Rural versus urban

Today, April 5, is the deadline for the governor to act on the unusually massive 310 bills the 2019 Legislature passed. Nearly all will become law since the governor’s veto pen is not getting much of a workout. However, in the wake of the legislative session, some politicians and pundits have been complaining about a new bias against the state’s rural areas. It’s an interesting charge and deserves to be examined carefully and in depth.

I’ve lived and worked as a journalist in a number of states, including Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Florida, Virginia, New York and California, all with strongly divergent rural-urban interests: New York City versus upstate, Atlanta versus everybody else, southeast Florida versus the rest, Baltimore City and the Washington suburbs versus the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, the California coast versus the Central Valley, Colorado’s Front Range versus the Western Slope, and on and on and on.

The divide or conflict or competition—choose your own term—between rural and urban residents is an enduring and nearly universal phenomenon of American life. This is true not only in the political world but also in the social realm, where lifestyle differences are even more marked than on policy and pocketbook issues.

In nearly all states, rural areas largely had the upper hand from the founding of the republic until the 1960s. There were two reasons for this.

The first was that a majority of people lived in rural areas and small towns. But even where the majority of residents were urban, many were new immigrants who couldn’t or wouldn’t vote or minorities who were discriminated against or poor people alienated from the political process.

The other factor was that the powers that be created voting districts of unequal size that fused discrimination and electoral shenanigans into a single unjust system.

Beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court insisted that all legislative and congressional districts within a state be almost mathematically equal in population according to the rubric of one man, one vote. The culmination of this half-century-long trend is that last month the Supreme Court began the process of deciding whether political gerrymanders are unconstitutional. In other words, must legislative and congressional districts be not only numerically equal but politically fair?

Against this background, let’s look at the New Mexico situation. New Mexico had always been a largely rural state until recently. When I moved to New Mexico in the 1970s, about one-third of the state was urban and two-thirds rural. However, the rural preponderance has slowly eroded since then.

Accelerating the process of late has been the decade-long recession in this state, a recession that has hit rural areas particularly hard. In most of our small towns, businesses have closed, employees have been laid off, investors have pulled out and families—often against their heart’s desires—have been forced to move to the cities. In the past several years, though the overall economy has started to improve, agriculture, the keystone of most rural areas, has remained in the doldrums, due primarily to a combination of global warming, drought, trade wars and federal budgetary policies.

The result is that today more than 60 percent of the New Mexico population lives in the metropolitan areas of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces. And an even greater majority lives in the Rio Grande Valley, which is often depicted as the region at loggerheads with the state’s peripheral areas.

Of course, if we are going to have democracy, the will of 60 percent of the population should ultimately carry the day. Other factors, however, complicate that simplistic math.

One of those other factors is that not all issues pit rural and urban interests against each other. I find it significant that in the last legislative session the most important bills passed with near unanimity.

Adding a billion dollars to the state budget, spending an additional half billion dollars on education, setting aside a billion dollars for new capital projects, especially roads, and transforming longterm power generation by substituting renewable energy for coal—these are the issues that will affect the lives of rural and urban New Mexicans alike for many years to come. Republicans joined Democrats, liberals joined conservatives, rural legislators joined their urban colleagues. Some things are simply more important than where we live, namely how we live and work and educate our children.

How did such a common-sense consensus come about? The Democratic governor, the large Democratic majority in the House and the three Senate factions—minority Republicans, a half dozen Democratic conservatives allied with the Republicans and a dozen and a half Democratic liberals—all knew they had the power to checkmate each other and end up with nothing. Instead, all the players decided that the sane course was to compromise and win some good results for everybody. (The small House Republican minority was not a significant player.)

In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison famously warned of the dangers of “factions”—which today we call special interests—such as those that promote exclusively rural or urban interests. He feared for democracy if government were in the hands of “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.”

This is precisely what has happened in the federal government. This year in New Mexico—even in this age of division—we seem largely to have avoided such a fate.

Yes, we have passionate differences over such lifestyle matters as requiring background checks for purchases at gun shows or eliminating legally meaningless verbiage on abortions. But over the biggest issues, the ones that will affect us all for a long time—such as whether we will have good roads, good education, good air and good jobs—it seems to me both those governing and those governed have put “the aggregate interest of the community” above an “impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.”

Score one for James Madison, who happened to be the guy most responsible for writing our Constitution.