Monday, July 04, 2022

July 4 reflections: If our national divisions run along rural-urban lines, rural news media should pay attention to that

By Al Cross, director and professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Economist and liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in his effort to figure out what made the Republican Party "so extreme" (and he notes that mainstream analysts called it an "outlier" 10 years ago), writes that he looked for "cases in which right-wing extremism rose even in the face of peace and prosperity, and I think I’ve found one: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s."

July 4 in Boone, N.C. (High Country Press photo)
That Klan was actually a revised iteration of the first Klan, the terrorist group in the Reconstruction South. The reprise was "a white nationalist movement, to be sure, but far more widely accepted and less of a pure terrorist organization [at least in the North]. And it reached the height of its power — it effectively controlled several states — amid peace and an economic boom," Krugman writes. He cites Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the K.K.K.: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, which he says "portrays a 'politics of resentment' driven by the backlash of white, rural and small-town Americans against a changing nation. The K.K.K. hated immigrants and 'urban elites'; it was characterized by 'suspicion of science' and 'a larger anti-intellectualism.' Sound familiar? OK, the modern G.O.P. isn’t as bad as the second K.K.K. But Republican extremism clearly draws much of its energy from the same sources. And because G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that, as I see it, truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated."

Historical analogies can be useful, as George Santanaya reminded us by saying "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Immigration is again a big issue, but the last century has seen many changes. Skeptics of science are driven not so much by religion (we are approaching the 100th anniversary of the John Scopes trial) as by political motive, a sad legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rural America is now a very small piece of the U.S. population, though it still enjoys over-representation in the Senate and to a lesser degree in the Electoral College. But the biggest change in politics has been that the sharpest lines drawn not by economic concerns but by issues of personal belief and conscience, such as abortion and gender identity, on which there is little room for compromise. The 1973 Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade compromise lasted almost 50 years, but has been abolished by today's court, which a key expert says is the most conservative since 1931.

More broadly, changes in the media landscape have poisoned our politics. The advent of television brought us the widespread use of political money and the cheapening of political debate. The rise of cable TV brought us audience-hungry news channels that are more likely to give viewers what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Such misinformation grew exponentially with social media, which have delivered a wave of nationally oriented news and opinion and reduced the time and attention that Americans give to local issues. Those platforms and the internet have destroyed the advertising-based business model for newspapers, the main finders of fact in our society. And as local politics has become nationalized, small-town newspapers have grown even more wary of alienating readers and advertisers by weighing in on national issues.

But if the deepest fault line in our politics runs along the rural-urban divide, such reluctance by small-town newspapers is a disservice to their communities, their states and the nation. Publishers and news staffers who are fully engaged with their communities, and provide reliable news coverage, have the level of trust and respect to cover and comment on divisive issues. And such coverage and commentary can create bridges that make the issues less divisive. In small places where we know each other and want to get along may lie the beginnings of bigger bridges that could heal the nation.

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