Sunday, February 5, 2017

Too rural for government? The unincorporation of Seneca, Nebraska

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.


dnlauber said...

I really enjoyed reading about Seneca's decision to become an "unincorporated town" as a result of the ordinance passed regarding livestock. I am curious to know about whether or not members of the town have regretted this, what seemed to be a controversial, decision. I understand there was an element of principle to the matter for the people who voted to dissolve the town, but how are the town's needs being met now? You allude to some of the, I'm sure, many problems the population faced post dissolving the town (dark streets, no snow plow, and no running water). Given that the town was dissolved in June 2014, how is the city faring now in 2017?

Kyle said...

This story sort of breaks my heart. It's not that I have any connection to Seneca, NE or to any place like it. And it's not that I'm some cheerleader for city formation as a project with intrinsic merit. It's that an outcome like this stands as a stark counterpoint to my dogged belief that small groups of ordinary folks can work things out.

For a decade before the 2016 election, and more intensively since then, I have argued that our politics need not be so ugly, so intractable, and so unproductive. We just need to reinvigorate the waning art of neighborliness and to scaffold political structures around and atop this steady foundation. Our evolutionary history of life in tribes of 100 or so individuals bequeaths two legacies to us: a pernicious knack for constructing the Other, and an abiding clan loyalty that ensures that the body politic will survive a regular onslaught of controversies. And so on, and so on.

But along comes Seneca with a wrench to throw into the gears of this tidy theory. If thirty-odd people cannot come to agreement about how to handle animal abuse, then I'm clearly barking up the wrong tree when I theorize that neighbors can find common ground on issues of public benefits, taxes, immigration, and more. Perversely, I find myself hoping that Seneca is uniquely dysfunctional -- that its town council was comprised of small-town tyrants, that its social capital was woefully poor for such a small community, that this vote was a proxy for some larger, long-fraying tear in the social fabric.

In short, I hope that Seneca was the kind of rural town that defies our dominant stereotype of "rural." Because if this kind of nose-to-spite-the-face outcome can unfold in a place previously rich in social capital and interconnected-ness, then I have to fear the worst for the rest of us.

K. Harrington said...

Seneca is an interesting example of a community who took a radical step to reject organized government. Instead of using the political processes to air their grievances and effectuate change, they blew the whole thing up. Logically, it would seem like the livestock ordinance was the “last straw” for the Seneca community, not just one extremely unpopular decision. But this article in the Omaha World-Herald suggests the latter (

Like Danielle mentioned, in an age where most individuals take government services – like running water and snow plowing – for granted, I too, wonder how and if the former Seneca residents are supporting each other now that those services have disappeared? Since the town consisted of approximately 40 residents, the former members may not be concerned about street lights or running water within the city limits, but what about things like snow plowing, lawn mowing, or other maintenance concerns? In rural communities, one might rely on a neighbor or friend to plow snow from driveways and clear cars. Have locals stepped up to ensure that the streets and common ways are accessible to all?

The residents’ decision to unincorporate is not something I hear about often, and I wonder if it would be attainable in a larger rural community? That is, would the dissenters receive enough support in a community of 2,000 or 5,000 residents, instead of 40? Given our current political climate, this hypothetical doesn’t seem that far fetched.

Wynter K Miller said...

Courtney, I love this post (yeah, Radiolab!), and I think it raises some interesting questions — about government accountability and the most appropriate model of government representation. I think these questions might be more acutely felt (or at least, easier to recognize) in rural communities, where the local government is — for lack of a term — "closer to the people." That said, Seneca's "throw a brick" response certainly has its urban and national counterparts (Calexit, anyone?). As a staunch believer in the American system of government, and in working to change the system from within (versus burning it down), I'm always kind of devastated to hear about Seneca-like responses. Did Seneca really have no other options? Were the village board members not elected and removable from office? After reading the article K. Harrington posted above, it seems the answer is a resounding "no." It will be interesting to see if the unincorporation sticks, in light of the (still?) pending court cases . . .