The Rural Have-Nots

August 2016
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

A couple of decades ago, many people thought technology would allow everybody to live and work wherever they wanted. Why cluster in a city when you can telecommute from whatever remote locale you choose? As we know, though, that prediction didn’t turn into reality. People want to live in cities, and jobs want to be there as well. While that certainly benefits urban areas, it comes at the expense of outer suburbs and, especially, rural America.

We explore different implications of that in three special-focus features this month. More and more, it seems, middle-class people are being trapped between either having limited chances at good jobs in rural areas or being priced out of housing in cities. People who feel trapped get angry, and I see in our trio of stories echoes of the populist unrest against the establishment that’s surfacing globally. That unrest has been a long time coming.

Sociologist Floyd Hunter saw it in 1953. In his book published that year, Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers, Hunter wrote: “There appears to be a tenuous line of communication between the governors of our society and the governed. This situation does not square with the concepts of democracy we have been taught to revere. The line of communication between the leaders and the people needs to be broadened and strengthened -- and by more than a series of public relations and propaganda campaigns -- else our concept of democracy is in danger of losing vitality in dealing with problems that affect all in common.”

The problems affecting so many of us today are, of course, major economic and demographic shifts. The friction those problems are producing badly needs to be addressed, not just with more oil but with changes to the machinery as well. What’s needed is not a revolution -- as history demonstrates, they rarely end well -- but a better understanding by the elites of how much inequality and dislocation society can withstand without coming apart at the seams.

The deal between the regular folks and the establishment -- we, the people, will let you run the show if you provide institutional stability and allow us to live our lives in relative peace and dignity -- seems to be breaking down. I think the evil that Hunter saw springing from that lack of understanding is precisely what threatens us now. The place for public officials to start to deal with today’s problems is where Hunter saw it so long ago: solidifying the line of communication between governors and the governed.