention from the real causes. Rural people are led to believe their problems are caused by excessive government taxing and spending, oppressive environmental regulations, illegal immigration, unrestrained terrorism, and an urban culture of societal and moral decay. Rural Americas tend to see urban America as preoccupied with public policies that include higher minimum wages, more welfare programs for the poor, and “political correct” political agendas to pacify growing numbers of threatening minorities. The concerns and problems of rural America just “don’t seem to matter” to urban Democrats. Thus, we see a widening rural-urban political divide.

Urban Americans also blame rural Americans for many of their problems. Rural people should remember that many of today’s cities were built to accommodate the large manufacturing plants and other industrial organizations that characterize the industrial era of economic development. When urban workers formed unions to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions, many manufacturers moved to rural America, where the industrialization of agriculture had left people desperate for almost any kind of jobs. This loss of good jobs is one reason that cities are now confronted with the host of economic and social problems that claim the attention of urban legislators.

The jobs that rural America are now losing to illegal immigration and corporate outsourcing to other countries were once urban American jobs. Many rural areas are now suffering consequences once limited to urban ghettos – abject poverty, rampant crime, drug abuse, domestic violence, and loss of any sense of community. We now see rural communities being replaced by rural ghettos. In reality, the vast majority of rural and urban Americans are suffering from the same basic problem. It first came to urban America with the loss of manufacturing jobs to rural areas and to rural America with the loss of family farms to industrial agriculture. The basic problem is the same in both cases: “economic exploitation” cleverly disguised as “economic development.”

Perhaps the greatest urban resentment of rural America is that conservative politicians from rural states consistently block attempts of urban legislators to address their policy priorities. As long as rural people blame urban people for their problems, and urban people blame rural people for not allowing them to solve their problems, we will continue to have a rural-urban political divide in America. As long as we have a rural-urban divide, we will continue to have dysfunctional governments that are incapable of addressing the real problems of rural or urban America. We will have a government that is incapable of stopping corporate economic exploitation.

The only solution I can see to this dilemma is what I call “A Revolution of the Middle.” I have written a book with this title that is available digitally on Kindle, with an audio version available through Amazon or ITunes. I believe the core social and ethical values that American share in common, both rural and urban, are far stronger than the philosophical and political differences that divide us. I believe a Revolution of the Middle, guided by these shared values, could heal the rural-urban divide and guide us toward an “even more perfect union.”

John Ikerd

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