One of the overarching themes we have discussed in this course, especially in the wake of the last election, is rural communities' mistrust of the government. Rural communities may not identify with the policies and initiatives pushed by the people who live in cities, and as a result feel alienated. One article explains that, "[t]o rural Americans, sometimes it seems our taxes mostly go to making city residents live better." Cities are where government officials make decisions and where most of the tax dollars are spent.
Other rural residents may feel that the government is unwilling to make policies that favor them. In exploring this tension, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild posits that red states see government as "an instrument of their own marginalization" because they feel that the government has "favored blacks, women, immigrants, refugees" and these groups are "getting ahead of them, as almost like line-cutters, pushing them back in line." This can make rural residents feel like the government doesn't work for them. But what is the alternative?
I recently listened to a podcast about Seneca, Nebraska-- a town that voted itself out of existence. No longer a town, Seneca is an "unincorporated community" in Thomas County, Nebraska. In many ways, Seneca was a typical example of "rural America." It was a remote town with fewer than 40 residents and far from major airports. Once a bustling stop on the Burlington Northern Railroad line, Seneca's economy and it's declining population mirror each other.
In 2013, the town board passed an ordinance prohibiting livestock. This was a strange response to resident's concerns about the sub-par living conditions of a couple of horses in the city center. Instead of creating a remedy for those particular horses, the town board passed a sweeping ordinance that affected many other residents.
In response, a small group of residents began a petition to unincorporate Seneca. They saw this as the best way to respond to their dissatisfaction with the town board. If Seneca were not a town, there would no longer be a town board, and those few people who passed the ordinance would not be able to make decisions like that for the rest of the town.
The tiny population of Seneca voted 17-16 in favor of unincorporation, and they dissolved the town at the end of June 2014. Without its town status, Seneca's streetlights have gone dark, the snow plow used to the clear the streets was auctioned off, and the city park no longer has running water.
When questioned about why they signed the petition to dissolve the town, local residents responded: “We just don’t want people telling us what to do,” and “...we just want to be left alone.” There are still strong feelings about who voted for or against the unincorporation. The podcast features comments from a number of residents who have strong personal feelings about the individuals who voted differently than they did. It sounded more like a family fight than a political disagreement. The podcast suggests that this story of a small town could teach us all about the recent election through a focus on the relationships between residents and how it appears this vote tore the town apart.
Residents clearly had a deep mistrust or animosity against the village board, which voted to pass the livestock ordinance. These issues seem to echo the stories we've read of how Trump voters maybe just want to throw a brick into a system that they don't see working for them.
Seneca residents threw a huge brick. It seems fitting for this example that the ordinance was directed at livestock-- a hallmark of rural identity and economy. While it was extreme to unincorporate the whole town because they didn't agree with one ordinance, this story could shed light on the importance of rural identities when they are at odds with governance.