Friday, July 01, 2011

Where it comes from

Thank you, Christopher Hitchens:

Where does it come from, this silly and feigned idea that it's good to be able to claim a small-town background? It was once said that rural America moved to the cities as fast as it could, and then from urban to suburban as fast as it could after that. Every census for decades has confirmed this trend. Overall demographic impulses to one side, there is nothing about a bucolic upbringing that breeds the skills necessary to govern a complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease. We need candidates who know about laboratories, drones, trade cycles, and polychrome conurbations both here and overseas. Yet the media make us complicit in the myth—all politics is yokel?—that the fast-vanishing small-town life is the key to ancient virtues.
He's right, but he might have added that being from a small town shouldn't disqualify someone from holding office, either. He might have, that is, if only because that's how some Slate readers appear to have (mis)interpreted it, and readers who think that's what he's getting at will find his argument much easier to dismiss.

Anyway, I'm going to attempt to answer Hitchens's rhetorical question. In America, at least, the small-town candidate ideal comes from several places. One is the obvious - it's about identifying with Non-Flashy America, and thus getting voters who see themselves as normal - and who, whether or not from small towns, associate them with normalcy - to identify with you. Next, it's about claiming a more authentic tie to America than those from big cities could possibly have. Thus "Real America." If doing so is a subtle way of reminding voters that you're not - not ethnically, not culturally - even the tiniest bit Jewish/black/gay/Latino, then all the better. It's this second way that most, I think, relates to the way the rural is or has been valued in European politics.

Finally, and this might be specifically American, emphasizing one's rural roots is a way of showing, in a meritocracy, that one has gone the greatest possible distance, using only one's own efforts and talents. Scrappiness oneupmanship - that same quality that has kids who grew up in Brooklyn Heights claiming "outer-borough" status as a way of making them feel like the fact that they got into Oberlin is an earth-shattering, against-all-odds achievement - is also at work in politics.

While we normally think of politicians' odes to the small town as, well, pro-small-town, the message is actually not so flattering. It's about making the politician look good, and giving him a grand coming-of-age story. But it works, politically, because it speaks to both audiences - those who get warm-and-fuzzy at the mere mention of a town of under 100,000, and those who admire anyone who made it out.


J. Otto Pohl said...


I like NYC. But, I think you need to get out to some of the small towns in America more. The last small town I lived in had a large minority of people of Mexican descent. It was not at all unusual in this demographic.

Many small towns in Arizona, NM, Texas, etc. are effectively bi-cultural. The small town residents of Mexican descent in Arizona generally have a lot more in common with their Anglo neighbors than with Dominicans in NYC or Cubans in Miami.

Where I live now people listen to country music, go to church every Sunday, and drive pick up trucks. A number of them even have nostalgic memories for the Confederacy. The Fante Confederacy, not the CSA. I live outside of Accra, Ghana a large city in West Africa where almost everybody is Black. Yet they have many of the same values as small town residents in the US South.

Phoebe said...

I'm not seeing your criticism/argument here. I am from NYC, as you've picked up on, but have indeed been to small towns in different regions of America, and am aware that they're not exactly like what Palin calls "Real America," and of course that there are Latinos outside big cities, of course there are black people living both in and outside of the U.S., in big towns and small. Where in my post did I suggest otherwise? My point was that politicians who go on about "small towns" speak in coded language to those with hostile feelings towards the euphemistically urban, including, Jews, gays, blacks, and yes, Mexicans.

Nicholas said...

Though I'm somewhat sympathetic to the idea that small-town America's Americanness is overplayed, it's also one of the founding conceptions of the United States, from Jefferson's republic of yeoman farmers on forward. Whether that implies denigration of urban life is the sort of thing that can change over time: I would guess that late-19th century Populism was far worse than contemporary Real Murrica rhetoric if only because no one back then had any problems tying their political arguments to the generally suspect nature of southern and eastern Europeans. Or see also the difficult state politics in New York, Illinois, or Pennsylvania, where the interests of big cities are often (rightly or wrongly) seen to crowd out those of the rest of the state.

All that to say, then, that Hitchens is wrong to the extent he sees the phenomenon as tied up in globalization, etc--all the strictly 20th century (indeed, late 20th century) phenomena; it's older than that. And it's difficult as a normative matter because the debate of which populism serves as one side is in some ways the fundamental debate over what America is, precisely. In a perfect world, of course, everyone would admit the value of both cities and less-urban areas, but then we'd have to find something else to argue about.

Phoebe said...


Is there any country whose origins are not pro-bucolic? Urbanization is relatively new, so that means a whole lot of countries began when all there was to celebrate was farms. And then newer countries came about under various strains of Romanticism - thus Israel with the kibbutz, the valorization of the strapping worker, etc. So if we're looking at the founding of the country to determine its specific character, I'm not sure what pro-rural adds up to. Meaning, I don't know if America's more that way than most.

Re: Hitchens, I'm not sure if he's saying that pro-small-townism is new, even if he didn't state outright (that I recall) that it's old. I read this more as, he's saying this is a particularly absurd time for a pro-small-town moment, given the not-at-all-small-scale concerns of the day. Here, if anything, my disagreement with him was in his slight implication that being from a city means you do know about globalization/technology. Given that growing up in a city just means, for the most part, that the Starbucks you hang out with your friends at is in a densely-populated area...

PG said...

Agreed with Phoebe that most nations have a pro-bucolic tendency. Among relatively-recently post-colonial countries (much of Africa, some of Asia and Latin America), urbanization predates the political nation-state that now exists, but is often associated with the colonizers/imperialists -- that is, city life is a French/Belgian/Dutch construction that violated a Golden Age of rural life in which our people were honest, hardworking and community-oriented, instead of secular and materialistic. On the irreligious side, this ties into Maoist ideas about agriculturalist authenticity.

On the whole, this post and comments reminds me of a parallel critique from The Economist regarding the valorization of small business.

Phoebe said...


"On the whole, this post and comments reminds me of a parallel critique from The Economist regarding the valorization of small business."

Yup! Also Frank Bruni's column on the valorization of large families. It's all about finding shorthand for "wholesome" and "unthreatening." A politician without a gaggle of kids isn't necessarily a sleaze, but we're meant to believe that one with is not.

rshams said...

Agree with you and PG re: historical context, but there seems to be a "practical" component to all the pro-small town rhetoric (in the American case, at least). The first three primary states - Iowa, New Hampshire, and S. Carolina - consist of mainly small towns. So, a lot of the valorization of small towns in modern American political discourse, while having historical precedents and parallels in other aspects of society, may just be plain pandering.

Phoebe said...


Good point!