Why conservatives see rural America as the 'real' America
And how it might hurt the GOP with the country's changing electorate
In a recent column, my colleague Ryan Cooper raised a good point on the myth of rural powerlessness: While rural areas may posture themselves as noble victims, they enjoy outsized political influence in Washington.
There are many reasons for this rural favoritism — some dating back to compromises made during America's founding. But one explanation surely has to do with the myth of rural superiority — the idea in many conservative circles that rural America is somehow the real America. This is a phenomenon that has immense political consequences, especially for Republicans facing a demographic time bomb when it comes to minorities, single women, the college-educated — you know, urbanites and cosmopolitan Americans.
So where did this traditional deification of rural areas come from? Among other things, credit (or blame) the influence of religion (think the Garden of Eden versus the Tower of Babel), philosophy (Rousseau's notion about noble savages), and various ideas during the time of America's founding (Thomas Jefferson's agrarianism, for example).
But it's hard to deny that Americans — particularly traditional or conservative Americans — have internalized a worldview that lionizes rural areas and comes close to demonizing urban ones. This becomes obvious in the rhetoric about "the real America," and we've seen it play out a little bit during the Cliven Bundy saga.
The problem? The entire concept of rural superiority is built on a questionable premise.
Let's begin with Christianity. Yes, sometimes the Bible holds up desolate areas as ideal (Jesus would often withdraw to the wilderness or desert to pray and rest — probably good advice for us all). But there are plenty of other examples where cities come off looking pretty good.
Tim Keller, pastor of New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian church, notes that "when God sends the people of Israel from Egypt into Canaan, he will not let them be exclusively agrarian. He commands them to build cities in the book of Numbers."
"When God has the world in the condition he wants it in," Keller explains, "when he finally has the world exactly the way he wants it, it looks a lot like New York, without the graffiti and a few other things. It's a city!"
"The reason [the Bible is] positive about cities," continues Keller, "is that when God made Adam and Eve creative … it was inevitable that they would build cities. Cities are places of creativity. Cities are places where culture is forged. That's the reason why culture does not begin to happen until there's a city."
This brings us to a contradiction within conservatism. Much of conservatism — free markets, for instance — is premised on the notion that more people equals more ideas. (This, of course, is inconsistent with a more traditional, populist strain of conservatism.)
This more optimistic brand of conservatism gained a foothold when economists like Julian Simon and Ester Boserup took on the Malthusian catastrophe argument (which erroneously predicted that global overpopulation would lead to mass starvation), and instead argued that more people equals more ideas, innovation, and yes, prosperity.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Rural societies tend to work on subsistence (you eat what you grow), but cities lead to things like cooperation, specialization, and trade. These things make us rich. Cities are the areas where these things are magnified. More people — constantly bumping into each other — leads to all sorts of inventions and human flourishing. Cities are where "ideas have sex."
Some optimistic cosmopolitan conservatives (think Jack Kemp, Paul Ryan, et al.) have embraced this philosophy in a consistent manner, which can be reflected in their affinity (or at least, their lack of animus) toward cities.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about other conservatives adopting an anti-city worldview is that it is partly based on a pernicious lie advanced by the high priest of romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau essentially invented his own creation myth out of whole cloth. It differed greatly with the Christian understanding of creation, inasmuch as instead of viewing man as a fallen creature (due to original sin), Rousseau envisioned early man as a sort of noble savage.
It wasn't until man recognized the concept of property and ownership, Rousseau argued, that he became greedy and corrupted. In that view, a simple life is good and pure. A modern urban life is dirty and wrong.
"Many scholars have pointed out the romanticists' idea that somehow cities are breeders of sinful behavior and people who live in the country are more virtuous is actually something that's been passed into the American psyche and actually into the American Christian psyche so that we have a tendency to have a very negative view of cities," says Keller.
As a boy growing up in rural western Maryland (seriously, this was physically and stylistically closer to West Virginia than Baltimore), it was instilled in me that country folks were God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth types and that big city folks weren't.
The sense wasn't just that cities were different, but that they were somehow morally inferior.
In fairness, during this time rural areas probably were more utopian — and inner-cities probably were more dangerous (think of New York City pre–Rudy Giuliani.)
But as I became an adult, and started seeing things for myself, I started to discover that this conventional wisdom wasn't really true.
Meanwhile, I started noticing an emerging dichotomy. Rural areas seemed to be divided between two groups of people: Devout old-timers and their meth-addicted children — between patriotic Joe six-packs and white supremacists. I'm exaggerating, but only slightly.
It was an area coping with modernity, and struggling mightily. They were clinging to their God and guns, yes — things I generally endorse — but also to their Marlboro reds.
Making matters worse, it was devoid of the kind of excitement that can keep a kid filled with wanderlust off the streets. (Hal Ketchum's Small Town Saturday Night captures this sentiment with the line "Gotta be bad just to have a good time.")
My parents were afraid the city would chew me up and spit me out, but it's here where I was free to pursue my dreams in the hustle and bustle of activity — a thriving city full of young, ambitious people who are (mostly) pretty well behaved.
Deep down, I suppose I'm still a country boy at heart. But I haven't been bored or depressed since leaving "God's country." Maybe Patrick Somerville's This Bright River gets it right?: "It's darker and stranger in small towns than almost anywhere."
This is not to say that cities are all good. As Keller likes to note, they are intense reflections of the culture. But it does seem true that many of the preconceived notions about the virtues of an Arcadian existence — and the horrors of urban life — are based on faulty or misleading assumptions. We have simplified things in an effort to glorify a simple life.
People have a way of knowing whether you like or respect them. And if conservatives want to have a chance to influence the culture in the 21st century, it's important to at least not be hostile to cities — or the denizens who inhabit them.
Just remember, it was a shining city on a hill that Reagan was referring to.