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.