America is a suburban nation: more than 50% live in the suburbs, roughly 30% live in cities, and about 20% live in small towns or rural communities. Despite these demographics, this article suggests that politicians still frequently draw on the idea of small town values:
American politics may live in the cities and suburbs — but it dreams in small towns.
More than a century after the American people migrated from the farms to the cities and then to the suburbs, the image of small-town America endures as the birthplace of solid character and sound values. In the gauzy image of politics, as in popular culture dating back more than a century, small-town America is a place where the people go to church, work hard and help one another in ways unknown in the cities and suburbs of America…
Still, politicians love to wrap themselves in the sentimental image.
“The people still have the same spirit in Waterloo that Iowans have always come to exemplify. We work hard. We don’t spend more money than what we take in,” Bachmann said in Waterloo, where she was born.
Perry wears his childhood in Paint Creek, Texas, as a badge of honor. “Doesn’t have a zip code. It’s too small to be called a town,” he said during a recent visit to Waterloo. “What I learned growing up on the farm was a way of life that was centered on hard work, and on faith and on thrift.”
Obama can’t claim a childhood in a small town — he was born in Honolulu. But he, too, reveled in small-town values during his recent Midwest bus tour.
So while Americans may no longer live in small towns, they want to hold on to particular characteristics such as hard work, community, and religious values. These are symbolic values, perhaps even more so than actual actions that people carry out. (There is often a disconnect between what people say they believe and what they actually do.) And, of course, people may want to hold on to these values but they don’t necessarily want to live in the places where these values arose.
This reminds me of a theory I have had about the popularity of American suburbs: they are a uniquely American adaptation that combines some of city and rural life. This is about perceptions. On the rural side, suburbs still offer lawns, single-family homes, good schools, safety, and community life. On the city side, suburbs have easier access to the city, more cultural amenities, more jobs, are more open-minded, and more opportunities over all. Suburbs don’t really offer the best of either of these worlds but offer some of both, allowing Americans to straddle these two worlds.
A question: how difficult is it for Americans to elect urban politicians to higher office (particularly compared to more rural candidates), candidates who would portray themselves solely as a city dweller and act like city dwellers? Perhaps Barack Obama is the closest we have come to this but because of political realities has primarily tried to appeal to working and middle-class suburbanites who may just swing the election.