Each of the past several elections has thrust rural people into the media spotlight. Rural and urban people are divided, the pundits tell us. Neither understands the lives of the other, the news reports read.
I find the entire narrative rather tired. It is rife with inaccuracies that I won’t try to unpack here.
It is also a distraction. Spending our energy debating an unhelpful caricature of cultural divides keeps both voters and policymakers distracted from making changes that matter.
I suggest we focus our energy instead on a simple question: What action can policymakers take today to materially improve the lives of people regardless of where they live?
There are relatively popular ideas like investing in broadband and supporting entrepreneurship. Also critical is the need for acting on immigration reform, investing in clean energy, and near-term pandemic relief.
We must take our thinking a step further.
Elected officials should adopt policies to encourage a wider geographic distribution of economic growth. For decades, policymakers pursued the opposite, contributing to an acute housing affordability crisis in many urban areas and a lack of quality housing in many rural areas.
We should create the frameworks and support to encourage cooperative and employee ownership of businesses and assets to provide more ways for workers to share in economic growth and business success.
Policymakers must also confront corporate power. Rural advocates have long pressed for meaningful antitrust action against big corporate agriculture interests. Now-unchecked corporations like Amazon and Dollar General are reshaping our communities and pose new threats to rural economies.
The conversation must also be more inclusive. Too often, the media narrative about rural falls prey to the trap of focusing solely on white people in the Midwest. Some white people are left behind by the current system, but so, too, are there Native Americans, new immigrants, and Black people across rural America who have been left out and who face overwhelming systemic barriers.
While the dominant narrative keeps us divided from one another, a renewed focus on how our elected representatives can improve the lives of everyday people could serve to unite. As people see government acting as a force to improve their lives and their communities, the perceived cultural divides will recede into the background.