Politico is reporting that US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack got pretty intense at a gathering of farm belt leaders, telling them that small town America needs a wake-up call.
“It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” Vilsack, a Democrat, said in a speech at a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal. “It’s time for a different thought process here, in my view.”
The kicker? Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, pointed to the “fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”
Small town counties across the US voted overwhelmingly Republican in 2012, with the Democratic vote in that party of the electorate collapsing from 2008 levels.
Yet Barack Obama swept back to power, riding a wave of support in urban and suburban communities where most Americans now live.
According to Politico, rural Americans accounted for just 14% of the total vote. But Vilsack’s talk wasn’t just about demographics and population trends.
Vilsack also chided farmers and small-town leaders for focusing on what he portrayed as red-herring issues.
“We need a proactive message, not a reactive message,” Vilsack said. “How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message? Because you are competing against the world now.”
Farmers and small town leaders aren’t used to this kind of rhetoric, but this may be more harbinger than outburst.
As the nation becomes more and more urban — a trend that is continuing without pause — finding ways to communicate across cultural, geographic, and party lines will likely become more and more crucial for rural folks.
This also isn’t entirely about politics, or farming. This morning, the Sunday edition of the Washington Post has a profile of New Castle, Pennsylvania, a small rust belt town that has fallen into generational poverty.
Her New Castle was the one that existed now: white, working class, with poverty that had deepened into the second and third generations.
Nearly three-fourths of the students in Tabi’s school qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, and one-third of New Castle families with children younger than 18 had incomes beneath the poverty level.
The main source in the Post’s devastating article concludes wearily, “This town is dragging everyone down.”
These portrayals are painful, but maybe it’s not a bad thing for rural Americans — whose world has been wrapped in mythology and bromides for generations — to grapple with some home truths.
Something went wrong a long time ago and in most places it’s not getting better. Now that the potboiler of an election is over, I wonder if it’s possible to have an honest conversation about that.