We were a rural nation, lightly populated with people of all nations who came here intent on tilling the soil, raising crops and families and working hard at both pursuits. The few big cities were suspect places filled with strange folk who did not know where their food came from.
Those urban places didn't matter much to most of our ancestors. Many were loners, not necessarily by choice. Traveling to the small towns that were the center of their limited universe was difficult and a rarely done thing. News of the day traveled slowly. Most newspapers covered only local news. Information about 'worldly' things was seriously limited -- no radio, television, movie newsreels, Facebook or Twitter to reach deep into our national soul -- just highly suspect word-of-mouth.
In the late 1700s, America's childhood, only about one out of every 20 Americans lived in cities. Just 80 years later, one out of four were 'city folk' and that number dropped to one out of two by the 1930s, a scant five decades later. It was two out of three in the 1960s, and four out of five in the 2000s. Two years ago, Census Bureau director John H. Thompson, wielding a sharply pointed verbal stick, said "Rural areas cover 97% of the nation's land area but contain 19.3% of the population."
Let's call his comment a painfully obvious but inconvenient truth.
We are no longer a nation of farmers and the conversion happened at a staggeringly fast pace. Two competing cultures -- urban and rural -- never had the luxury of a long courtship that might have led to a satisfying union of two equals. If we're forced into a marriage of sorts, the role model is the Bickersons, a radio comedy sketch series that began September 8, 1946. The show's married couple, portrayed by Don Ameche and Frances Langford, spent nearly all their time together in a relentless verbal war.
Back then, they were doomed by social custom to stay together 'until death do us part.' Today, Langford would file for divorce and the court date would be a nasty event. The bits and pieces of their short life together would be ripped to shreds by the lawyers who would walk away with anything left over and most of the money.
And today, we're all reliving the Bickersons. That fast dwindling nation of farmers does not understand the life styles and the languages spoken in the cities. Most urban folk are aghast at life 'in the sticks.' Flyover country is just that. To many of them it's a mostly uninhabited and occasionally frightening center of the nation to be passed over at 35,000 feet and 500 miles an hour.
Strange thing, though. Most of those people who live in big cities are just two or three generations away from the rural life. It's a place where their parents might still live. It's almost assuredly where their grandparents own a home and maybe a few acres they still farm.
Why have we stopped speaking each other's language so quickly? Are our children, recent renegades from the farm and living in suburbia, 'dissing' their parents? Have those rural parents have disowned their offspring?
The thought behind this column came to me when a conservative-minded, 'non-urban' friend explained the furor behind the last presidential election. "Why should a few counties in New York and California overrule the will of the thousands of counties in middle America?" he said.
The idea that we became a nation at least loosely based on the concept of one man, one vote seemed to have be replaced in his mind with one county, one vote. The will of the majority no longer carried the day. He was describing the bunker mentality created by rural America's growing sense of impending doom.
The two-and-a-half century trend toward a heavily populated urban America is accelerating, never to turn back. Our rural areas are emptying and leaving behind serious problems with unemployment, a deadly scourge of drug addiction and a frightening increase in the number of farm bankruptcies.
In December, USA Today published a story about the plight of Wisconsin dairy farmers. Once the center of that vital agricultural industry, the state was on track to lose more dairy farms in 2018 than anytime since the great ag recession of 2003. It was the small family owned-and-operated farms that were disappearing. During the past 15 years, the number of herds was down by almost half but the total number of cows remained about the same.
Last spring, New Food Economy published a fascinating story about the decline of rural Kansas. Written by Corie Brown, it was headlined, "A native Kansan returns home to find that the broken promises of commodity agriculture have destroyed a way of life." To read it, go here: https://newfoodeconomy.org/rural-kansas-depopulation-commodity-agriculture/.
The bone-chilling heart of her story? The third paragraph: "That’s the thing about rural Kansas: No one lives there, not anymore. The small towns that epitomize America’s heartland are cut off from the rest of the world by miles and miles of grain, casualties of a vast commodity agriculture system that has less and less use for living, breathing farmers."
The quietly whispered underlying premise of both stories was American agriculture has become a case of get big or get out. Small second- and third-generation operations are dying. Too many of the smaller farms in Wisconsin, Kansas and across the country are no longer financially viable and they haven't been for most of the 21st Century. We are quickly becoming a nation of very large corporate farms and small, struggling 'hobby' farms.
Is this an unavoidable reality? Several influential groups are working hard to maintain at least the status quo, but they stand foolishly if resolutely in the path of history. What should be avoidable is the animosity between urban and rural people. Is "Come let us reason together" still a phrase for the good of our nation? It's much better than scrubbing the first word of our name. Changing it to the 'Disunited States of America' might recognize our current state of affairs but it is not a long-term acceptable notion for our future.