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The War Against Cities

This piece was first published in The Hill on August 1, 2021. You can view that version here.

The Republican Party is waging a war against cities, especially those in the Northeast and on the West Coast that vote for Democrats and have large minority populations. The GOP gleefully rammed through provisions in its 2017 tax bill that limited federal deductions for state and local taxes and mortgage interest. Those changes were designed to hit cities and suburbs more than low-cost rural areas. Truth be known, federal expenditures largely financed by the taxes of wealthy northeastern and west coast cities and suburbs have long flowed disproportionately to rural Midwestern, Southern and Western states in the form of dams, waterway investments, highways that are toll-free, farm and fossil fuel tax breaks and subsidies. State legislatures, by the same token are skewed to favor rural areas, and Republicans at the federal and state level are working hard to make them even more so.

What is not well understood is that there is nothing new about the rural hostility to cities that we are seeing today in the U.S. Wealth is almost always the result of commerce and commerce is essentially urban. Cities are where the merchants are and therefore where the money is and disparities in wealth between urban and rural areas breed hostility. World history is full of clashes between city and rural peoples. In the 1980s, for example, I took my family on a revealing trip to Sweden. We rented a charming old farmhouse on the island of Gotland in the Baltic between Sweden and Poland. The house was only a few hundred yards from a crossroads where a trove of ancient silver coins from the Persian Gulf and Byzantium had recently been unearthed.

Gotland’s major city, Visby, was a prosperous trading center from the 1200s to the 1400s. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part because it is enclosed by a brick and stone wall 30 feet high and two miles long with 27 large towers and a dozen smaller ones. Visby’s wall was not about protection from foreign invaders, and that is the point. When I asked the director of the city’s museum if the wall was to keep the Vikings out, his answer surprised me. No, the director said, the massive wall was not to keep the Vikings out. It was “to keep the farmers out.”

Visby had been a major trading city, populated by merchants from Sweden, Norway, north Germany, Poland, and Russia. Its streets above the port were lined with warehouses full of amber, grain, barrels of salted herring, and other products. Gotland’s farmers repeatedly sought to get their hands on this commercial wealth and the hoards of silver from around the World that apparently came with it. Leaders of the farmers in a rural parliament called “the thing” stoked these ambitions.

The larger point is that rural people around the World, like the farmers outside Visby, are at least latently resentful of wealthy city-dwellers, who are often foreigners and minorities, more cosmopolitan and educated than the rural folks. These resentments can be stoked by purposeful leaders, and it happens often in disparate places. Merchants in Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta where I served with the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in the 1960s, were assumed by the Vietnamese and Cambodian rural population to be ethnically Chinese, and most were. They owned the businesses in town: slaughterhouses, rice mills, duck hatcheries, brick kilns and rice-wine distilleries. Ethnic Chinese, often generations removed from the mainland like those in Vietnam, also dominated urban commercial life in Indonesia and Malaysia and on occasion were attacked by native Indonesians and Malays as a result.

The situation in several eastern European countries was similar. City-dwellers were often Muslims from sophisticated Constantinople or Germans brought in by conquerors, while the rural populations were Slavic and Christian -- a combustible mix that could be set aflame. In Lithuania before World Wars I and II, the market towns were overwhelmingly Jewish, with a smattering of Poles and Russian administrators. The poor rural farmers were Lithuanian. Much of the time these peoples got along, but sometimes changing circumstances and leaders enflamed the always latent urban/rural resentments with tragic results, as seems to be the case in the U.S. today.

There is no question that Republican politicians brought to heel and tutored by Trump, are attacking cities and city people using familiar “dog whistles” to stir up and mobilize their more rural base. The question is whether Democrats and Biden can find ways to return rural resentment of cities to a less dangerous latency. History shows that returns to latency happen, but what it takes is less clear.


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