Thursday, October 23, 2008

Loving America Means Having Small-Town Values

There's a lot of talk this election about anti-Obama dog-whistles and coded racial language.

But this essay by Rosa Brooks, on Sarah Palin's recent "pro-America" commnents, really got me thinking:

According to Sarah Palin, she and John McCain "believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hardworking, very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."

Um, very, um. ... Yeah....

The GOP code isn't hard to crack: There's the America that might vote for Obama (a suspect America populated by people with liberal notions, big-city ways and, no doubt, dark skin), and then there's the "real" America, where people live in small towns, believe in God and country, and are ... well ... white.
I sometimes don't know what it is with lefttists, but for conservatives to speak of traditional values - heartland values - as racist by default is bothersome, if not sickening.

Brooks notes this interesting statistic in making the case against small-town values:

About 80% of Americans live in metropolitan areas, not small towns. A third of us are ethnic and racial minorities, but that's changing: Already,nearly 45% of children under 5 are minorities. Although 88%of us believe in God, 70% think that religions other than our own are equally valid routes to truth. And while 59% of us think that wearing an American flag pin is a decent way to show patriotism, even more of us (66%) think that protesting U.S. policies we oppose is a good way to show patriotism. These days, more than half of us say we prefer the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

Given this, why do McCain, Palin and their team keep pushing the message that the America where most of the electorate lives isn't "real"?
Eighty percent of Americans live in the cities?

That sounds like an awfully high number, so I checked around: The left-wing Brookings Institution published a piece a couple of weeks back seeking to debunk Palin's talk of "small-town America." The essay, "
A Small-Town or Metro Nation?", has this:

Wasilla, Alaska, is currently the most famous small town in America, thanks to its former mayor Sarah Palin. A healthy part of her appeal is that she seems to embody small-town values, nurtured in Wasilla and America's other hamlets and burgs. As she said in her firecracker acceptance speech, small-town people live lives of "honesty, sincerity, and dignity" and "do some of the hardest work in America."

Palin was tapping into a widespread belief that small-town America represents the country at large. In April 2008, as the Democratic primary contest ground through Pennsylvania, Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal declared that "Rural and small-town voters are the best indicators of whether a candidate is connecting with the values of Middle America. 'They are America,' says Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. ... 'If you can speak to [them], then you relate to the rest of America.'"

But the idea that we are a nation of small towns is fundamentally incorrect. The real America isn't found in cities or suburbs or small towns, but in the metropolitan areas or "metros" that bring all these places into economic and social union. Palin's positioning may appeal to a certain nostalgia that Americans have about small-town life, but the Manichean dichotomy of city versus small town (not to mention "urban" candidate versus "rural" one) no longer describes the radically connected and interdependent way Americans live and work....

Two-thirds of our population lives in the top 100 metropolitan areas, and 84 percent of Americans live in all 363 metros. Being in a metro means being tied to someplace else; the Census Bureau defines metropolitan areas as a city of 50,000 or more, plus the adjacent counties that have close social and economic ties to the urban core.
There's a big problem with this analysis.

It's a longstanding truism of American politics that culture is language, or more specifically, an epistemic language of cultural identity defines the political orientation of ideological communities.

Conservative have long spoken in terms of "race, rights, and taxes," which fulfilled the normative function of deligitmizing Democratic Party welfare politics as outside the mainstream of American values. Was there a racial component to this? Perhaps. But more importantly, to the extent there's been a legitimate element of race in politics, the larger opposition to the entitlement, big-government agenda that goes along with it remains the driving spur of socio-cultural affirmation for those on the political right.

Bill Clinton knew this when
he dissed Sister Soljah in 1992 and passed welfare reform in 1996. Hillary Clinton knew this during the primaries that Barack Obama was having difficulties "among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans," that is, traditional white working-class constituencies.

So, the question is not how many people live in defined urban/rural and metropolitan/nonmetropolitan census tracks. It's the types of values people adopt, which are less contingent on geographic space than the predominant socio-cultural attributes and traditions that define traditional heartland communities.

Geoff Nunberg argues, America has been urbanizing for over 100 years, but we still love our small-town - "mainstreet" - values:
When Sarah Palin calls herself a main streeter, she isn't saying just that she's ordinary or middle-class. She's suggesting that her small-town background has given her a special insight into our core values -- she can see America from her window. In response, Joe Biden pumps up his own Main Street cred by mentioning his frequent trips to Home Depot and his youth in Scranton and a Delaware steel town.

In the introduction to his novel, Sinclair Lewis wrote that Main Street is "our comfortable tradition and sure faith." That hasn't changed; 80 years after it was coined, "Wall Street vs. Main Street" is still a potent political slogan. We still feel the need to write our moral differences
on our geography, so we can put some literal distance between ourselves and the bad guys.
The problem for the Democratic-left is not so much that Sarah Palin campaigns on a platform appealing to "small-town" values. It's that the Democratic Party is explicitly hostile to those values, and its advocates are relegated to citing raw numbers of urban dwellers rather than recognizing that while you can take a country boy to the city, but you can't take the country out of the boy.