A version of this article was previously published by Newsweek.
As a life-long Democrat who grew up in the deep South during Jim Crow, I am proud of the election of the Biden-Harris ticket. Yet, I have a deep concern that the Democratic Party lacks the resolve to undertake the major initiatives necessary to repair the urban-rural/small-town divide. It will not be enough for the new administration to rely on rhetoric about the need to heal this rift. And it will take more than increased spending on current rural focused programs.
Like many who left small towns for an urban college, I have resided most of my adult life in a metropolitan area. Having now lived in both worlds—one rural and the other urban–I appreciate the perspectives of the voters in each sphere. This understanding causes me to be pessimistic over the future of our democracy if we do not address the current divide and optimistic if we do.
Even before last month’s election, the press was full of stories about the urban-rural gap—the world of Whole Foods versus Cracker Barrel– and pundits such as James Carville were warning about the electoral impact of the cultural arrogance within parts of the Democratic Party. At the same time, Republicans were effective in characterizing Democrats as the party of the urban elite.
As a result, President Trump’s support among voters outside urban and suburban areas has grown since 2016. For example, of 126 sparsely populated counties in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania where President Trump received more than 60% of the vote in 2020, his winning percentage increased from those of four years ago. Thus, as noted by University of Virginia professor Dr. Guian McKee, the 2020 election showed an ever-deepening polarization between urban and rural/small-town Americans.
During the Democratic presidential primaries, there were candidates who issued detailed plans to help Americans living outside major urban areas. However, addressing the special concerns of rural and small-town Americans was not a major issue during the televised portions of the Democratic 2020 Convention nor was it a central component of President-elect Biden’s general election campaign.
As books such as Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good suggest, it is not hyperbole to warn that the failure of the new administration to address the urban-rural/small-town divide may dangerously undermine our democracy. The resentment among many rural Americans is palpable and the reasons behind this antipathy are known. And, as many histories on extremism have shown, the threat to our future is real if this anger is not confronted.
There are two measures that the Biden-Harris administration should undertake to address the urban-rural schism. First, President-elect Biden should appoint a special czar on rural and small-town America issues comparable to that established for John Kerry on climate change. This person should advise the president on methods to address the urban-rural/small-town divide and be specifically tasked with working with rural and small-town leaders in how best to avoid actions which may be perceived in those communities as overreaching by the federal government and in violation of cultural norms.
Second, President-elect Biden should establish a bi-partisan task force whose primary function should be to develop and recommend to Congress a “Rural America New Deal.” The goal of this legislation should be to ensure that rural and small-town Americans have the same opportunity to find jobs, own homes, send their children to good schools and have access to healthcare as the Democratic Party stresses for its urban base.
As part of this Rural America New Deal, the bi-partisan task force should explore—in partnership with the private sector–the creation of a modern rural/small-town version of the Works Progress Administration or a new Civilian Conservation Corps. Not only would such programs create economic opportunity in rural/small-town areas but, by having urban and rural citizens work together, they may help breakdown the “us versus them” mentality which is the focus of Professor Sandel’s concern in The Tyranny of Merit.
To be sure, many of the issues dividing urban and rural/small-town America are cultural (gay rights, abortion, gun control) and those differences will not be resolved merely by the initiatives set for above. Moreover, as commentators such as have Fareed Zakaria and Anne Applebaum have noted, the resentment of those individuals who feel alienated—as many rural Americans do–is not just based on a lack of economic opportunity but by a feeling of being marginalized by those in power.
Nevertheless, through the measures suggested above—showing a commitment to rural and small-town America’s economic future and an appreciation for the cultural difference which exists between urban and rural/small-town communities—the Biden-Harris Administration will be sending a clear message that it takes seriously the concerns of non-urban Americans and is willing to take bold actions to heal the division potentially threatening our democracy.