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The Political Clout of Small Towns

At Economist’s View, Mark Thoma gives an eloquent explanation for why Democrats should think carefully about responding to the charge that they’re condescending toward small-town American values. Thoma, a University of Oregon economics professor, grew up in a small town in California.

To him, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is tapping into something real when she talks about small towns, and Democrats should be thoughtful in the way they counter her comments.

From Thoma:

When you grow up in a small or mid-sized town, over time you come to realize that people from bigger towns, in general, have a condescending attitude about how and where you grew up. I think it starts to really dawn on you in junior high and high school as you begin interact with kids from bigger cities, and college certainly reinforces this feeling. You couldn’t possibly be up on the latest cool trends, be as sophisticated, be as savvy, etc., as they are because you grew up out in the sticks. People who live in these areas are not, however, fools. They think that the people who think this way - the city boys - lack even the basics of common sense, and certainly aren’t as rugged and tough as the country boys. They’d be lost outside the city. And they don’t think these people have anything to brag about in their own lives, not in a relative sense. They have their share of kids out of wedlock, divorces, drug use, whatever. They have absolutely no reason to feel superior to the rest of America, but yet they do. Or that’s how it feels anyway.

Thoma goes on to explain the importance of the culture of hunting, and the need to acknowledge that:

Learning how to dress a deer in the field is something that happens on a hunting trip with your father, grandfather, uncle, maybe a few of their friends. It’s a family time, a time to bond as “men”, and it’s a tradition that has passed from father to son for as long as you can remember (my mom’s family helped to settle the area of California where I grew up). It’s partly men drinking and telling stories around the fire, partly the serious business of hunting (where alcohol is strictly forbidden). But most importantly it’s a family tradition, something that passes from father to son. You bring deer jerky to school to share with your friends as a symbol that you bagged a deer, that kind of thing. It’s embedded in the culture.

When we make fun of knowing how to field-dress a moose, we are also making fun of the family traditions behind it, and we send the wrong message to this constituency. Sarah Palin will appeal to this group, as well as to all the women who had to stay home while their brothers got to go with dad on these trips. She opens doors for their hopes too. All I’m saying is that as we frame the response to her, we should do our best to understand the nature of the appeal she is making so as to avoid strategies that may backfire. The group they are appealing to doesn’t want Washington’s money, though that never hurts, they want respect. I think it’s that simple, and responses that don’t give this constituency the respect they believe they are due will likely be counterproductive.

Small town values versus the big city elites was a major theme in last night’s speech. Thoma offers some useful cautionary advice on tackling this question in a political campaign.

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