Before coming to the University of Chicago, first-year Charlotte Soehner grew up in Manhattan, surrounded largely by like-minded liberals. Once at college in Chicago, not much changed since her social circle on campus held similar political views.
But earlier this year, Soehner embarked on a new program from the non-partisan Institute of Politics designed to address the growing chasm between urban and rural communities and promote a deeper understanding between the two.
The program originated during a visit by Institute of Politics founder and director David Axelrod to Eureka College, a small, central Illinois school 150 miles south of Chicago. Only a few months earlier, the 2016 presidential election had made it readily apparent that the country was fragmented into what Axelrod calls “virtual reality silos,” and that the only way to break down those walls was to promote a real exchange between communities that otherwise would rarely engage with one another.
“It was apparent to me just how siloed we were, that people on university campuses and people in cities were completely nonplussed about how Donald Trump could get elected president, and people in rural areas—I have a home in rural Michigan—a lot of my neighbors just couldn’t see how it could have ended any other way,” Axelrod said. “We were talking past each other and creating caricatures of each other, so I thought it would be important to try in some small way to tear those silos down, attack those caricatures and hear what people are saying.”
“Eureka in central Illinois was in many ways typical of those areas in the industrial Midwest where Donald Trump rolled up big votes,” he noted. “They never fully recovered from the economic downturn, and there’s an enormous sense of disruption and displacement there, so it was fertile ground for Trump. And Eureka is a small college. Ronald Reagan graduated from there. It draws a lot from the surrounding rural areas, and it’s much different in terms of the student body from the University of Chicago.”