Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Politics: The Graduate School Of Human Relations

January 6, 2003

Small town politics are a land mine for the uninitiated! Picture yourself in one of these rural scenarios:

YOU ARE A MEMBER of a school board that is considering school consolidations. You have a local business. Your customers want private time to discuss their feelings and perhaps influence you on the outcome of the decision.

You find you have precious little time for your own business. Once the decision is made, some people have taken the issue so personally that they boycott your business.

YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL in a rural community. You have to make a decision regarding a community member based on confidential information that is known only to the parties concerned.

Later you hear that the person adversely affected by the decision is distorting what was said in a private meeting, only telling their side of the story and making you out to be hard-hearted and even sleazy in your dealings. You feel helpless to protect your reputation because by doing so you would have to disclose confidential information.

YOUR SISTER-IN-LAW in a family farming operation feels you've offended her. She refuses to speak to or acknowledge you in public and talks behind your back. Your friends feel caught in the middle. They feel uncomfortable when there is a social gathering and both of you are uncomfortable to be there. You don't know how to get her to talk the issue out and settle it privately.

YOU ARE ON A BOARD that is pushing for major improvements in your local community. You champion the issue and get it passed. One board member takes offense and becomes your enemy. He makes it his personal cause to fight against everything you want to say in public meetings.

For years afterward, he is "in your face." Your friends and supporters on the original issue seem to pull away and don’t own up to their role in the cause. You feel isolated.

YOU ARE A NEW MEMBER of a town board. The board chairman seems to have a vendetta against an executive officer and starts laying the groundwork for his removal by planting seeds of unfair gossip and characterizations.

The rest of the board can't resist the temptation and also try to find fault. You feel the executive officer is being nit-picked and isn't given a fair chance to deal with any complaints.

YOU HAVE A DISPUTE with family member. You talk to a few friends in an attempt to deal with your own emotions. Before you know it, your friends have taken your side and tell you they won't do business with your relative. That's not what you wanted at all. You decide you can't talk to anybody about your feelings. How do you find a friend who knows how to keep their mouth shut?

Qualities of leadership. Rural leaders have thick skins, good judgment, give a fair hearing to all parties, keep their mouths closed, don't take setbacks personally, are gracious in defeat, show charity toward their opponents, and are so saintly in their personal conduct that their credibility remains intact. This is indeed the graduate school of human relations.

Those who are unskilled don't last long. Self-serving decisions result in a quick exit. Those who master the art of politics tend to be revered and are kept in office as long as possible.

Leaders in small communities are skilled at negotiations and finding win/win solutions. They know how to help others save face. They, themselves, absorb unfair abuse and other personal costs.

They know how to work for the public good behind the scenes and sort out the vested interests involved. They know how to surface controversy and get a problem-solving dialogue going long before an issue mushrooms into entrenched positions by polarized factions.

Rural realities. Skilled rural politicians also have the luxury of being independent from public backlash. It is a sad reality that many business owners and others who depend on public good will shy away from controversy because their livelihood might be threatened. They can't "afford" to be leaders. They learn to leave the politics of the community to their farmer/rancher neighbors.

The traps of rural politics are in taking sides, boycotting businesses, being rude in public, gossiping, finding fault gratuitously or ignoring issues entirely. It doesn't need to be that way. There is a tightrope of courage and diplomacy to walk while working for the public good.

The genius of American democracy is that the majority and minority learn to get along. The minority accept their defeats graciously and bide their time for a better day. This same generosity of spirit is really put to the test in people's ability to resolve differences at the local level.

Being community-minded. The people who make the best leaders in rural communities are truly community-minded. They submerge their own egos and the need to be right for the good of the whole. In the long run the good of the community benefits themselves as well as others. They understand how certain decisions can be divisive and are alert to head off conflict before it damages the community.

Why do people do this? It is a sense of satisfaction of having made a difference in people’s lives. There is also the pleasure and respect leaders have with each other as they join together in worthy community goals.