While walking down Chelan Avenue last year, I stumbled upon a group of presumably high school-aged students holding a protest for increased climate policy. As I watched the protest unfold, a group of counter-protestors emerged next to the group. As the exchange unfolded, it appeared to escalate. The protestors began waving their signs while the counter-protestors began arguing more audibly. By the time I walked away, a scene that had started peacefully had grown into a verbal conflict.
This growing polarization can in part be attributed to the divisive work of political messaging towards rural communities. Party players on both sides are using their language to “other” the political opposition by using phrases such as “the radical left” and “extreme right,” which have become the norm in candidate campaigns.
Growing polarization is having a particularly negative effect on the day-to-day interactions of rural and small-town residents. Political yard signs showing support for school board members, congresspeople, or state-level officials are determining the perceived “morality” of an individual before people even meet. Neighbors are turning against each other and our rural communities are becoming more fractured.
Not only is the impact felt in our day-to-day interactions, but it manifests in the officials we elect. As the political middle dwindles, politicians are also becoming more extreme. From accepting funding from outside corporate PACS to perpetuating divisive rhetoric on their websites, politicians are turning away from uniting messages to win our votes.
As a community, we cannot let political polarization rip us apart.
Instead, we must focus on the things we can agree upon. In our valley nestled next to the North Cascades with a rich agricultural culture, we can all agree that our land should be protected. Filled with family-owned businesses and long-time residents we can all agree that people that grew up here should be able to afford to live here. As residents of the Wenatchee area, we are tied together by a shared goal of seeing our valley flourish for decades to come.
However, these goals are nothing if we don’t choose to act on them.
The first change we can make is within our daily interactions. As the diversity of the Wenatchee Valley increases, we are afforded the opportunity to speak with varying perspectives and people. As a student at Wenatchee High School, I was fortunate to have meaningful conversations with people across the political spectrum through the local organization NCW Young Voters. Speaking to local and state-level politicians with political ideologies that aligned and often countered my own allowed me to see the middle ground that all rural residents can share.
Outside of our own interactions, we can come together around the work done by organizers in our community. Leaders such as Elana Mainer and Adrianne Moore are putting the interests of rural people first through the organization Rural People’s Platform. As a part of their Steering Committee, I have watched as they have redefined what rural progress can look like, prioritized political transparency, and supported politicians that work for the common interests of rural residents.
Organizations like this embody what makes rural areas so successful. They focus on our tight-knit communities. Without that connection, we fall prey to leaders who misunderstand us and policy that works against us. As Jean Hardy suggests in a Bloomberg article, “Many research studies have found that connections within a local community (i.e., bridging social capital) is one of the most valuable assets leading rural businesses to success.” What allows rural communities to thrive is our ability to come together.
The uphill battle rural communities face is not a plight of us vs. them, rather it is a case of us vs. us; two ideological differences in opposition, counteracting our progress. As a community, we are our biggest enemy. Once we can unmask the people behind political personas, we will uncover that all of us share the desire to build a better future for our families, land, and valley.
Heather Hayes is a first-year student at Columbia University studying American Politics and English. On campus, she leads a group of over thirty students as the co-intern lead for the Columbia Office of Admissions Rural Recruitment Committee. She is also a part of the Columbia Policy Journal where she recently published a policy regarding voting equity and absentee ballots in New York State. As a long-time resident of the Wenatchee Valley and a recent graduate of Wenatchee High School, she had a deep love for the area and hopes to return to work in Washington state politics.
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