A note on small towns and national politics

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Mark Thoma has a thoughtful post on the news swirling around the Sarah Palin pick as VP candidate for the GOP. His point is that the Dems risk looking condescending and elitist toward small town America in their attacks on Palin and had better be careful.

I grew up in the big city, but spent most summers in my mother’s small-town Arkansas hometown of Pine Bluff, where on Sunday we all went to church and no alcohol was served anywhere (to my Uncle’s chagrin). It’s not unusual to see most trucks at the local Wal-Mart with gun racks on the back window as they pull in for a day’s outing. Later I went to school in a town of 10,000 in New Hampshire, where dirty baseball caps and Skoal long cut in the back jeans pocket were the usual attire.

In looking at the recent political news out of America from this vantage point, I feel that the Democrats are looking like Big City snobs. While I don’t think Palin is actually the best-qualified person to be on the GOP ticket, her selection is more about John McCain’s judgment and decision-making. Perhaps, the Democrats should start targeting that line of thought rather than tearing down Sarah Palin and small-town America. And, by the way, Palin performed very well last night in her speech.

Here is what Thoma has to say:

When you grow up in a small or mid-sized town, over time you come to realize that people from bigger towns, in general, have a condescending attitude about how and where you grew up. I think it starts to really dawn on you in junior high and high school as you begin interact with kids from bigger cities, and college certainly reinforces this feeling.

You couldn’t possibly be up on the latest cool trends, be as sophisticated, be as savvy, etc., as they are because you grew up out in the sticks.

People who live in these areas are not, however, fools. They think that the people who think this way – the city boys – lack even the basics of common sense, and certainly aren’t as rugged and tough as the country boys. They’d be lost outside the city. And they don’t think these people have anything to brag about in their own lives, not in a relative sense. They have their share of kids out of wedlock, divorces, drug use, whatever. They have absolutely no reason to feel superior to the rest of America, but yet they do. Or that’s how it feels anyway.

This is the feeling Sarah Palin wants to tap into. I haven’t seen the speech as I write this, but I’m guessing it will appeal to this emotion. That’s what the elitism charge is all about, to remind people in these areas that these people think they are better than they are, they look down upon their way of life. (same with the appeal to the devout church-going constituency, I think it’s the lack of respect they feel for their beliefs that is being exploited by the Right’s framing of the issues).

So Democrats have to be very careful not to stoke this emotion as they try and dissuade people from voting the McCain-Palin ticket (assuming it comes to be, which I assume it will). Any hint of condescension for this way of life and the traditions that come along with it will be tapped into and mined to the Republicans advantage.

Kids out of wedlock, divorce, crazy family members, affairs, that’s part of life, and trying to exploit any of that is a mistake. Making a big deal about being from a small town and using that to argue about credentials won’t work. If you grew up outside of a major city, you’re used to being thought of in that way, and they resent it. The target audience for the Palin selection doesn’t think politicians, academics, elites, etc. have any common sense about the world. You hear that over and over, the “anyone with common sense would know” type argument. They want no part of cities and the values they perceive to exist there, that way of life is very alien to them (what’s a community organizer?) They think their way of life is just fine, truth be told better even, the values, the quality of life, all of it, and any suggestion to the contrary will be met with resistance.

I fear that people crafting responses to the Palin selection do not understand this emotion, the lack of respect that people in these areas feel for their lifestyle, their intelligence, their way of life, etc. Attempts to bring down Palin that stoke these emotions will actually bring great sympathy.

Here’s another way of expressing what I’m trying to say.

Learning how to dress a deer in the field is something that happens on a hunting trip with your father, grandfather, uncle, maybe a few of their friends. It’s a family time, a time to bond as “men”, and it’s a tradition that has passed from father to son for as long as you can remember (my mom’s family helped to settle the area of California where I grew up). It’s partly men drinking and telling stories around the fire, partly the serious business of hunting (where alcohol is strictly forbidden). But most importantly it’s a family tradition, something that passes from father to son. You bring deer jerky to school to share with your friends as a symbol that you bagged a deer, that kind of thing. It’s embedded in the culture.

When we make fun of knowing how to field-dress a moose, we are also making fun of the family traditions behind it, and we send the wrong message to this constituency. Sarah Palin will appeal to this group, as well as to all the women who had to stay home while their brothers got to go with dad on these trips. She opens doors for their hopes too.

All I’m saying is that as we frame the response to her, we should do our best to understand the nature of the appeal she is making so as to avoid strategies that may backfire. The group they are appealing to doesn’t want Washington’s money, though that never hurts, they want respect. I think it’s that simple, and responses that don’t give this constituency the respect they believe they are due will likely be counterproductive.

I haven’t spent much time in really big cities, three and a half yeas in San Diego pretty much does it (and that was two different times that were years apart), and I’m a long way from living in a really small town like where I grew up. I live in a somewhat larger area now, around 200,000 total I think, maybe a bit less, but I’ve noticed that once you get outside of the University area and connect with the people who were born and raised here, the values aren’t much different from the small-town values I grew up around, the cultural distance is much closer than it is to, say, Portland or Seattle. I think there is a fairly large constituency here, large enough to pay attention to – it’s not just a bunch of small town folk whose collective numbers are of little relevance to the outcome of the election – and paying more attention to, and showing more respect for, the cultural values and traditions this group holds could make a big difference.

But I’m biased, and you can take or leave what I have to say. San Diego was great, I learned to surf when I was there a few years ago and that was really cool, but a life of crowded freeways never quite felt like home.

Source
Small Towns and Big Time Politics, Economist’s View

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