My dissertation advisor, David Hollinger, published an influential article thirty years ago with the intriguing title “How Wide the Circle of the ‘We’?” It’s a question I come back to more and more in this age of political polarization. Who do we really recognize as part of “us”? Who lies outside the circle as “them,” as “the other”?
I thought about this again after reading a letter to the editor in the Fargo Forum a few weeks ago. The letter, whose author reportedly publishes widely in various conservative publications, was a snarky criticism of Gov. Tim Walz. It accuses of Walz of “dancing” back and forth between his rural roots (“good ole Timmy”) and “his great transition to America’s most woke governor.”
Tim Walz ran on the slogan “One Minnesota,” promising to be a governor for all Minnesotans. The basic premise of that letter in the Forum was a rejection of that possibility. Rural Minnesotans have one set of values, the Twin Cities Metro represents another, and Walz became a “left wing radical” when he stood up for the science behind Covid vaccines and climate change and defended rights to reproductive freedom and transgender care.
I would note that the author of that letter lives in Minneapolis. From my point of view, he reduces Greater Minnesotans to a culture-war stereotype. His goal is to drive a further wedge between us by convincing rural voters that they are being constantly insulted by those who hold different views. I think the real insult is lumping all rural Minnesotans into the Trumpian cult.
I prefer the sentiment of a poem by Edwin Markham that’s quoted in Hollinger’s article:
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
I think Gov. Walz would agree. There is a real rural-urban divide in Minnesota politics, including right here in Clay County. But that does not stop us from pushing policies that help all Minnesotans. It isn’t just city dwellers who have children, who face struggles and need help, and who suffer the effects of climate change.
The challenge we face is how to bridge the divide. How do we draw the circle that takes them in? Hollinger is an intellectual historian who was writing to other intellectual historians, but through the density of his article, he might offer some clues. The dilemma we face, as he sees it, stems from the way in which affirmation of cultural diversity has confronted a normative image of human nature. Many conservatives are clearly uncomfortable with that diversity and nostalgic for the days when their America seemed wholly comprised of white, heteronormative Christians.
How do we find ways of respecting our differences while also working for the common good? What are the shared concerns that could help to build communities of interest across the rural-urban divide? Maybe the place to start is by recognizing that living in a city or in the country is only one of the forces shaping our identities. There are people out there who can be reached if we break through the stereotypes and find points of connection. Let’s have a conversation.