#discussCLT: The View From One Side of the Urban-Rural Divide

Small industrial towns have been cast aside in a global economy. But is this the solution?
City of Union
Downtown Union, South Carolina.

Large media outlets have published a particular kind of story over the last six months. By now, it’s been told so often, following the same script, that it’s almost become a subgenre: The View From Trump Country. In this place, older, working-class people in a decaying industrial town say they’ve been left behind by the economy and political establishment. They decided radical change was needed, and Trump represented that. The piece inevitably mentions the shuttered factories, the abandoned downtown storefronts. There is usually a group of older men who gather regularly for breakfast and commiseration.

The New York Times published just such a story Monday, based on reporting in Union, South Carolina, and other points in the state’s Fifth Congressional District, just across the state line from Charlotte. The people interviewed praise the Trump Administration’s proposed budget, which through cuts to federal programs like energy bill assistance for the poor would make life harder for these citizens. But the people interviewed say they saw the need to “shake things up.” The budget shows how Trump is “keeping his promises.” “We haven’t gotten nothing out of the last few presidents,” one says.

Reading the piece, you’re struck by the disconnect between the budget proposal and the citizens’ perception that it will solve any of the problems they enumerate. How, exactly, would massive cuts to public education, cuts to research and development and job training, and a $4.7 billion cut to agriculture programs help bring jobs back to towns like Union? A former fighter pilot interviewed in the Times justifies cuts to non-military services and the budget’s proposed 10 percent increase in military spending “to get American defenses where they need to be to maintain standing vis-à-vis adversaries like Russia and China.” The United States spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined, including Russia and China. The story doesn’t even try to resolve the contradiction.

The Trump Country stories hinge on what’s come to be known as “the urban-rural divide” in the United States—the chasm between the values, economies, lifestyles, and priorities of people who live in cities and those who live outside of them, in the country, small towns, suburbs, and exurbs. The 2016 Presidential election revealed the width and depth of that divide like none before it, and it’s as pronounced in Charlotte as anywhere. The next #discussCLT event April 13 will tackle that topic, examining its causes and potential solutions and tracing all the ways Charlotte has separated from the areas around it—for example, embracing LGBTQ rights as the rest of the state, through its representatives in the General Assembly, has rejected them through House Bill 2.

There’s room for compromise on some issues, and we’ll talk more about those as the event approaches. But the Times story to me highlights a major impediment to any common ground. People with different priorities can disagree on how the government ought to spend money. But if, for example, you believe that the U.S. military is a pitiful remnant of its pre-Obama version; that furniture manufacturing jobs will reappear under the new administration; and that struggling factory towns will spring back to life without major investments in new industries and job training programs, I’m not sure how much good any outreach efforts will do. Same on the city side: If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you think (not without some justification) that people in rural North Carolina might represent a threat to your physical safety, or that residents of small town are uniformly racist and narrow-minded, how and where do you even start?

That question may not be answerable, and the urban-rural split might be a permanent thing. It could also be the launchpad for a new understanding of our common citizenship. I do know that it’s up to us, and any suggestion, any meaningful action, is welcome. If you feel compelled to air it at the April 13 #discussCLT event at Lenny Boy Brewing, all the better.


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