The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

13 May 2005

Them hicks

One recurring complaint about Oklahoma in some local circles is that while its population is actually predominantly urban these days, its politics are still fundamentally rural (read "backward"). This is a questionable assumption at best — both houses of the Legislature reflect the population shift to the cities and the suburbs — but the knack of some small-town legislators for seizing the spotlight (think Senator Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta) causes consternation in those folks who think that if only we could shake off this hillbilly stuff we could have the next Dallas, or at least the next Fort Worth.

This notion basically ignores history: there has always been an urban/rural divide in this state, and it's hardly unique to Oklahoma. Julie Neidlinger reports from North Dakota:

I remember after 9/11, a friend and I were talking. She made the comment that she was glad there were farmers and people living out in the country and that everyone wasn't in the cities because it was nice to know there were people out there watching, knowing what was going on across the land. I hadn't thought of that, ever, until she mentioned it.

Cities need rural people, and not just for the obvious "we need farmers so we have food" connection. You need people out on the land, watching and aware of what is going on. Just because you live in a place of pavement doesn't mean you don't have a connection to what is going on in the country. You need people out there. Stuff happens out in the country, from weed or pest outbreaks to weather to crime to you-name-it that needs to be noticed for the good of everyone.

And you need people in the rural areas because they are a different kind of people than city dwellers. Rural people have a different work ethic and attitude, different priorities and concerns, a different outlook ... that kind of thing. It isn't better, it's just different. We need that. Think about it. Why are the students of North Dakota so eagerly snapped up by other states? What is it that makes this state unusual as compared to, say, California? The ruralness of the state produces a different kind of person. If everyone were urban, it would be unfortunate.

Much of what we think of as the Oklahoma character originated out in the countryside. On the farm we learned the basics of fatalism, that a few hours of horrible weather can take out a season's crop; in the small towns we learned that for every person who is content with his lot, there's another who wants out.

The rural population in most states is declining, as people pack up and look for jobs in the cities. But I can't imagine everyone moving: those who remain behind, I suspect, become even more firmly attached to the land. The Oklahoma Panhandle may seem like a vast, empty place, but twenty thousand people live there, and fifty years from now, I'm betting there will still be twenty thousand people living there.

Posted at 7:52 AM to Soonerland

The shift to urbanization often requires a rejiggering of established political procedure. Just because the Legislature is representative of the voters doesn't mean the power distribution within that body is equally representative.

When Florida started urbanizing, state political leaders had to reform a lot of measures that had maintained disproportionate power for the old power bases in the north part of the state. As south Florida grew in population and wealth, this grindingly changed.

Posted by: CT at 8:33 AM on 14 May 2005

Something similar happened here; the first stirrings of urbanization in Oklahoma took place during the Dust Bowl years, though it was about 1960 or so before it became a full-fledged trend, and it took twenty or thirty more years before any serious changes in the Legislature were noticeable. (Term limits are now in place, essentially retiring the Old Guard once and for all.)

Posted by: CGHill at 8:54 AM on 14 May 2005