Just like a century ago, there’s a class war in rural America, and the wrong side is winning

December 16, 2020 6:00 am

A cockerel standing in a summer meadow. Getty Images.

Across Minnesota we hear the cannon fire of a culture war. Burgeoning resentments spill into our politics, creating entrenched factions that dig in even deeper when the fighting escalates. At least here in northern Minnesota, the rally call is “Our Way of Life.”

“Our Way of Life” is much more than U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber’s campaign slogan. It’s been passed among political factions here for a century, between political parties and ethnic groups. It’s not a slogan. It’s a magical spell. And just like the incantations of Harry Potter books, it’s a beautiful fiction whose only truth is in metaphor. 

Because there is no one “Way of Life” in northern Minnesota. The place was built on cultural collision. Any sense of homogeneity has come from the almighty power of industrialization and the very sympathetic human desire to belong to a stable and secure society. 

Here, E Pluribus Unum — from the many, one — comes from the reorganization of class, from turning just enough poor immigrant miners into successful middle class citizens to cover the scars of poverty.

I learned this from two news articles. One, I gleaned from a 1917 microfilm reel. The other I read from the high definition display of a modern computer just a few weeks ago. 

Both were about chickens.

In 1917, a Hibbing doctor implored citizens to keep their chickens and other livestock from roaming free about the village. Nearby, another article lamented the poor, foreign-born element whose mangy animals so befouled a bright and prosperous town.

In 2020,  the latest political controversy just up the road in International Falls also concerned chickens.

Last month, the citizens of International Falls narrowly voted down backyard chickens in a citywide referendum. If that issue sounds familiar, it’s because several northern Minnesota towns have been clucking about municipal poultry in recent years. Most notably, the Virginia City Council buck-buck-bucked a backyard chicken proposal in February. Meantime, the much larger city of Duluth allows backyard chickens, except for roosters, for obvious reasons.

The chicken controversy hasn’t changed much in 100 years. Chickens wander, poop and go “cluck.” Neighbors wish they wouldn’t do these things, so they complain. City officials balk at the idea of enforcing minor infractions committed by dim-witted birds, so they just say “no birds.”

In a Minnesota Public Radio story by John Enger about the International Falls chicken vote, the word “blight” becomes the rally call against chickens. But one pro-chicken organizer said this word is just code for “class.” The notion of an acceptable home and property remains largely determined by people who have the resources to hide utility from public view. A pretty garden is good, but a large one that feeds a family is blight. A parts car that doesn’t fit in the garage is blight. Chickens that lay eggs are blight.

That idea caught my eye, because the stories about chickens in 1917 are really no different. And neither is the notion of class, even if modern America seems unwilling to think about class as a factor in most of our political debates — chicken-related or not.

Class matters most during times of inequality. As the post-WWI economic boom of the 1920s took off, income inequality grew to previously unseen levels in the United States. Yawning gaps between rich and poor meant that some people could afford to buy chicken while others could only hope to keep one or two laying hens alive through the winter.

Another similarity between last century and now might be even more informative of this challenge (and, yes, even this relates to chickens.) The Industrial Revolution, which reached its zenith as the Mesabi Range formed its lasting footprint, fueled one of the greatest urbanization periods in human history. People from across the United States and around the world poured in from the farms into industrialized cities. They brought their food traditions with them, including chickens and vegetable gardens.

But a couple of generations later those traditions had been bred or beaten out of us. Now we just buy our eggs and potatoes, even if a whole way of life was sacrificed at this altar of commerce.

Just history, right? The price of progress. But it’s not done. Urbanization remains an active part of our life today. So does income inequality, which now approaches the levels seen during the last urbanization trend. Taken together, these phenomena help explain everything from the rightward political shift in northern Minnesota to the popularity of online conspiracy theories and the feeling of control they provide.

Because we now see a new urbanization, one where even the people who want to stay in small towns and rustic byways face dire choices. Here, we agonize about how to make a living and keep communities afloat while an economic beacon beams from the metropolis like an airport searchlight in the fog. 

But that beacon is as repellant to some as it is attractive to others. This according to a 2019 Niskanen Center research paper, “The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash,” by Will Wilkinson. 

That’s what distinguishes this new form of urbanization: it’s bisected by personal identity. Wilkinson’s paper identifies three factors — ethnicity, personality and education — that largely determine which people migrate and which don’t. 

If this were merely a case of Ford vs. Chevy we could leave it there. These factors, however, also dictate where innovation and investment goes. That’s why there are plenty of jobs in the cities and fewer good jobs in less-densely populated places. It’s also why questions of racism and elitism now dominate our discourse. Our collective behaviors render these into obvious fault lines.

But really, it’s about class. It’s about the choice between chickens or the perfect yard. It’s about the inequality that puts a majority of rural people under the sway of a powerful minority of wealthier people who actually control rural communities. The real tragedy is how much urban and rural poor have in common, even as race and culture separate them.

It’s the loss of control, stupid. During a local economic downturn in 2015 most Iron Range mines idled amid low iron and steel prices. The reason given was illegal steel dumping from China. But that was only part of the story. Why was China producing steel at a loss and shipping it across the ocean? The answer is not because it hated us, but because of something happening in China. 

When a Mesabi Range mine shuts down, a few hundred people apply for unemployment. They go fishing or hunting, if the season is right, and hope for a call back. Longer shutdowns lead some to take other jobs or leave the area. Any suffering proves fairly easy for most to ignore outside the region. Globally speaking, the numbers are small. We can name the economic victims and aggregate the data on a single sheet of paper. 

But when steel mills and iron mines shut down in greater China, hundreds of thousands of workers in a single city become unemployed. Every social problem we’ve ever encountered on the Iron Range becomes exponentially worse at such a scale. 

So, China acted. Now, we don’t want to emulate China’s authoritarian tactics. Or, at least, we shouldn’t. But this might also explain why so many people on the Iron Range seem happy with an authoritarian approach to political and economic problems. 

No, not everyone is moving to the big cities. Here we are, the proof. But economic activity now centralizes in metro areas with unprecedented force. As certain as gravity are the social, political and economic consequences we now experience. 

Rural people might be naive to think that a wealthy New Yorker who cheats and lies was ever going to solve our problems. But liberals would be naive to think that the economic success inherent in the growing neighborhoods of Minneapolis or St. Paul could be easily reproduced in Hibbing, Virginia or Ely. 

The Iron Range will never be able to suburbanize our way to a new future. Every cheap building constructed on the edge of our towns is actually a self-defeating nail in our coffin. Nor can we wish our way to tall office buildings and high tech careers. No, we must instead do something unique. 

We must attract new people by offering something that appeals to them. Small, tight-knit communities that believe in a shared future. Open access to the natural bounty that surrounds our towns, and efforts to maintain aesthetic beauty. A commitment to education and culture. Laboratories for building and invention (think of them as advanced garages). To do this, what we need most is something we can’t buy: Personal dedication to our own communities.

There might be no stopping the urbanization trend spreading across the world. At least, not until economic and environmental conditions demand otherwise. But we can craft sustainable Iron Range communities built around real ideas and action. We can finally finish the job truncated by explosive, class-based growth. In short, we can make rural places where quality of life exists for workers of all classes.

Because the problem in these communities isn’t literal chickens, but the figurative ones unwilling to directly confront inequality wherever it is found. 

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.