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Presidential politics: The value of a small-town bio

Presidential contenders often tout their small-town values to reach their big-city dreams.

October 16, 2011|By Paul Waldman

If you've been following the Republican presidential primaries, you've undoubtedly taken in that Rick Perry grew up in the tiny Texas town of Paint Creek. Perry's rural upbringing is a staple of his rhetoric; he often describes his hardscrabble beginnings, how his family didn't have indoor plumbing until he was 5, and how he absorbed the values embraced by the good folks of Paint Creek. The biography page on his website is titled "From a Place Called Paint Creek." Journalists pick up the theme too: The New York Times, CBS News and Bloomberg News have run stories profiling the town.

But even if you're a political junkie, chances are you can't name the town in which Mitt Romney grew up. Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is a tony suburb of Detroit where the streets are clean, the schools are excellent and there are currently 30 houses on the market with asking prices of more than $1 million. It's about where you would have expected a car company chief executive like George Romney to settle his family. Needless to say, his son does not describe how his character was forged by the strong values of Bloomfield Hills when he's out stumping for votes.

We've gotten so used to this difference that we barely expect anything else when we meet a new round of presidential candidates. Candidates from small towns put those towns at the center of their biographies, while the ones who hail from suburbs or cities don't discuss the communities that produced them. You don't remember Barack Obama waxing eloquent about Honolulu (or, heaven forbid, Jakarta, where he spent a few years), because he didn't. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, made the fortuitously named town of Hope, Ark., the symbolic centerpiece of his 1992 campaign. The names of towns such as Midland, Texas; Plains, Ga., and Independence, Mo., are familiar because their favorite sons told of them again and again. Dwight Eisenhower's campaign presented him as "The Man From Abilene" (pop. 6,844), but John F. Kennedy's campaign would never have portrayed their candidate as "The Man From Brookline."

In the world of politics, suburbs are mundane but small towns are romantic. Candidates lucky enough to come from them speak of the values they picked up from their hometowns as if they were mists of virtue, seeping into the bones of all who lived there.

What exactly is it that candidates are attempting to communicate when they tell of their small-town roots? It isn't experience, competence, intelligence or wisdom. It's that set of characteristics that are most central to modern campaigning: affinity and empathy. I'm one of you, the candidate is saying, and I embody the values you like to see in yourself. I understand you, and I haven't forgotten folks like you as I've risen to the heights of power and influence.

The equation of small-town roots with groundedness and empathy is beset with ironies, however. First, most Americans no longer come from small towns where the owner of the general store knows everyone and tractors lumber down Main Street. In the census of 1850, 85% of Americans lived in rural areas. By 1900, that figure had declined to 60%, and in 1950 it was down to 40%. The 2010 census showed the rural population declining to about 16% of the population, or fewer than 1 in 6 of us. No political ad maker shoots 30-second spots romanticizing the suburbs, but that's where a majority of Americans now live. Whoever the candidate from a small town is, in 2011 he's definitely not "us."

The second significant irony in the praise for small-town life is that our campaign narratives assume that an upbringing in a small town connects the candidate to regular folks. But are we really supposed to believe that encountering fewer people in childhood is what leads to greater empathy?

To see what I mean, let's return to Perry's boyhood home of Paint Creek. The town is located in Haskell County, which contains a lonely 6.5 people per square mile. It has a healthy proportion of Latino residents (24%), but there are few African Americans (3.7%) and almost no one of Asian descent. Though the census doesn't ask people about their religious affiliation, chances are there isn't a great deal of religious diversity either.

By comparison, Los Angeles has 7,877 residents per square mile, or more than 1,200 times the density of Haskell County. If you grew up here, you would have had no choice but to encounter all kinds of people in your daily life. You would have crossed paths with rich and poor, immigrants from a hundred lands speaking nearly as many languages, worshipers of all religions and people who work at a thousand occupations. All that diversity may or may not have had a positive impact on your character, but you would be shaped by it no less than someone who comes from a small town, and shouldn't that also be something to celebrate?

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