Take one on rural America, from Brian Alexander in a recent Atlantic article:
The social good of such places, [Arthur] Morgan insisted, was being “dissolved, diluted, and submerged by modern technology, commercialism, mass production, propaganda, and centralized government.” While many big-city residents might not worry about the fate of small towns, Morgan believed they should because the “controlling factors of civilization are not art, business, science, government. These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits—good will, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, patience.” These traits are best transmitted from one generation to the next in small communities, he argued, from where they are then spread throughout entire societies. To erode small-town culture was to erode the culture of the nation.
Take two, from Kevin Williamson of the National Review in the run-up to last year’s election:
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
I spend my days working in regional community and economic development, which means devoting a fair amount of time and thought to towns across my corner of the world in northeastern Minnesota. I attend a number of small-town meetings, almost all of which are heartening: from Virginia to Sandstone, from Two Harbors to Aitkin, people deeply committed to their towns come out in force to these meetings and share their love for them. They acknowledge problems but are devoted to fixing them, and in many of them civic engagement seems far more robust than in Duluth, where politics appears to have devolved into vicious tarring of one’s opponents on social media. (Okay, I’m being an election season cynic, but the pettiness is a wonder to behold.)
Even so, it’s not hard to sink into doubt about the future of small towns, either when one looks at macro level trend data or takes a walk down Main Street. Not much is happening, the population is greying, things are boarded up, and yes, in some places, one can find people on the streets high on something at midday. Occasional new development on the outskirts gives some dated facilities a needed refresh, but leaves behind empty space in places where that’s not easy to fill. Many towns can seem trapped in a slow, downward spiral with no clear escape.
On Friday, work took me to Bruno, Minnesota (population 102). There’s not much to Bruno: a bar, a church, a small gas station, a thrift store, a handful of houses, many of which have seen better days. It’s 40-odd miles from Duluth on a beautiful but fairly lonely road, so it’s not one of those small towns that enjoys the spillover from a convenient metropolitan area. But, tucked up a side street sits a former schoolhouse, sits the Nemadji Research Corporation, a world-class medical billing and data mining company with 47 employees on site.
Bruno’s champions are the founders of Nemadji, Gene and Becky Lourey. The late Gene was the brains behind the operation, whose tech skills were decades ahead of his time; Becky, to use her own words, provided the heart. That exuberant human touch was so evident that Becky, whose picture probably appears next to the phrase “bleeding heart liberal” in mid-2000s encyclopedias, got herself elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and then the Senate in this rural district, and also mounted a failed campaign for the DFL gubernatorial nomination in 2006. (Her son, Tony, now holds the Senate seat.) She infuses Nemadji with a deep conviction born of a long and tumultuous life that has never seen her waver in her enthusiasm and grit, even as she endured business failures and lost three children. Its facility includes a daycare, a lunchroom, and an experiment in hydroponics; employees get excellent benefits, which in good times have even included college tuition. Becky Lourey has built a legacy in northern Pine County that will last long after her, though at 74, she’s not exactly showing any signs of slowing down.
Not every town can have a Nemadji, but the Loureys offer lessons for local communities everywhere. Their power is remarkable, and it’s worth nothing that their roots aren’t miles deep in the Bruno area: they grew up in different Minnesota towns, and if Becky had had her way, they would have stayed in Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill East neighborhood, where they lived for a spell and helped found the local neighborhood organization. But once they settled down in Kerrick (just up the road from Bruno), they left a mark. One need not share the Loureys’ politics, but one does need to recognize where Kevin Williamson’s assessment of small town struggles goes wrong.
First off, rural America is not a monolith. And while small towns may not exhibit much demographic diversity, there is a lot of economic diversity both within and between them. Williamson commits the now-frequent fallacy when he implies the people dying from painkillers are the ones voting for Trump when instead it’s usually the relatively well-off rural voters who are reacting to all of the decline around their relative success. For every dying small town, there’s another that’s holding its own and producing its share of decent jobs. Even places like Virginia, the Iron Range town where the population is down while poverty and perceptions of crime have multiplied, still serve as vital links in one of the nation’s most important industries, even if we can now get iron ore out of the ground far more efficiently than we used to. And while I’ll shelve a full examination of this for a later date, the interplay between low birth rates, immigration, and politics has particular consequences for the American rural-urban divide.
The deeper issue with Williamson’s thesis, however, is his conception of economics as a strict matter of “satisfying human wants, not defining them.” This is true insofar as that we should not expect economic theory to behave in moral ways on its own. But even Adam Smith understood the necessity of a moral support structure behind capitalism to build a stable society. Badly aligned incentives can unravel whole cultures, and when culture unravels or collapses, whether into the inner city crime waves of past decades or the silent scourge of drugs and disability in small towns today, the ugliness never ends. It has a direct political spillover, drives migration patterns, and leaves behind wreckage that may stick around for decades. The physical signs of decline may fade away over time, but the pain in the present and in future generations can be a mountain to overcome. Every effort should be made to overcome it, but the odds are hardly stacked in a favorable way.
This brings me back to Brian Alexander’s insistence that small towns do matter, a perspective he renders with proper respect toward metropolitan areas. There is a fair amount of mushy ground here, as the piece paints the suburbs in a lazy trope, and it’s impossible to prove whether or not small towns are a sort of moral compass and proving ground for a nation. (I am, however, generally sympathetic to the notion that forcing people into proximity with other people from a wide range of backgrounds is a healthy thing for personal formation. This doesn’t just come through sharing a town; after my grandfather’s funeral, a cousin and I discussed how having so many aunts and uncles in our sprawling family gave us an immediate window into a broad swath of life.) But there are some essential insights in his piece.
Just as Williamson tell us failing small towns deserve little sympathy, it’s become fashionable in certain urbanist circles to shrug and say that the economy is what it is, and that small towns are doomed to die. No doubt the dwindling, especially in a relative sense, will continue in many places. But decline does have profound political consequences, and the alterations to a national culture that stem from economic and cultural upheaval are not to be taken lightly. Change will continue, and we’ll need as many Loureys as we can get to weather the storm. Relying on that exceptional level of dedication and service is a bit of a Hail Mary; efforts need not go that far to be a success. But they do require a moral commitment to place that goes beyond graphs of economic performance and understands what it means to take root in a community. Cut off the roots, and the tree will die.