One of the biggest challenges for liberals like myself is bridging the rural/urban divide. Our policies sound great to college-educated liberal elites in bigger cities, but how do they translate to folks in rural communities? Are we “othering” folks who live in smaller towns or farms? Do they feel “left out.” Are they? If so, what do we do to bridge these issues? Can we find a shared language of ideas to come together?
I believe we have unintentionally othered folks in rural communities across Wisconsin and the nation. We needn’t look any further than the red/blue maps this past election night to see the disparity. Furthermore, this othering exists across all lines; it doesn’t matter if you’re black, brown, indigenous or LGBTQ.
If you live in a rural community you likely don’t have access to high-speed internet. You look around and see your community dying off from a business standpoint, and you likely see an aging population. Ask yourselves this: If this is what you awoke to every day, how would you feel about your prospects? And then ask yourselves how you’d fight back.
Even when they speak of it, the service they consider broadband is a third of the speed I have at my home with the basic package. Broadband in the modern age is a necessity, and folks in rural communities are largely left out. It’s used in education, business and our daily lives. But now imagine you have children, you live in a small town during a pandemic, and all you have is dial-up internet service. Your kid’s classes require more bandwidth than the service provides. How are your kids supposed to get a quality education?
Broadband will never reach rural America without government intervention. Corporations are profit-motivated entities so, at least in the high-speed internet industry, they target population-dense areas, which also politically trend blue. Because of this they have no profit motivation to reach into rural areas. Government intervention can extend high-speed internet into more rural areas and make it more accessible. This could be accomplished through subsidies, or direct action that extends this crucial infrastructure to rural areas. There should be no infrastructure bill signed into law that doesn’t include broadband expansion.
During the last budget cycle, I attended a hearing hosted by state Sen. Jeff Smith in Durand. Whether by intention or not, it was outside of the city. What I didn’t expect was to see so many shared interests between the urban/rural divide. Broadband was one of those issues. But that was only the beginning of my education. A discussion on water quality was fascinating. I learned that rural folks are even more worried about lead contamination in their municipal water systems than cities are. These communities in many cases lack the tax base to correct these issues on their own. They need government grants.
But for folks in rural America, water issues extend far deeper into their psyche. During the meeting I learned more about nitrate pollution than I had ever known. I knew nitrate pollution was a problem, but to hear their concerns went far beyond my knowledge of the expanse of the pro4blem. They taught me more about CAFOs and responsible land stewardship in an hour than I could have learned in months of reading books. I know many people in the city where I live who share these people’s concerns about water who are every bit as passionate about it as these rural folks.
But herein lies the problem: Even though both the rural and urban sides are jumping up and down waving their arms, the government isn’t listening. This is in part because of the tribalism that exists within our politics; communication between the two parties has broken down.
Where some see nothing more than a divide that cannot be conquered, I see an opportunity. I see this as an opportunity to begin bridging this divide. People speak about doing it but take little action. What we need now is action. To my liberal urban friends, attend a rural budget session and hear their concerns. Likewise to my rural friends. We must listen to one another and learn from each other.
This is an opportunity to discuss the future and bridge this gap. If we unite and elect officials who will work for the will and improvement of the people, we can get what we need. Please challenge yourselves to bridge this divide. If we do it, we can rebuild the middle class, we can forge a society where people are treated with kindness and understanding. This is how we get to greatness. It’s not a marketing campaign, it’s a desire that rests within the soul of this nation and now is the time to awaken it.
Roberts represents District 27 on the Eau Claire County Board.