The Great Divide

The Great Divide

The divisions between individuals and the masses, between the popular vote and the Electoral College, between small town and big city, are hot topics these days. How can people in the same country be that different? How can we think and vote so much at odds with each other?

Because of its diversity, my home state of Colorado is a perfect example to explore these differences.

I grew up in Palisade, a small agriculture community 12 miles outside of Grand Junction. Later, I crossed the Rocky Mountains to land in the big city of Denver, where I lived for 12 years and ran my small business. Recently, with my family, I trekked back to Fruita, Colorado, a farm town on our side of the Rockies. I’ve lived in small towns and big cities, and built businesses and relationships in both, encompassing a wide political and geographic spectrum. I can tell you why people vote differently in rural versus populated areas. I’ve been there.

How It Is on the Western Slope

Sure, there are obvious differences. Farmers over here are very concerned—as they should be—with water rights, because every day they water their crops. I never thought much about water while living in the city, but now that I live next to a farm where we literally watch the corn grow, it is definitely on my radar.

The other big difference for folks on the Western Slope is that we care and know a lot about public lands. Over here, 70% of our land is public, and it’s a staple for our community. We use it for farming, grazing, mining, hunting, drilling, camping, and shooting. Everyone here grows up with memories of shooting out on BLM lands. In Denver I went shooting once at Cherry Creek State Park, but there you never really leave the city. Awkward.

Differences in Denver

Public lands are just not a way of life in Denver. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just different, in ways that some guy at the State Capitol doesn’t understand. So when that official thinks it is a good idea to put the sage grouse on the endangered species list to protect this bird’s ”environment,” it raises our hackles here on the Western Slope. “You have got to be kidding me!” we say. “That bird is everywhere and it’s not endangered.” Thanks a lot, Denver, for dictating what we do with 70% of our land.

Another difference is that big cities have a diverse economy. Denver can rely on a broad jobs base for its economic stability. But how many underground coal miners are there? How many oil drillers? Not that many, because they are over here on the Western Slope—whole towns of them. So when some bureaucrat decides he is going to “help” people by telling them which companies can succeed and which must die by his judgment, it does not go over very well around here. Not in towns like Craig or Parachute where, to this day, home values haven’t recovered their 2008 value, all because the jobs were killed when the government butted in.

Small Town Life Is Self-Reliant

These three issues look different on the surface, but digging a little deeper we can see what makes people see things so differently in the great divide. 

First, when you’re in a small town you’re very self-reliant. If you need help, you know your neighbor. You know that the volunteer fire department consists of you and your best buddies a mile away. You know how long it would take for any of the three police officers in town to get to your house if called because of something suspicious. Not that you would call them, because the thought of hiding under your bed waiting to be rescued never occurs to you. You and everyone else in your community have too much self-reliance for that. Take care of your problems. Do it yourself or ask your neighbor.

Small town people don’t even consider government as problem solvers. Just the opposite. Whenever “the feds” (as my coal-miner dad used to call them) show up, it’s usually a pain in the ass for everyone. Maybe they have the best intentions, but what they produce is not helping anyone in the long run. And we taxpayers get to pay for that pain in the ass to keep tsking at our businesses and peering in our windows.

Who’s the Boss?

Imagine a mom hiring a young babysitter to drop in and check on her. This is Mom’s place of work—her home—where Mom knows how things get done. No mom in her right mind would ask a babysitter for recommendations on how to be a mother. How ridiculous to have a babysitter—who is not a mother—set all new rules to micromanage Mom’s home. And of course Mom is writing the checks. No amount of good intentions have this make sense.

That’s how small-town people see the feds, as our governmental babysitters. As fussy nannies following directives from the State Capitol to regulate local businesses, even when the government officials are not business owners themselves—directives like the one that says all Colorado hairdressers must label their trash can. Because God forbid if it’s not labeled. Imagine the anarchy without government to tell us what the trash can is.

Lost in the Crowd

Living in Denver I noticed that when the traffic was bad or we didn’t feel safe or, really, any kind of problem at all, we looked to the government for the answers. We didn’t feel empowered to solve them ourselves. Two reasons. 1) The problem seemed so big, and 2) we were each just one person.

Despite being surrounded by crowds, we didn’t consider them neighbors of the Western Slope kind. Instead, each person was overwhelmed, left to wonder whether one voice could make a difference among all these people. In a Denver crowd you are lumped into a big group, just one tiny part of the masses. In a Denver crowd you forget that one person can make a difference, that you aren’t just a follower. But you are an individual, and you matter, even when that’s forgotten in a Denver crowd.

It probably never crossed the minds of most people living in Denver that we should be defending ourselves. When our homes were being broken into, the automatic response was to call the cops, to ask for help from someone in authority, to wait for someone with real training.

Honestly, in most cities carrying a firearm for protection is largely illegal. Defending ourselves is illegal. In the city, instead of being empowered, individuals were pawns to someone else’s ego-based power grab.

Power in the Wrong Places

Power grabs follow a common pattern. I’ve seen it in relationships too often. When someone wants to control you, they shower you with attention and compliments and earn your trust. You tell them your dreams, your wants, your desires. Your vulnerabilities. As they get information, they are calculating their next move. They take your power in tiny doses of dependency, until one day you awaken to a person you don’t recognize and a life you didn’t choose. You’ve traded control for the illusions of security or fairness or belonging. You ceded authority to the “expert,” when in reality you knew best all along.

It’s the same when with too much government. Power in the wrong places. By relying too much on official expertise, we give up our ability to choose, whether it’s our children’s education, our healthcare, our autonomy to run our own businesses, or to spend money as we see fit.

And we do this all with our vote. With our vote we have said that we don’t trust our neighbor, nor should he trust us. Let’s all have someone ”smarter” than us—more qualified than us—decide for us. Facing anxiety about choosing correctly for the masses, we abandon responsibility to only highly educated, highly intelligent people for those very important decisions. With our vote we show that we don’t trust our neighbors to make their own choices about healthcare, education, careers, and spending. Someone smart in government is certainly more qualified.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The small-town person sees the world through an individualist lens. The big-city person connects to a collective and feels lost without a group.

Living in a small town I feel connected to my community, but not lost within it. I feel empowered to tackle our community’s needs, whether homelessness, infrastructure, education, or healthcare. One reason is that it’s personal: I know the players; I know we matter; and I know that individuals create real, long-term change.

But for my decade in the city, that personal element was missing. Even had I felt that I mattered within a mass group, I couldn’t see the process to create change. I couldn't see any of what ought to make a group great. I couldn’t see the individuals within it, and so government seemed like the only way forward.

Please No One By Trying to Please Everyone

We have all been to group events that failed, like the bachelorette party where way too many people came. Those often are the worst nights, because everyone wants something different: go to this bar, eat at this restaurant, see this show. And keeping track of that many people is a nightmare! Someone is always lost, another crying, a third fighting, another getting offended, still another breaking up, and yet more hooking up. We suffer the event for the bride, intending for one person to be happy, when in reality that night gives no one joy.

The best nights occur when a small group of friends does what they want, happily spending their money as they wish, when and where they want. Each person is happy so the group is happy, and nobody has to endure an anonymous and forced collective “good” decided by someone else.

If small-town folks wanted to hold a dinner party, city folk would suggest a different plan—attendance mandatory. Let’s hire some highly intelligent “qualified expert of dinner parties” and do whatever she says, whether individually any of us like it or not.

Oh, and the bill is on you. You’re welcome.

Close to Home is Close to the People

Having lived in both big and small towns, I have seen that the way to get things done is to promote self-reliance. Government can’t be all things to all people. It’s literally impossible. But what is possible is to give the people their power back. For them to make their own decisions. And when government is necessary, to keep it as close to the people as possible.

A solution to mending the great divide of rural versus city is to have citizens’ needs met with more locally controlled government and less of the one-size-fits-all approach that often takes place with our federal government. Local control is most effective, better meeting people’s needs, being more flexible, and giving individuals—in a small town or big city—a more effective voice. Real trust, real change, real empowerment can take place only when individuals are in charge of their own lives.

So when we vote differently (And from this 2016 election it’s apparent we voted differently!) this might shed some light on why. Not because we are all a bunch of jerks who hate each other, but because we have such a different idea of what works. City people see government as the rescuer, while small-town folks rescue themselves.