You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

It's the Wal-Marts, Stupid

My town's sad spiral shows why rural Americans might be "bitter".

Barack Obama’s clumsy remarks on the links between culture and economics in small-town America have unleashed the predictable charges of “elitism” from his opponents. In a typical example, William Kristol wrote in his New York Times column that Senator Obama was “disdainful of small-town America--one might say, of bourgeois America.”

The problem is that small-town America can no longer be characterized as “bourgeois.” Bourgeois people are supposed to own things. But over the past few decades, rural Americans have seen their ownership of their communities hollowed out by relentless consolidation in the retail and financial sectors--to say nothing of agriculture. While Obama is right to emphasize the fact that rural areas are hurting financially, the problem is not just cyclical changes in the economy but a deeper crisis of ownership.

I saw this destruction of local ownership happen to my own town, Grayling, which was settled in the 1870s as a lumbering outpost in the northern part of Michigan's lower peninsula. When I was born in the mid-1970s, the people in Grayling were still the owners of the town. Even though only a few thousand people lived there, they bought what they needed in a functioning, locally owned economy, in which there was only one business--an A & P supermarket--that was not owned by residents. Businesses were financed by local banks that were controlled largely by local directors, who made decisions based on what they thought was best for the community in which they lived. People were independent.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically. Although a few shops are still run by local owner-operators, the economic landscape is now dominated by chain stores, absentee investor-owners, and shopping malls in nearby towns. There are no longer any locally controlled banks. The range of available goods is largely similar, and prices might be a bit lower. But far more important than any statistic is the change in ownership and control. The simple truth is that the people no longer determine the economic destiny of their own community.

For most of the country, this process of economic centralization is old news. But for rural America, the shift is a fresh sociological wound. In the case of Grayling, and other towns like it, my generation is the first generation of non-owners since the town was founded.

I don’t know whether this long-term trend has made people “bitter” or not, but whereas Kristol tried to compare Senator Obama to Marx (for implying that religion is the opiate of the people), the relevant political thinker to cite is not Marx but Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed that freedom had to be rooted in the kind of economic independence that can come only from ownership. A republic could be secure only if its citizens owned and controlled their means of making a living. Otherwise, they would be dependent on whoever paid them and thus not truly free. Government’s role was to increase the number of citizens who owned and directly controlled productive resources. As Jefferson put it, “Legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.”

It is precisely this Jeffersonian concept of economic self-direction as the basis of political freedom that small-town Americans have seen slipping away from them over the past several decades. Since some small-town people can still remember when they were the ones responsible for the "management of our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores,” in Jefferson's words, they experience this change as a loss.

Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, points out that rural areas historically had higher rates of self-employment than urban ones. Consequently, in any analysis of small-town problems today, “ownership fits in--in a very big way,” he tells me. The issue of poverty for rural people, he adds, "is not just about income, it’s about building assets--assets you control.”

The desire to live this concept of freedom through economic self-direction remains at the heart of rural identity. Independence--not gun ownership or fundamentalist Christianity--is what rural people are all about. True, many rural people care a great deal about gun rights, and some are fundamentalists. But what about the others? Why are they there? For many people I’ve talked to, the answer has to do with a negative concept of freedom that is partly about avoiding the regimentation and anonymity of life in a modern economy. Freedom for them means living a self-directed life in a community of individuals, rather than simply maximizing their choices as consumers or accumulating wealth and “achievements.” The value placed on independence, which can seem extreme to outsiders, is what connects someone like me (a non-fundamentalist who has never picked up a gun) to others from the community, regardless of party politics.

This independence is not threatened by Northeastern “cultural elitism,” but it is threatened by economic policies that relentlessly favor bigness. The Democrats, because they are more likely than the Republicans to favor limitations on bigness, might be able to benefit from this truth--and cut into the Republican lead in rural areas--if their candidates can understand the real nature of small-town malaise. The challenge is not, as the candidates imply, simply to create jobs, but to help small towns reestablish local control of their economies.

In practical terms, what is needed is not “adjustment assistance,” subsidies, welfare, or loan guarantees. Instead, consolidation in the financial sector should be reversed to permit the reestablishment of small, locally owned banks. Anti-trust policy, zoning laws, and environmental regulations could all be used more aggressively to block the expansion of big-box retail and industrial agriculture. Perhaps most importantly, a major effort could be made to expand ownership by training young people to run very small businesses.

This is not necessarily a call to use the power of the federal government for Jeffersonian ends. Small towns can enact many of these reforms themselves. But they still need government management of the economic context if they are to reverse the dispossession they have suffered. What’s necessary is not an expansion of government programs, but a renewed appreciation of the sociological and political value of smallness.

Both Obama and Hillary Clinton have made some proposals that go in the right direction (though McCain seems strangely silent on rural issues). Both Democrats promise to limit subsidies to mega-farms and help farmers market their produce directly to consumers. Clinton proposes to establish tax breaks in rural enterprise zones; Obama offers incentives to new teachers who move to small towns. They both want to improve financing and training opportunities for small businesspeople and expand broadband Internet service to isolated areas.

These things might lead to some marginal improvement in the rural economy, but it seems unlikely they would revive the tradition of local ownership. And, of course, under a President McCain, who pledges to be a “strict constructionist,” the situation would continue to get worse, as the business consolidation that caused the problem in the first place would continue unimpeded.

In the end, the problems of rural America--some 20 percent of the country--will not be solved until we rediscover the political and social value of ownership for its own sake rather than for the sake of economic efficiency. True ownership must be direct and entail control; having some stock in a 401(k) doesn’t make you an owner. Small-town voters might respond to a candidate who can tap into these values, which transcend issues like gun control and religion. After all, what rural people are clinging to is, if anything, a dream of freedom as old as America itself. They should be supported in their attempt to keep that dream alive.

Jordan Stancil teaches history and international relations at the Institut d'études politiques in Paris.

By Jordan Stancil