Since I returned from my October trip in Texas, I've been thinking a lot about the rural-urban framework I'm using. Because the Trinity River flows from urban North Texas and down through rural East Texas, it is a great opportunity to consider the ways that the city and the countryside are connected or divided from each other. This was the main topic of the presentations I led, and I tried to be open about the limitations of this framework. For example, the Trinity River does not explain that much about the contrast in North Texas' century-plus boom and East Texas' long term underdevelopment. Another environmental historian has already written a lovely book on the economic connections between the periphery and the core, but there's a lot of work left to be done on the material and political connections. The commentary and narrative coming out of the media after this week's election has highlighted one of the reasons why my research and analysis is relevant today.
One of The Hill's headlines from this morning reads: "America's urban-rural divide deepens." In their telling of the story "suburban voters delivered a stern rebuke to an unpopular president" and "exacerbate a divide between booming urban centers and struggling rural communities." While this sort of analysis has a purpose given our Madisonian apportionment of votes, it leads to facile and unrepresentative assumptions and stereotypes about rural people. Looking at state-level or district-level votes, ignores a great degree of dissent and diversity on the ground. This was certainly true with the way that politics on the Trinity River has been presented.
In 1973, all of the counties on the Trinity River from the Dallas-Fort Worth area on down participated in a bond-approval vote to determine the fate of a proposed Trinity River canal. I won't go into all the details here, but the canal was a terrible plan, a waste of money, ecologically ignorant, and not needed, something which even many of its boosters like Rep. Charlie Wilson later admitted. In a surprise to many of the region's most powerful boosters, the canal was defeated. This history is often portrayed as a victory led by urban environmentalists and urban voters. It is true that the urban counties carried the proposal to defeat with 56% opposing in Dallas County and 54% of voters opposing in Tarrant County, but there was significant opposition from East Texas.
As you can see in the attached image, 53.2% of the voters in rural counties voted in favor of the canal. It would be easy for a deadline-crunched journalist to write a similar headline about this vote, ie "Trinity Vote Reveals Gap Between Enlightened Urban Voters and Ignorant Country People." But that's not what the data actually says. Several East Texas Counties voted against the canal, and San Jacinto and Houston County both opposed the canal by over 75%, enough to make the Sierra Club blush with pride. Certainly rural voters and urban voters had different reasons for voting against the canal--but it would be both inaccurate and unfair to label all East Texans as blind supporters of elite boosters and their plans for the conquest of every environment.
In this context, my dissertation reminds me a bit of the new reboot of #queereye, without the laughter and tears. The cast spends a lot of their time working with people who live in rural/exurban regions and who at first glance might fit the portrayal of hateful, intolerant country bumpkins, but then it turns out they're kind and thoughtful people who are willing to learn. Or for my historiographically-minded readers, think of this project as reflecting more of Lawrence Goodwyn's approach in which he wrote, "At bottom, Populism was, quite simply, an expression of self-respect,” rather than Richard Hofstadter who portrayed rural people as angry and left-behind.