“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.”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack shared that demographic downer, in a story carried recently by Associated Press, while speaking at a forum in Washington, D.C. He refers to the fact, for the first time in recent memory, ag-state lawmakers were unable to push a farm bill through Congress in an election year, evidence of lost clout in rural areas.
Some conservatives deride Vilsack’s remarks as disparaging our nation’s farm community, pushing the President’s liberal agenda or unseemly gloating over the election results. But let’s look closer.
About the only left or right slant most farmers are interested in is which way you turn at the end of a plowed row. But politics, like it or not, matters. Being on the losing side impacts critical issues for a legislatively-sensitive group like farmers. Census data and voting patterns support many of Vilsack’s contentions. More and more Americans are leaving rural life behind, largely for suburbs, but many for urban living. With that flight comes a disconnect — and, sometimes, disdain — for those providing food and fiber.
The Agriculture Department says about 50 percent of America’s rural counties have lost population in the past four years. A University of New Hampshire study in 2006 showed 75 percent of the land area of the United States is nonmetropolitan but only 17 percent of our population (50 million people) live there. Poverty rates are higher in rural settings than in metropolitan areas despite a relatively healthy, growing agricultural economy.
Exit polls conducted for AP and television networks in November found rural voters account for just 14 percent of the turnout in last November’s election, but a whopping 61 percent of that dwindling number supported Republican Mitt Romney. (That margin was even wider in Effingham — 75 percent-24 percent.)
Not only are there fewer of we rural Americans but the majority of our shrinking number voted for the losing side. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth since the election, the majority of American voters think Georgia — and Effingham County in particular — got it wrong. Isn’t that at least a little worrisome?
No shame in losing an election, of course, but ... do we learn anything from it? Can the majority ever be persuaded to understand the view of most here? What’s at risk if we can’t? While heartfelt beliefs ought not change merely to suit prevailing times, we all need to understand the implications.
With many youth thinking vegetables propagate in the back room at the grocery, farmers must do a better job educating complacent consumers about issues important to farm survival.
Understanding different lifestyles can involve more than knowing milk doesn’t originate in the dairy cooler, however. We in rural Georgia also need to learn more about why a majority of Americans didn’t agree with the rural viewpoint on election day. We need to learn more, period. Educational attainment also lags in rural America.
Understanding can’t grow, unless minds are open. Embracing the new is hard when many are anchored to the way things have been.
The same lack of relevance Secretary Vilsack sees nationally can also be said of rural Georgia’s political strength in Atlanta. One former governor long ago proudly proclaimed he planned to win our state’s highest office but didn’t need to carry a “single county with a street car in it.” Not any more.
You could likely be elected to any office in Georgia today without carrying a single county that has more tractor dealers than Starbucks.
If rural Georgia’s votes are no longer needed, are we so naive as to believe Atlanta and Washington will care what we think?
Robert M. Williams Jr. is an Effingham native and publishes newspapers in Blackshear, Alma, McRae, Folkston and Forsyth. Email: email@example.com.