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I Was Wrong About the Rural–Urban Divide


I Was Wrong About the Rural–Urban Divide

Sarah van Gelder

I thought I knew something about Wisconsin politics. I assumed the state was neatly divided between blue cities, like Madison and Milwaukee, and solidly red rural areas that twice elected Governor Scott Walker, one of the nation’s most right-wing governors, and went for Donald Trump in 2016.

Turns out there’s a lot I didn’t know. And the assumptions and stereotypes that I—and many others—hold are dividing us and harming our chances of building powerful coalitions across rural–urban divides.


The corporatocracy does not care if you are urban or rural, it only wants the fruits of your labor.


“Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates in national elections. In recent elections, about 60% of the voting eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections. Turnout is lower for odd year, primary and local elections.”


“Blue/Red”, “Urban/Rural” analysis is unhelpful and ultimately an obstacle to any meaningful change in the US. At most, it describes the bare majority who vote in presidential elections, and the minority who vote during any other elections.

An increasingly tiny number of rich people run the United States, and they couldn’t be more pleased that ‘latte-sipping urban elites’ and ‘redneck country bumpkins’ have demonized each other instead of uniting against their common adversary.


Right on Sarah! A very worthwhile article!


If you’re on the way to the gallows, I suspect any phenomena that disrupts will be welcomed. Trump disrupts; rural people are drowning and still unrepresented.


“…reminded me, once again, to beware of stereotyping and not to allow Fox News and the NRA to define groups of people.”

How about, “reminded me, once again, to beware of stereotyping and not to allow Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the NRA to define groups of people.”


Well, yeah Sarah. Cities are 60/40 democrat and rural is 60/40 republicans. It only takes a 10% swing in mood to cause a district to flip. It’s not very much. Think about it. There are 5 people. If one changes his/her mind, the district flips. This means, statistically, that approximately 80% of districts (as won by either party being less than 60/40 split) are in play for every election. The myth that certain districts are unwinnable is simply a convenient fiction used by incumbents and the party hierarchies to keep their jobs. The parties’s highest priorities these days is to keep their jobs and do the bidding one the 1%. That’s why they created the red/blue designation meme – to give people the feeling that you can’t win an election in the “other” party’s color zone. Apathy servers incumbents. It’s a strategy of both major parties – including the strategy against rural voters to elect their own reps. I lived for 5 years in rural Missouri. The people there are in no way monolithic but all over the political map and can be persuaded, as in any election, by compassionate and frank talk about issues they care about.


Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania, has been moving to the right. The people of Wisconsin keep electing Scott Walker as governor. The ID law that was signed by Walker resulted in 9% of the population not having the proper identification to vote. It is estimated that 200,000 didn’t vote because of the ID law and about half of those people live in Milwaukee. The rural-urban divide is very real but of course there are left wingers living in rural areas and right wingers in urban areas. It is a generality not an absolute. What probably helped Trump in the Midwest the most is that in many rural towns large number of Hispanics have moved in. This has happened rather quickly and has caused some resentment among the white people who have lived in these towns for many decades. The key thing for the Democrats is overcome voter suppression in Milwaukee to enable many thousands of voters who live in that city and support Democrats to be able to vote. Obama won Wisconsin by several percentage points but there was no ID law when he ran. The voter ID law flipped the state to Trump in 2016.


So all but one district went to Sanders and then the state went to Trump. I wonder how many delegates Wisconsin sent to the party convention for Sanders. In West Virginia, 55 of 55 counties went for Sanders, and the state then went to Trump…but maybe some of this was because WV sent more Clinton than Sanders delegates to the convention despite his winning every single county. Democrats resent it when the superdelegates, people like Joe Manchin, our only Democratic rep now and a senator on every list of “Democrats supporting the Republican agenda”, think they know best and “correct” the people’s choice. Why bother to vote if they can just put their own choice in instead?


Congrats on your article Sarah van Gelder.

I think there are more than a few of us who are wrong on much more than we would care to admit.

But here are a few observations of late - thinking on Finland’s status as a best-practice nation, thinking on the Cassini Mission wrap ups, on the cutting edge developments in science, more and more of which are not only inter-disciplinary, but inter-national, and on a very few political economy breakthroughs:

  1. Education - real up to the minute education - seems to me the golden key. It is no coincidence I think that scientists are amongst the most truly progressive of progressives.

  2. I have two books that seem to me to represent the way forward, one by Sarah’s husband, David Korten (“Change the Story - Change the Future”); and (“What Matters ? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth”), by Wendell Berry, and introduction by the steady state, ‘economics in a full world’ economist Herman Daly.

  3. Greece’s Yanis Varoufakis and his “DIEM_25” initiative also looks forward, rather than backward.

“This is a state where Bernie Sanders won 72 of 73 counties because he “connected with people who are struggling,” she said.” (from the article)

Struggling - a very human condition - not to be lightly taken - or even thought of as something to be gotten rid of.

Affluence is a killer, as pointed out by none other than John Steinbeck:

“If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick” (letter to Adlai Stevenson ca 1960).

or Theodore Roosevelt:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life.”

or Sigmund Freud:

“Life is impoverished, it loses its interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked.”


By struggle I do not mean extreme poverty - but the American Dream is false - ignoble.

As in the climbing of mountains, the ‘struggle’ upwards is mis-characterized as work - it is what we are meant to do. We are by millions of years of evolutionary design strong and resourceful, acclimated to the great outdoors and all of its dangers, and truly impoverished and diminished, “sick & miserable”, if we pursue the American Dream.

So - “Change the Story - Change the Future” ~

Many in Calgary


I grew up in ND. The Farmers Union was the democrats, the Farm Bureau was the republicans.


Maybe Clinton flipped the state to Trump.


Yes. Well said.


A State Bank would solve a lot of farmers’ problems - one that does not charge usurious interest rates, one that is willng to make small loans, one that puts the small interest rate it does charge back into its capital funding instead of CEO salaries & bonuses …


Scott Walker flipped Wisconisn to Trump. He didn’t last long in the primary but still had an effect on the election. Why do they keep voting for that guy in Wisconsin given what he has done to unions? Even Russ Feingold couldn’t win his election in Wisconsin. Probably because like Clinton too many people would have voted for him weren’t able to vote. It is kind of crazy how both the right and left are obsessed on blaming everything on Hillary Clinton. Very strange.


That was true in many Midwestern states at one time. My family ties are deep in the NFU.
The " get big or get out " mentality could only work through massive subsidies and/or tweaking the supply/demand of commodities. Enter ADM/CornSweeteners and Bob Dole or the Murphy Bros and Smithfield and Morrell’s. IBP and giant cattle lots. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Remember meat lockers and real butchers? Now, everything is done in-plant or shipped in from another country.
The big boys don’t seem to have a problem truck hauling cattle, hogs and chickens now… but, they sure did 40-50 years ago. Logistics for Walmart, Kroeger’s and Safeway but not for small farmers. Funny that!


Yes. The world of farming in ND is nothing resembling the small family farmers i grew up with (born 1956). They were all colonized by the bankers to do monoculture and buy every chemical known to humans, to get bigger machinery, etc, and then either sold off to the biggest buyer, or went completely broke. They have never been happy about strangers, and there was certainly animosity between the NFU & the FB. (Unfortunately i grew up in a FB/John Birch-type family home.) Now the farming is done by big ag, and we live with the ugly consequences.

Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad


I think what you were seeing was partly regional divide- especially among farmers. In the part of the state you were in there is a heavy organic/ small operation movement. These operators tend far more liberal than their industrial farming counterparts.
In Wisconsin, rather than an urban/ rural divide, we see a much heavier urban/ suburban/ regional/ divide. The heavily populated eastern part of the state- with the exception of urban Milwaukee- is inexplicably conservative.

The many medium sized cities in this state- especially in the eastern 1/2- have been tending right. So many are dissatisfied because industries that helped these cities to prosper are either leaving, cutting back, union busting, reducing wages and some even blackmailing their communities in exchange for huge tax credits.
There is a heavy conservative media presence in eastern WI as well.
It seems we’ve been duped by Scott Walkers’ divide and conquer strategy and I fear we’ll never recover.


That is what I was thinking. Ms. Van Gelder was seeing a niche of mostly “boutique” farmers.

She needs to visit the Ohio farmers who manage, say, those enormous expanses of roundup-ready soybeans who overwhelming supported Trump and Pruitt so that their fertilizer laden runoff, unimpeded by the CWA waters of the US rule, can continue to kill-off Lake Erie with toxic algae.


I think the loss of independent media over the years has taken the worse toll in rural areas. When I was growing up in the sixties, we had a local newspaper (once weekly) and a local radio station, as did nearby communities. Myriad sources across the spectrum kept us up to date with community events, local issues, and local politics throughout our region. It bound us together and provided endless opportunities for discussion about what was best for the community.

A rural person is lucky if they have a regional paper, nevermind a local one, and the days of local radio broadcasters are gone, as we pick and choose our sources online or news from the urban conglomerate is beamed in, generally assuming integrity and accuracy where little exists. We’re not being flooded with information 24/7, we’re being inundated with two points of view 24/7, surreptitiously training us to think in very binary terms. Left/right, urban/rural, black/white, man/woman, with us/against us, etc, while there are hundreds of variations on any of these themes.

If the decline of independent media was mapped against the rise of the corporate media conglomerate and compared to the rise of conservatism in rural areas, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a significant correlation to changed voting trends.