The New York Times reports complaints by Northern California residents against California State government. “Many liberals in California describe themselves as the resistance to Mr. Trump. Residents of the north say they are the resistance to the resistance, politically invisible to the Democratic governor and Legislature. California’s strict regulations on the environment, gun control and hunting impinge on a rural lifestyle, they say, that urban politicians do not understand”
In this essay, we seek to understand the nature of the division between rural and urban in western America and where it may lead. We advocate for an approach that will bring us back together and unite us as an American people. This is a major challenge but has significant and exciting promise to unify America.
de Tocqueville and The Tyranny of the Majority
Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America wrote in his section “Tyranny of the Majority”
“In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength; and I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in the country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny.” (emphasis added)
Many Non-Rural Individuals Not Sympathetic to Rural Complaints
In the New York Times article those in Northern California rural counties the complaints were that the urban legislators did not understand the requirements of a rural economy or were not accepting and supportive of the rural cultural traditions such as hunting and the need for personal self-protection where law enforcement is scarcer. Essentially, they see much of the State’s legislation to be commands without justice. The NYT article did not find much sympathy for the rural residents. A typical response from a Bay Area commentator was, “Who cares about these people???They are 3% of our state’s population and receiving benefits that I paid for. They are not worthy of an article by the NYT.” (NYT)
As the article demonstrates, the chasm between the urban and rural populations is broad and deep. In general terms, as represented in the NYT one feels that an unknowing and unempathetic tyranny is being visited upon them. A characteristic response represented by the Bay Area commentator is that the rural interviewees are an insignificant minority of the State’s population and are subsidized through benefits paid for by urban people with little worth, certainly not being featured in a New York Times article.
This seems to satisfy the criteria described by de Toqueville for a “tyranny of the majority”. Where do we go from here?
One alternative is “Irish Democracy”. When individuals find laws and regulations incompatible, they have an option of ignoring the law. Prohibition in America was an example of this. Many folks drank and largely, except of episodic enforcement, it was acceptable behavior tolerated by many in their communities. Ultimately the inability to enforce Prohibition lead to its reversal. For many environmental regulations, this is not likely because agencies actively enforce them and have enforcement agents in the field. They do not affect a significant segment of the population, only sub-populations here and there, so there is not a broad base to the “Irish Democracy”.
“Irish Democracy” will likely be a factor regarding firearms. Some folks may go to jail for violation of California’s stringent firearms laws, but many also will keep their non-compliant firearms and will find diverse ways to obtain ammunition. This is justified in their minds because they see a Constitutional right being eroded and they do not want to be helpless but instead have the means to self-defense.
In time, this may affect the uniform implementation of California firearm laws as is discussed in the National Review article.
Some States Have Heard and Addressed Rural Legislative Concerns
The lack of accommodation shown by California will undoubtedly encourage “Irish Democracy” in the rural reaches of the State. The California governor and Legislature could be more interested and accommodating to its rural folk and there are examples where this has been effective.
Liberal Oregon demonstrates an alternative. The Los Angeles Times describes a tiered minimum wage measure passed in Oregon. In this case, the original proposal was for a single, state-wide requirement. Oregon listened to rural communities and modified the measure to reduce the impact by defining three tiers and timed implementation for minimum wages required to be paid.
I was a part of the rural message in Oregon serving on a chamber of commerce governmental affairs committee. We documented the impact of the proposed minimum wage increase on less economic elastic rural businesses and the multi-tier approach resulted. Our business people were not entirely happy with the measure, but a perception of the bite of tyranny was reduced. We felt listened to – that we “were in the game” which was not the case in California.
Some See a National Divorce
“Irish Democracy” may mollify some of the impacts of the zealous California Legislature, but it will not fundamentally reverse the gulf between California rural and urban because the issues are not so universal and tangible as they were with Prohibition. Therefore, other dynamics may well set in to address the feelings of tyranny by a rural portion of the California electorate. This option was described in the June 30, 2017 edition of The Week as “divorce”.
Referring to the perception of American polarization and political violence, the summary in The Week concludes:
“This won’t end well, said David French in NationalReview.com, but it needn’t be bloody. Red and Blue America are already sorting themselves into distinct geographical areas, which may provide some grim hope. More likely than a second Civil War is a “national divorce,” in which the two sides embrace strong states’ rights and live by their own laws and mores in “ideologically homogenous enclaves.”
“It’s too soon to give up on the idea of a politically diverse America, said Kevin Williamson, also in NationalReview.com, but ‘we all have some work to do,’ starting with a simple acknowledgement that our political opponents are as American and well-intentioned as we are. In such angry times, it can be easy to forget that ‘nobody said being would be easy.’”
The Importance of Structural Change
As the NYT article on California’s far north defines, establishing the enclaves will not be so easy without further governmental structural changes. The issue is not so much state rights within the American nation as it is different populations and cultural priorities within states, especially very large states such as California.
State rights could partially address the need for local cultural priorities, but the Civil War demonstrated that this rationale will only go so far. Where a major population with strong cultural paradigms (e.g., abolition) persistently interacts with a smaller population, the result often leads to legislatively establishing the dominant value. Some see this as progress, others see it as tyranny. Among other factors, the differences between California and its far North is based upon strongly held world and cultural views.
Conflicting Paradigms Explaining Man and Nature
Don E. Albrecht in his book Rethinking Rural, explains the growing clash between the traditional and emerging American views on the relationship between man and nature.
“During the mass society era, powerful voices began challenging long established assumptions about the traditional, economic based uses of natural resources. Generally, these voices came from outside of the rural West and represented a worldview totally foreign to long help assumptions of the (Human Exceptionalism Paradigm) HEP were increasingly questioned and the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) received growing acknowledgement. This trend was enhanced by a rapidly increasing urban population and a growing proportion of individuals who were not economically dependent on resource-based industries.” (Albrecht, Rethinking Rural, p 44)
Therefore, for many rural communities, outside forces involuntarily change their way of life and economic opportunities based upon cultural priorities and political action at the large state and national level. Albrecht describes that the impact is mitigated somewhat because of the eras that rural communities have moved through beginning back in time with isolation and local enterprise, then mass society and connection through a national highway system and mass communications, and now the global era with its internet.
The amenities of rural areas are potentially more economically important in the global era than their resources in many (but not all) rural places. The result over time may be that the cultural view of some rural populations may change and embrace amenity based industries because of economic factors. This will be a slow process however, because many rural people view themselves as the last vestiges of resilient, rugged Americanism and its free-enterprise spirit combined with the fact that many rural areas do not have natural amenities to market to a visiting public.
Approaches That Bring Us Back Together
This accommodation over time will likely occur to some extent, but likely it will not bridge the divide for significant segments of rural America. State governments such as California and the national government and the broad American public should be considering approaches that will unify Californians and Americans.
I do not believe there is any single solution to the problem. I don’t think the automatic dynamics of time will completely close the gap. What we do need, however, are institutions within States that recognize a prominent voice of minority populations. They need amplification, or they will be lost. This will not only be traditional rural leadership voices, but those of other communities including rural minority groups and youth and the poor. My experience is that traditional rural leadership voices are often not heard in the state capitol, but other powerless voices are not heard in the county courthouse.
Governmental Organization Changes
State governments and the nation should consider governmental organization changes that fosters this amplification. The conflict should be of great enough concern to cast a spotlight on it. It should be fully considered and positive measures considered.
With the decision in Reynolds v. Sims based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, rural areas have lost their voice when the county-by-county representation for senate districts was discontinued in many states.
The requirement for one-person – one-vote will not change, but this requirement has resulted in division within America and has removed a portion of the balancing mechanism in American governance. Because of an unquestioning allegiance to one-person-one-vote, an alternative Constitutionally adequate balancing mechanism has not been developed and many rural people (and potentially other groups) are at the edges of the scope of governance.
One-person-one-vote appeals to a stark view of democracy, but it also advances the bane de Tocqueville described: A Tyranny of the Majority. The brilliance of our Founders was they understood justice stood in balance and they established divided institutions that through an interactive, dialectic rebalanced American policy and institutions.
A National Public Service Draft
Another initiative to fully consider is the restoration of the national youth draft. It need not be military only, but it would provide an opportunity for service on the part of American youth. All should serve, whether it be military, environmental, health or educational services. It should not be the leaky institution that the Vietnam era draft was.
My anecdotal observation is that the military draft during Vietnam was successful to the extent it brought many of us together and helped address racial divisions. Being a part of Vietnam era service, I saw this benefit time and time again. The matter is controversial as described in the 2015 Atlantic article.
Resilient Action Affirms Durable Truth
Resilient action in this instance requires a full consideration, potentially a featured state-wide commission. The California Legislature should assure rural populations that they are considering governmental structural reform that will provide balance to policy considerations. For all people, economic and cultural needs must be addressed (and really, respectfully be considered) for new legislation. There should be in the process a respect for these traditional approaches. Various approaches should be considered and action must be taken to address the issues.
Also, the U.S. Government must become proactive to bring Americans together. I propose an action agenda involving compulsory youth service. A well-designed initiative in this area could address so many needs including a greater appreciation and understanding of cultural diversity, enhanced skill and literacy building to support future employment, and greater resources to address military, environmental, and health needs. This is only one consideration and there may be many more. For example, a senior service corps for retired Americans could provide both capacity and integration of our many diverse populations.
Only through dedicated action can we achieve the durable truth of an America that embraces diversity and a unified national concert advancing American strength. We should always seek to rebalance our policy and institutions so they do not become more exclusive and offer opportunity and empowerment to all Americans. The alternative is simply unacceptable.