Power to the (country) people

“People in Washington don’t quite understand our values,” U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said last week in Wellsburg.

“It’s an undercurrent in Washington,” McKinley continued, explaining, “It’s not always Republican versus Democrat or liberal versus conservative. It’s not that. There’s another undercurrent – and that’s urban versus rural centers.”

McKinley is absolutely right. But it’s worse than what he said. It’s one thing not to understand a certain class of people – in this case, Americans who live outside the big cities. It’s another, more troubling thing when there’s no attempt to understand.

And too many national leaders don’t care to understand us. Why bother? They don’t need to know much about us, as a column I wrote a few weeks after the November election illustrated.

Barack Obama won re-election almost exclusively on his strength in big cities. Why should a candidate care about people he doesn’t need?

And, as McKinley noted last week, the balance of power in Congress favors urban areas. “There are more representatives from Pittsburgh than there are for the entire state of West Virginia,” he noted. “So the priorities in Washington often get caught up in the urban centers.”

Concern about this isn’t new. In 1795, Thomas Jefferson complained political opponents who favored bigger, more powerful central government “all live in cities, together, and can act in a body readily …” Obviously, building a political organization is easier in urban areas. Jefferson, incidentally, also worried about the mass media, complaining his foes “have most of them (newspapers) under their command.”

And the centralization of politics – not just government, but also the machinery of winning elections – is one reason West Virginia is a state. Folks in this region of what then was Virginia complained for decades before 1863 that the most closely settled eastern area of the state held political power for itself and ignored our needs while enjoying tax revenue collected from us. Eastern Virginia was where the political power lay.

One key point McKinley made involves ideology. As he pointed out, this isn’t a Democrat versus Republican concern (though Democrats frequently seem to do a better job of organizing the cities). It often isn’t conservatives pitted against liberals.

But, as McKinley noted, when there’s a question of how to allocate federal resources, the money often goes to urban areas for initiatives such as mass transit, rather than to places like West Virginia for projects such as new sewer and water systems. Heck, in terms of water, I wouldn’t be surprised if Uncle Sam has spent more on big projects such as dams to provide water to cities than on small ones to serve rural residents.

While the urban versus rural tension in politics is nothing new, what may be changing is this: For most of our history, even the big-city politicians paid at least lip service to the idea of life closer to the land. No more. Not infrequently, they don’t even bother to conceal their contempt for people like West Virginians. Remember Obama’s sneer about people who “cling to their guns or religion”?

So we have a problem, and it’s getting worse, not better. What on earth can we do about it?

Well, for starters, we can encourage our members of Congress – and by that, I mean those who represent areas other than the big cities – to stick together. As much as possible, don’t bow to the party line. If something is good for rural residents of West Virginia, chances are it’s good, even if indirectly, for our neighbors in East Ohio or the countryside of Pennsylvania. If a Democrat from, say, Iowa farm country needs help with a bill, McKinley, the Republican from West Virginia, may want to help him – and remind him of the aid when the coal industry needs a friend.

As long as the big-city politicians are able to use Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, politics to keep rural Americans from working together, they’ll hold the balance of power.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net