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Seeking a vision to thrive

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The 2018 elections are over. Well, mostly over. Now what?

Critically important issues dominate our current politics. The Arkansas legislature convenes in two months and members of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel will be there advocating for quality public education, access to health care, clean water, fair housing, criminal justice reform and more — and the resources to pay for them. Many lawmakers and special interest groups, in contrast, will be proposing massive tax cuts for the martini class and the continued dismantling of our public schools and other public infrastructure.

These are all critical issues and we need to be engaged in them. But we pay a price when we don't go a step further and connect the dots among issues into a comprehensive vision of how to build stronger communities. Without a vision, we play a polarizing game of whack-a-mole informed by passions instead of facts. We divide instead of building community. We are left to the manipulation of special interests that profit when we stay divided.

Arkansas, like the rest of the country, has a growing urban-rural rift. And neither rural nor urban residents are well served by it. It is particularly absurd in Arkansas where the line between urban and rural is blurred and most of us have people we love in both.

It's time for a new social contract that creates a comprehensive vision for thriving communities in both rural and urban places.

I cannot blame the rural brush fire consuming American politics that has produced our current political moment. Both parties have stood idly by, or supported, the hollowing out of the rural American economy for generations. The same thing has happened in the cities for all but the most privileged.

Special interest groups have become masters at wrapping themselves in the guise of protecting the little guy while they push policies that extract wealth, labor and resources from our rural and urban communities. They have become masters at privatizing public structures so they can profit from them and avoid accountability. And they've become masters of pointing our anger about their actions at one another instead of the real culprits.

We need a plan for reinvestment in our rural and urban communities. The plan can't be cooked up by focus group and fake "engagement" sessions. It has to be authentically grounded in community and led by residents — especially by people who haven't been at the decision-making table before now. And then we need to stay focused on it beyond an election cycle. The hollowing out of American communities has taken generations and it's not going to be fixed in the attention span of a Twitter storm.

The opportunity for either political party is great. Democrats could re-establish credibility in rural communities. Republicans who took this seriously could expand their base in urban areas. Both could diversify their supporters while solving our biggest challenges.

We can't write off rural communities and we can't take urban communities for granted. Some say that rural Americans are reflexively conservative and lost to progressive political movements forever. Hogwash. Some of the most progressive movements in American history have been led by rural working people unifying behind a vision of how to strengthen their communities. The leaders I know care much more about their community than any political ideology, and they are looking for solutions.

No one is served by the status quo. It's not like Republican proposals to continue cutting taxes for the wealthy, giving corporate welfare to big corporations and gutting the social contract for everything from education to health care is strengthening anyone's community. The same is true in deep blue urban areas, where residents are frustrated with the choice between a party that takes them for granted and another party that openly attacks them.

We need to think big picture and then drill into the issues. You certainly can't build a healthy community without strong public schools and access to health care, but you can't create a strong education and health care system when they are constantly being eroded by other issues like poverty and lack of opportunity.

The real gap in America is not urban-rural, but opportunity. We need to stop blaming our lack of opportunities on each other or some demonized other. We need to create a bold vision and comprehensive plan for renewal across our communities. And if our politicians are too constrained by the status quo to lead, then it's time for us to abandon them and do it for ourselves.

Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

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