A few months after the pandemic’s outbreak, I spent a couple of weeks at my grandparents’ small farm in Southern Morocco. The intimate village setting, with the corn fields, the wandering sheep and the chirping song of the cicadas contrasted with the neo-Gothic buildings facing my dorm room. To most of my fellow Moroccans, this experience would have been rather banal: a third of the county’s population comes from the countryside, where some remain from womb to tomb. To an urbanite like me, however, the cultural shock was momentous — more so than my first trip to the United States, where people speak a different language, share a different culture and ground their sense of collective identity upon a different history. During my time at Yale, I have come to realize that I have more in common with the average New Englander than I do with rural regions of my native land.
In his controversial book “The Road to Somewhere,” David Goodhart divides Westerners into two camps: the “anywheres,” an elite of well-educated urbanites who benefit from globalization, and the “somewheres,” a disenchanted populace that holds on to a disappearing sense of place. The “anywheres” speak multiple languages, travel extensively, study abroad, embrace multiculturalism and vote for neoliberal parties. The “somewheres” struggle, struggle, struggle and vote for populists on both the left and the right.
Goodhart attributes this divide to reckless immigration policies. But I think his explanation misses the mark. Naturally, popular discontentment can take the form of anti-immigration sentiments. Nevertheless, the rural-urban split defines the political and socioeconomic landscape of countries as diverse as France, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, and Poland, an overwhelmingly white, Catholic nation.
In fact, this year’s Polish elections represent a perfect case-study: President Andrzej Duda, a staunch representative of the nationalist right, won re-election by appealing to voters in the countryside. His liberal opponent, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, captured the urban vote without effort. Unsurprisingly, this geographic cleavage underpins a broader socioeconomic reality: Poland’s countryside is disproportionally poor and its cities are significantly wealthier. Yet the country has experienced minimal immigration over the past decade, at least compared to its peers. The same observation applies to Morocco, where I witnessed the cultural Grand Canyon separating “anywheres” like me from “somewheres” like my grandparents.
Social scientists view the rural-urban split in a myriad of ways. To some, this divide represents an unfortunate but inescapable tradeoff of economic development. As countries prosper, their economies become more service oriented. Big companies automate factories away and people move to metropolitan cities in order to get skilled jobs. The process impoverishes the countryside, but it is beneficial for the country as a whole. Others point to globalization’s pernicious effects. Western companies relocate their factories to Asia, the argument goes, and the communities left behind suffer as a result.
For this column’s purposes, however, let us focus upon an altogether different aspect of this divide — narratives. At the individual level, we cannot control broad economic forces. But we can change the way in which we view those affected by them.
Displacement is an integral part of the American dream. The story unfolds as follows: after years of tedious efforts, ambitious young people leave their rural hometowns to attend Ivy League schools. There, they develop friendships with their fellow soon-to-be-elites and, as a side-note, receive a good education. Now credentialed, they get a job at a consulting firm, an investment bank or a big tech company, where their voluptuous salaries pay for well-furnished houses, yoga classes and country club memberships. In a single lifetime, these meritocratic champions rise from the precarity of rural America to the pinnacle of coastal prosperity.
The problem is the part that rural communities play in this narrative — namely, the place from which ambitious people should escape. Last week, my colleague McKinsey Crozier ’22 wrote a brilliant column about the frequent depiction of rural Americans as unintellectual, bigoted and backwards. Coastal condescension is the logical result of a vicious cycle: as the countryside suffers economically, young people are encouraged to leave it. This intranational brain drain deprives the heartland of its social capital, thereby incentivizing the departure of more people. Those who choose to remain — or simply cannot leave — find themselves powerless.
Worse still, our society celebrates the entire process by glorifying those who “make it.” They become “self-made” leaders, tolerant citizens of the world and champions of meritocracy. As for those who do not make it, well, too bad. For decades, this rhetoric has echoed across the political spectrum — from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, who used the phrase “you can make it if you try” 140 times during his presidency.
The geography of the American dream is part of its very structure; but it need not be. In fact, the coronavirus may well reshape our shared narratives. Many college students and young professionals are going home for the first time in years, as I have. This migration provides an unprecedented opportunity to start conversations about coastal prejudices, preconceived notions of meritocracy and deep-rooted cultural divides. As an urbanite, it is one thing for me to talk about the Moroccan countryside’s economic development. It is another to live there and witness the disheveled state of public services.
We could imagine an America wherein geography does not determine people’s socioeconomic standing. But this transformation will require a profound narrative change, one in which Yale students ought to play an integral part. Those who abandon the gospel of meritocracy, who reject prefabricated paths and who choose to serve local communities, all participate in the necessary creation of an alternative American story.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.