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Other views: Rural or urban, we're all relevant

6:20 PM, Jan. 23, 2013  |  Comments
Tom Vilsack
Tom Vilsack
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Nobody can seriously question the relevance of rural America to the nation's future well-being, but Tom Vilsack's comments about its waning political clout, and the response they received, speak volumes about politics in the nation's capital.

To be fair, the agriculture secretary was noting an undeniable if regrettable truth when he spoke before the Farm Journal Forum recently: Population matters when counting congressional votes, and rural America is bleeding population.

But Vilsack's admonition to change political tactics had enough air of condescension that many took offense, a reaction that goes to the heart of why "red" and "blue" America seems less and less able to find common ground.

"It's time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America," Vilsak said. "It's time for a different thought process here."

Vilsack, a city boy who grew up to be governor of Iowa before getting his Cabinet post, went on to talk about the misplaced emphasis on wedge issues and rural America's lack of diversity, or desire for it, as drivers of its population losses.

We'll give Vilsack the benefit of the doubt. Although his critics will note the Pittsburgh native can't really empathize with the struggle of the average American farmer, Vilsack has been an effective advocate for rural America and its contributions to the nation's prosperity.

Vilsack has urged more aggressive economic development as a remedy to high levels of poverty in rural areas, something we would welcome in our communities, and more regional approaches to economic and political strategies, something we believe is long overdue.

Frustrated by the failure to get a farm bill passed, Vilsack was calling on his constituents for a new way of doing business, which is all well and good.

The problems with Vilsack's admonition were its tone and its target. He misplaced blame for the failure to get the farm bill passed on the people most hurt by that failure while his high-horse rhetoric only reinforced the stereotypes that say urban and country folks may just as well be from two different planets.

Washington's dysfunction has less to do with cultural differences among communities than it does the powerful interests pulling the strings. When politics is a zero-sum game, as it has been in for the past dozen years or more, somebody has to lose, and the biggest losers are the citizens.

Today, the game is rigged - not for people living in the cities, or the suburbs - but for the extremely rich. Poverty is neither a rural nor an urban problem, but an American problem.

The people living in red and blue states have far more in common than is generally portrayed in our political narrative. They share the same hopes and aspirations; they want their kids to be safe in their schools and have prospects for successful lives; they believe in justice; they care about the environment now and for future generations; they seek fairness in our laws and policies.

It would be refreshing if our leaders articulated that message and focused on those areas where we agree rather than appealing to our worst fears.

Nobody is irrelevant in a well-functioning democracy, regardless of where they live.

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