Millennial Shades of Red

Off the Highway

For generations, young people in America have left the countryside, lured by the attractions of city life. As part of our series Off the Highway – voices from small town and rural America, we speak with young adults bucking that trend. They’re staying put, moderating the conservative positions of their elders, while staying skeptical of big-city politics.

The very small town of Lebanon, Kansas is not an obvious place for young people to stake their future. Turn off the Pony Express Highway that cuts through the vast wheat fields and farms of northern Kansas, search for the town’s Main Street, and you might be surprised to find yourself on it.

There used to be schools and restaurants and a movie theater but they’re gone. So, too, is the town’s claim to fame; it was once the geographic center of the United States, the heart of America’s Heartland. But then Hawaii and Alaska joined the union, and the center moved away.

When told the reason for coming to Lebanon, a resident said, “Young people? Best of luck with that.”

Despite the odds, there is a small group of millennials – people born between the early 1980s and the turn of the 21st century – who hope to revive this town of 203 residents.

Dustin Warner, who a decade ago had seemingly left for good, is back, running a farm and raising his family. He says buying a home is cheaper and there’s not much violent crime. “I liked growing up in a farm family as a kid,” he adds, “so I hope my children will enjoy that as well.”

Emily Roush, 23, and her husband Kaden Roush, 24, have set up a foundation to boost the community because, as Kaden notes, “fast-paced life isn’t for everyone.”

Michelle Allen, 23, is planning how to buy land of her own here. “I love farm life” Allen says, and all that goes with it: being outside, tending to cattle, hunting and fishing.

“In lot of bigger cities, people think their food comes from a grocery store.” she says, petting the goats on her father’s farm, one of many dotted around Lebanon. People in cities “can get a twisted idea of agriculture,” she says. “That can hurt you when you get up to politics and things like that.”

For many of the young people here, the disconnect between them and the politicians extends beyond farming.

Most of the young people VOA spoke to in Lebanon either voted for Trump in last year’s election, or didn’t vote but generally favored his approach, in no small part because he vowed to help those “forgotten” by politicians in Washington.

Yet, six months into a term that has seen Trump’s backing falter nationwide, they, too, show signs that their support may not be rock solid.

There is frustration at the president’s pace of getting legislation through. And while they say most major media is biased against Trump, none (including Dustin Warner, above) would defend his favorite media tool – Twitter.

But these millennials never completely endorsed Trump’s agenda. None ascribe to the idea that climate change is a hoax, as Trump has said, though some, like Kaden Roush is glad the president pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Nor did young residents favor dramatically curbing immigration, another Trump initiative.

They’re not even particularly certain if he really backs farming, central to most of these young people’s lives. Agricultural Department loans helped the Roushes and others set up their farms. Now, federal programs vital to the region’s agriculture are set to be cut in Trump’s proposed 2018 budget.

Farming is why they’re here, to live with and off the land, despite the seeming obstacles of isolation here in the former center of the country.

These views are perhaps more nuanced than many in Trump’s base of support, a group that is largely white, Christian, and often rural. Those demographics apply to these millennials and others in a county that went 81 percent for Trump in last year’s election – a red, or Republican, county in a red state.

Perhaps nothing separates these young people more from others in the base than the idea of exclusion. Lebanon’s millennials express a more welcoming view than Trump toward those who can be loosely described as “others,” whether they are Mexican, Muslim or something not like them. (for one local perspective of otherness, see Reporter’s Notes, at the end)

Being open to others may well be the key to Lebanon’s success. What the town needs more than anything is people, in particular young people. Its population has been declining for generations. The median age of residents now is 52.

American history has been one of relentless urbanization, but explanations of historical social and economic forces offer little comfort in the particular. “Where it’s a place you’ve grown up and lived your entire life, you hate to see it disappear,” says carpenter and Lebanon Mayor Rick Chapin, 62.

When the town's oldest resident, Gladys Kennedy, 100, was a child, Lebanon's population was 822 - four times what it is now.

Chapin is discouraged that the town has been unable to attract factories – the kind of traditional job-generators that Trump has highlighted.

But the younger generation has other ideas. The Roushes’ foundation is working to refurbish Main Street, build a community center, and encourage others to move here by promoting the charms of small-town life.

Future residents might still need to go 23 kilometers to the slightly larger small town of Smith Center to find a doctor or dine at a restaurant. But Lebanon already has a key piece of infrastructure needed for the new economy – fiber optic Internet, opening up a host of new opportunities.

It’s too early to tell how this willingness to forge their own way, whether politically or economically, will play out. But as Mayor Chapin observes, “there’s nothing to lose.”

Reporter's Notes

An evening in Lebanon

While taking night shots of Lebanon’s Main Street, I got a reminder of how deep Christianity’s roots are here and how fleeting the exposure to people of other faiths. This encounter has been edited for length and, yes, the man I spoke with was aware he was being recorded and said he didn’t mind.