Should I stay or should I go: mobility and rural politics

A sign that greets those traveling through Deer River, Minnesota, as seen in 2013. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

When I was 18 I wanted to leave the Iron Range as badly as any of my classmates. Everything I wanted to do, the entirety of the life I wanted to live, could only be found elsewhere. In many parallel universes I surely did just that, now typing away at some suburban office or pouring myself into a spandex bike suit for my commute downtown. And perhaps I would have done just fine.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

But in this universe (the real one, right?) I stayed on the Iron Range. After a brief time away for college and early radio jobs I came back. In doing so, I defied one calling for another. As such, I often feel trapped between two different paradigms. The broader world and my own seem to be going different directions. Frankly, it’s disorienting. That’s why I think a lot of people feel out of sorts in these modern times.

In a lot of ways, rural Minnesota’s politics have mirrored its prospects. The railroad boom of the old “Northwest Territory” brought an idealistic brand of Republicanism. The growth of farming and industry spurred creation of populist movements like the Grange, and the Nonpartisan League of North Dakota and Minnesota. That lead to liberal reformers like Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, still America’s most successful third party since at least 1900. As these movements fled to the Democratic Party, we got the New Deal and the America that many today assume was always there, never impeachable. We are beginning to realize, however, that history is seldom so simple. Progress does not wear a party label.

As rural industries began to mechanize and shrink, rural America began to sort its souls. The idealistic ones left, often because they were told to go, and the homebodies stayed, often because of a sense of responsibility to people in their lives. This has been happening on the Mesabi Iron Range and across rural America since I was a small boy.

These forces pull on one another — exploration, learning and ambition on one side; family rootedness, sense of place and certainty on the other. And across America, whole towns have been ripped apart at the seams in the struggle. One set of communities grows fast, changes readily, and yet struggles to find happiness. The other cherishes family, but finds nowhere to shop amid declining local institutions.

Broadly speaking, the prior communities identify as liberal and the latter identify as conservative. But it’s not because these communities are liberal or conservative that makes them that way. Rather, it’s *the way these communities are* that inspire liberalism and conservatism. And because we live in a time of incredible mobility, people have sorted themselves neatly among their political like-minded.

Stay or go? Well, how did you vote in the last election? For young people, this becomes a quick-and-easy guide. If your town is going the wrong way, you should go elsewhere. If you like what you see, stay. The real enemies are down the road.

All of this came to mind as I read a Nov. 13 Larissa MacFarquhar New Yorker story entitled “Where the small-town American dream lives on: As America’s rural communities stagnate, what we can learn from one that hasn’t?

The story explores Orange City, an old Dutch immigrant town in northwestern Iowa. Like many small towns, it’s conservative and fairly isolated. However, Orange City also boasts a viable downtown, above-average employment, and a growing population. The author and her many sources drive down on the notion that perhaps there is something more to making a small town work than just politics. It has to do with whether or not people see a future in a place.

Granted, the New Yorker piece has an air of observation, rather than anything we can replicate in places other than Orange City, Iowa. After all, Orange City’s “success” is really just a notion of pride and a commitment to supporting and growing local businesses and cultural activities. Voting a certain way or expecting some external fatalistic interference has nothing to do with it.

But I suppose that it, isn’t it? After all, liberals love their families, too. Conservatives hold ambition and imagination, too. What if we stopped following separate tracks and started building community together? What if we can live our dreams in small towns as fruitfully as a big city?

It’s all true. We just have to act on it. Our hometowns have much to offer the world.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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