Monday was one of those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer that Nat “King” Cole used to sing about, at least as far as the news cycle was concerned. An American jet shot down a Syrian jet over the weekend, and one of the president’s lawyers spent the weekend insisting the president wasn’t under investigation despite the clear implications of the president’s latest “tweet,” and there was yet another terror attack in London and some questionable verdicts in some high profile domestic legal cases, but these days that’s a fairly calm news cycle.
The Washington Post has lately been on roll unlike anything they’ve had since the good old Watergate days, but over the weekend they found room on the front page for one of those perfect-for-a-slow-news-day think pieces, this one about the growing cultural and political divisions between the rural and urban portions of America. We’re the jaded yet still curious types who relish those slow news days and their big newspaper think pieces, and in this case we were especially interested in the subject. Having lived here in the very heart of the heartland most of our lives on the relative edges of both rural and America, and with a well considered fondness for both, we consider ourselves rather expert on the matter, so we were eager to see what those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment newspaper would make of it.
Alas, we really couldn’t argue with their main thesis that there is a growing cultural and political division between rural and urban America. If we were right wing radio hosts wanting to ridicule the article, we’d feel entitled to say “well, duh.” They cite all the polling data that indisputably prove the rural and urban political divide, and have no trouble coming up with colorful quotes from the rural natives that clearly illustrate the cultural differences to their urban readership. To be fair about it, we also think they made every effort to be fair about it and did a pretty good job.
Still, we don’t think those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment paper know the half of it. We’re sitting here in the very heart of the biggest urban area in our very rural state in the middle of that big rural area in the middle of the country, and at this lovely time of year we’re a short drive from those amber waves of grain that you really ought to see at least once in your life, along with some delightful small town conversation and conviviality, and as we traverse the boundaries the difference between the two regions is almost painfully palpable. There’s a certain suspicious reaction you’ll notice when you tell someone in the rural rest of the state that you’re from Wichita, and we notice that our friends in the city also make certain assumptions about the country folks who have come to town for their shopping or financial affairs or the big-name country music concerts at the fancy new downtown arena.
Wichita is only the fiftieth or so most populous urban metropolitan area in the country, but by now it stretches into three counties from Valley Center down to Mulvane and west of Goddard to east of Andover, and by regional standards it’s the big bad city. The per capita crime rate is lower than most of those other 50 most populous cities, and even lower than in some of the still old west small towns around the state, but with some 500,000 folks around here a certain percentage of them are going to be raping and robbing and murdering, and the worst of it always goes out on the top the evening news to all those small towns. Although the volume-priced shopping is cheaper than at the dying main street businesses in their home towns the financial deals struck here by those small town folk don’t always turn out, the parking for those downtown arena shows is atrocious and often involves encounters with homeless panhandlers, and if they were in town the past weekend they might have encountered some unexpected goings-on at the big Gay Pride Festival, so we can well understand their trepidation about urban America and the rest of modernity.
Wichita is one of the very most conservative of those 50 most populous metropolitan areas, with so much of the educated population being engineers and entrepreneurs and agricultural financiers and other practical people, and the rest of the population largely drawn from those dying small towns, but even here there’s a certain cosmopolitan sensibility in effect. There’s a big state university with a very promising basketball season coming up, a better collection than you’d expect at the local art museum and a surprisingly good symphony and local music theater troupe, along with the nice botanical garden and nationally-recognized local zoo and all the local parks and a film festival that gets some occasionally good entries from around the world, and it’s hard to not get snobby about it.
The basketball team and the art museum and the symphony and local music theater and botanical garden and zoo and pretty much all the rest of the local high culture around here enjoys the generous contributions of Koch Industries, which did its business just down a country street from us in our elementary school days and is now the James Bond villain of every left-wing conspiracy theory, but it still has a certain liberalizing effect. We sense a certain apprehension of foreigners among our small town friends, and although we share their preference for secured borders we buy our beer from Laotians and our donuts from Mexicans and sundries from guys from India, so we’re not as enthusiastic about a border wall or mass deportations. They tend to have a personal conviction against baking cakes or otherwise celebrating same-sex marriages, which we well understand and would not prohibit, but here in Wichita you’ll probably wind up making enough gay friends that you don’t make a fuss about it. In a variety of ways, Wichita winds up more conservative than most of those other top-50 metropolitan areas but more liberal than the parts of the state where the fields take up most of the room.
Those young whippersnappers from The Washington Post eventually wound up with another inevitable think piece about why rural America is so much more supportive of President Donald Trump and than is urban America, and we have to admit that is a poser. Trump grew up in the Queens borough of New York City as the dauphin of a ruthless real estate mogul, made and lost several fortunes in casinos and other financial dealings, married three times and never learned a Bible verse, and until his recent weekend at Camp David had never encountered bare wood. His protectionist trade talk never played in either the rural and urban parts of our portion of the prairie, where the big money is in exports and he finished a distant third in the Republican caucuses, and the insult comic schtick also grated on Kansas sensibilities. Replace Eddie Arnold and Eva Gabor with Donald and Melania Trump in “Green Acres,” and that classic sit-com would be funnier yet.
Trump is getting a lot of support out there where the traffic dwindles down to a gorgeous and almost empty country road, though, and we think we know why. The president clearly resents those smart-alecky young whippersnappers Back East as much as any of those small town folk, and he states it more recklessly than any of them would dare while in town, and at least he’s not that darned Hillary Clinton woman or any of those other Democrats who sneered at them for their gun-and-God-clinging ways and preference for a country that’s not overrun by crazy jihadists, and there’s something to be said for that,
There’s also something to be said against Trump’s reckless rhetoric and frequent incompetence and often consequential lack of cosmopolitan couth, while that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia merits all the ongoing investigations, and all those political appointments are going unfilled and all the bills aren’t getting passed, and even here among those amber waves of grain of we can see the point. The arguments will be shouted across a widening divide, though, and we doubt if either side will hear the other.
The next election will probably be settled once again in the suburbs, though, and there’s no telling how that will play out. Some of the suburbs around here are pretty swank, others are former small towns swallowed up by the urban sprawl and lately getting all their crummy convenience stores robbed by methamphetamine and opioid addicts, and Trump’s popularity predictably but somewhat inexplicably varies from one precinct to another. We imagine the electoral map is just as complicated in all those coal-mining and software-writing jurisdictions spread out around this great and varied land of ours, and we hope that some productive conversation among us is still possible.
— Bud Norman