Thursday, December 20, 2012

Is rural America politically relevant? It's a fair question, U.S. columnist for The Economist writes

If Tom Vilsack doesn't remain secretary of agriculture in President Obama's second term, the former governor of Iowa may be remembered most for two things: his hasty firing of Shirley Sherrod and his declaration in "a surprisingly tough speech to farm groups" last month that rural America is getting less relevant because its share of the population is the lowest ever, 16 percent, and its advocates are not "picking the right fights," as the latest United States column in The Economist magazine puts it. (The Economist, which calls itself a newspaper, does not typically identify its writers; the U.S. columnist is dubbed "Lexington," for the Massachusetts town where our country's rebellion against the United Kingdom began.)

Vilsack's message, which he has continued to deliver in other speeches, prompted Lexington "to head to the countryside, to see how a (hopefully representative) rural community felt about its place in the American political system." He picked Vandalia, Ill., population 15,000, because it was the subject of a story last month in the Daily Yonder, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Joseph Lyford's book, The Talk in Vandalia, "a sensitive portrait of a farm community in transition," as writer Marcel LaFlamme, a Rice University graduate student, put it. (Photo by LaFlamme: Gallatin Street)
Noting that Chicago's Barack Obama got 28 percent fewer votes in Vandalia and Fayette County than last time, Lexington writes that rural places are "increasingly mysterious, drifting further and further away from larger cities in their values, politics and economics. . . . Is rural America still politically relevant? The question is sincere, and not mere journalistic impertinence. Since the 2012 presidential elections, a cottage industry of comment has sprung up, examining the growing ideological gulf between America's countryside and its urban centres."

In Vandalia, "Locals talk of how their values and priorities place them out of line with Illinois, and differ dramatically from Mr. Obama's vision for America." But there's "a touch of muddle," Lexington writes, because several local farmers "would have been ruined by the harsh drought of 2012, were it not for federally-backed crop insurance. The city has received federal cash to renovate its handsome main street, and public money to renovate its main tourist attraction, a 19th-century statehouse in which the young Abraham Lincoln served, during Vandalia's brief stint as capital of Illinois. The problem is a sense of powerlessness and accountability. Locals do not like being dependent on government money and public works."

Vandalia "wishes to remain a living, risk-taking community, with a voice in big political fights of the day," Lexington concludes. "Yet in its fierce conservatism and piety (the city boasts 18 churches, or one for every 300 permanent residents), Vandalia feels the rest of America drifting away. Fifty years on the fight is not for survival, but for relevance." (Read more)

In a broader, online version of the column, titled "Rural America's fight for relevance," Lexington quotes from a recent column (not available online) by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report about Republican legislators' drawing of congressional districts: "By purging Democrats and minorities from their own districts and into Democratic quarantine zones, Republicans may have drawn themselves into a durable House majority. But they have also drawn themselves into an alternate universe of voters that little resembles the growing diversity of the country."

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