One of my cousins recently asked me “When are you coming home?” She was asking me when I would be back in Batesville, IN for a visit. I have never lived in Batesville — I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts — but both of my parents were farm kids from small-town Indiana.
Today, November 4th, 2020, the gulf between those two places has never seemed larger. Indiana was the first state to be called for President Trump in last night’s election tally. Massachusetts wasn’t far behind — but voted 2:1 for Vice President Biden. There was never really any doubt of either outcome.
My Indiana family members are some of the best people I know. Having lost my father years ago, my two uncles are the only grandfather figures that my daughter has. They help her understand her cultural legacy. We don’t visit often enough but what’s the first thing they do when we arrive? Grab her or get down on her level, pay close attention, and make her feel loved. Big gruff men — who have spent their lives working hard and saying little. They adore her and all the other children in my family with unquestioning love and affection. They take time to include all the kids in the family in everything they do, helping them learn, giving them confidence, and supporting their independence and responsibility at an early age. My uncles also care deeply about their communities and spend hours of time volunteering to ensure people get the help they need, buildings get repaired, and gaps get noticed and filled. They are never too busy to help someone else. Generous, ethical, kind, wickedly funny, and responsible. They are exactly what we need more of in this country.
If you listen to some people in the liberal states, these rural truck-driving Midwestern men are racist, sexist monsters who only care about their bank accounts — which is offensive generally and personally completely dissonant. I have no idea who my uncles voted for — and I’m betting they wouldn’t necessarily tell me if I asked. But it’s not hard to believe they or many like them voted for Trump given the Indiana election results.
Back in Massachusetts, the men I love are also deeply caring and involved in their communities. If anything, I would like my husband to care a bit less about my daughter’s emotions or my well-being because it feels like he does too much. He spends his days working at an organization that invests in and supports communities. He also volunteers and gives his time to his local community organizations. He is wildly generous, ethical, caring, wickedly funny, and responsible. He definitely voted for Biden — unless there is something he’s not telling me.
So what gives? Why are we so divided?
You might tell me that these men are exceptions — or not representative. That’s probably partly true but I think this has much more to do with socio-economic contexts than any personal lack of morality.
In Indiana, the local community is effectively the only community. When I think of the daily lives of my family members — each day is remarkably similar in terms of who they interact with and what they do. When I visited as a child, the only time I heard them talk about driving to Cincinnati, which was only an hour away, was to go shopping for school clothes in the fall — and maybe to a Reds game. My family has lived in a 10–20 mile radius of Batesville for more than four generations. The community is relatively autonomous, very stable, and self-contained. Understanding their political choices in that context is important — because the federal government is perceived as mostly unnecessary; taking tax money out of the community and adding expensive regulation that doesn’t apply to them. Why do they have to live by rules and pay the expenses for things that don’t apply to them?
So in small-town Indiana, they want the government to do less because the government gets in the way and makes life harder. They have few systemic social issues — the same families have lived in Batesville for generations and share cultural priorities and habits. Those that don’t share cultural priorities tend to leave — and that seems to be an acceptable solution for everyone involved. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-white person in Batesville and they don’t perceive themselves to have a racial issue because they are so homogeneous and they literally don’t see it. Destruction and violence are often social-moderated. If a kid does something dumb or destructive, parents know how to find each other and generally have a similar approach to applying a punishment, which is often done outside of the governmental justice system. When teenagers get pregnant, they have the baby knowing that their parents will act as surrogates, supporting both. A high-school degree is still seen as sufficient to buy a house and live a good life. Economic opportunity is limited primarily by the ability and willingness for an individual to work — a constraint that can be changed by an individual.
In Massachusetts, our concept of community is much more expansive — not only because there are more people per square mile but because we move around a lot more. Very few of us live and work in the same town. Most people live in different towns throughout their lives even if they don’t leave Massachusetts. We are constantly mixing with different people, with different backgrounds. We each participate in many communities. That gives us less stability and more perspective of both ourselves and others.
In small-town Massachusetts liberty and access to economic opportunity means a government that does more because, without government support, life is hard. Here having only a high-school diploma limits economic and social opportunities. Even with college diplomas, most families need two working adults. That means families need daycare and daycare is more expensive than public, in-state college tuition. Because things are expensive and there is high population density, people are sorted by their ability to afford housing, childcare, and education. That baseline economic capacity creates an outsized impact — the more you can afford, the more opportunities you can access, and therefore the more you can afford. It also means that if you cannot afford the basics, you are constantly scrambling and don’t have the time, never mind the money, to invest in the education that will help you get ahead — and you suffer disproportionately. This economic dynamic creates entrenched and generational disparities — and sorts people by economic class, which is all too often co-occurs along racial lines. Unless expensive basics are normalized with government support across different populations, individual economic opportunity is constrained and unequal. In Massachusetts then, economic opportunity is limited primarily by economic advantage — a systemic constraint that needs to be addressed by the government.
The rural/urban divide is considerable because of these economic issues — not just between Indiana and Massachusetts but within states as well. The economic structure in cities forces disparities without a government that ensures universal access to education, housing, and healthcare. The economic structure of small towns and rural areas, when it is working, is more equitable access to housing, which then makes them more economically and socially homogeneous.
However, small towns and rural areas face bigger economic risks because they lack economic diversity. They are often dependent on one or two industries — and big companies in those industries. Entire communities are at risk of failing if those companies falter, which is why people in small towns like Batesville do need the federal government to protect industry but often feel like they are at its mercy. Culturally, they really on their communities to support them but economically, they need big business. There is a whole discussion of how that has changed dramatically over the years — and therefore politics has changed — but in 2020 small communities need capitalism acutely even while they resent their dependency on it.
In Massachusetts our economy and our culture are diverse — it results in less cultural stability but more economic potential and opportunity. We are not reliant on any one industry for our lifeline — and so we don’t need the government to ensure the success of our largest companies. It makes us more resilient, flexible, and adaptive — so we change and move more and that too makes us appreciate basic government services because we are less likely to live next door to parents and cousins and less likely to rely on our local community to provide care for children, elderly, and the sick.
I don’t know how to reconcile the needs of these two groups entirely but what pains me is the vitriol and judgment we spew toward each other, assuming the worst. That is not to dismiss the legitimate issues — a President who emboldens ardent racists and teenage vigilantes — but I still believe that MOST of us in America are good, responsible people who are driven by legitimate needs.
The people I know in both Indiana and Massachusetts want a government that doesn’t make life hard. We all want liberty, control over our own lives, and access to the economic opportunity that gives us security and opportunities.