Don't Forget About Rural America in 2016

The 2016 campaign has been marred by division. Between gender, age, income, party affiliation, personality, you name it and it has been split apart. One big divide that continues to exist is the gap of knowledge and understanding between rural and urban communities. In truth, too much is made of all our divisions and not enough of what binds us together as Americans. In no area is this truer than the urban/rural divide.

It is often assumed that when a candidate focuses on rural America, it is an homage to traditional social and economic values. Gun rights and farming, for example, are what many assume plays well in rural communities. To a certain extent this is true, but the reality is more complex than what a few issues can cover. Rural areas and small or medium sized towns can be incubators for economic development. They may not be as flashy as the many tech hubs around the country like Austin or Silicon Valley but the growth in tourism, food production, technology and revolutions in agriculture are important opportunities for rural communities to contribute to the American economy.

The truth is that what unites people is greater than what divides them. Rural voters may care deeply about grazing rights on federal land, but more than anything they are interested in good jobs and a solid economy, opportunities for their children and living in safe, welcoming communities. Rural voters do often feel left out of a political system where candidates tend to focus on the densely populated counties and cities in a handful of swing states. After the primary season, it is rare that presidential candidates spend much time in these areas.

But there are millions of people who live in small, rural communities throughout America: from upstate New York to downstate Illinois, in central Michigan and the Central Valley of California. Many of these communities are part of a network that farms the land and provides this country with an incredible bounty of food, clothing and fuel for its people and the economy. With modern technology and communications, smaller towns have become productive places to start new businesses and entrepreneurship has begun to flourish in these communities.

These areas are worthy of attention by candidates for national and statewide offices. Perhaps some political consultants will tell candidates not to waste their time in a town of a few thousand people, but for the sake of good government and leadership, all American communities deserve a seat at the table. These communities are demographically and symbolically important to election outcomes in many states. In many swing states, the votes of rural Americans and residents of smaller communities will be a critical factor on how those states' electoral votes will be cast and should not be ignored.

This is not to neglect the enormous challenged facing our cities. Although they manifest themselves differently, the challenges rural and urban communities face are remarkably similar. Crumbling infrastructure, economic development, uneven educational opportunities, drugs and crime afflict American communities large and small. It is also no secret that casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were borne by a disproportionate number of young men and women from rural America. The economic recession hit rural America very hard and many towns have not seen much impact on their lives from the rebounding American economy.

Ultimately, rural communities and small towns deserve the attention of candidates for office and elected officials. Global trends show that cities are the preferred community of many millions of people, but there is also evidence that many Americans are moving back to smaller towns and rural areas. Let us not forget the important role rural communities and small town America plays in our economy, in our history, in our society and, importantly, in our politics.