Last month, when John McCain announced his running mate, every media outlet in the country simultaneously asked, “Who is Sarah Palin?” Meanwhile, in the bars, coffee shops, and feed stores of small-town America the news was met with smiles and nods. Residents living outside the glare of big-city lights didn’t have to wonder who she was because they already know her: Sarah Palin is just like every other small-town girl.
That affinity is something the mainstream media is still trying to understand. They’re sitting in their gleaming office towers in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta and trying, desperately trying, to understand how Palin — a working mother from a state thousands of miles from the heartland — could hold such appeal for stoic small-town residents.
In this election small-town folks have been called mistrustful and stranger-fearing “typical white people.” Yet as every one of Palin’s campaign appearances has shown, small-town America loves Sarah Palin. Perhaps one reason the MSM doesn’t understand this affinity is that they’ve bought into pop culture’s depiction of small-town residents as tooth-sucking bumpkins who, when not watching NASCAR in our “wife-beater” tank tops with our mouths hanging open, rumble around on dirt roads in beat-up pickup trucks featuring gun racks.
We know better. We know that Sarah Palin, with her naughty librarian vibe, looks just like the girl who sat next to us in school. We know a woman fond of moose stew reflects not only her love of hunting but the same kind of practicality we live with, and we probably have a recipe much like hers. We also know that, when she spoke about small towns and those who live in them, she was speaking from experience and not as some Ivy League-educated globetrotter who thinks our way of life and our values make us bitter.
So the question mainstream media should have been asking is not “Who is Sarah Palin?” but, rather, “Who are these small-town people?” And since I, as a small-town resident, don’t have to waste precious hours sitting in rush-hour traffic so I can get home in time to change clothes and go club-hopping at all of the trendiest venues, I might as well sit on down and explain a few things to the big-city folk who’ll probably get to wondering come election day how the heck an aging and mostly liberal Republican and a hockey mom wearing $89 shoes stomped all over a chardonnay-sipping opportunistic elitist.
Small-town folks value straight talk
“I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”
— Harry S Truman
When Governor Palin took to the podium last Wednesday she talked about her roots and her family, introducing her children and talking about her role on the PTA. She referred to her husband as “my guy” and admitted she calls him “the First Dude.” She laid into Barack Obama so candidly and forcefully that disgruntled liberals whined that the only reason McCain put her on the ticket was that “she’s a woman and she isn’t afraid to engage in the Republicans’ mean-spirited personal attacks.”
Immediately, as Charles Martin notes while separating Palin facts and fiction, people began wondering whether her speech was off the cuff. (It was scripted, just as all political acceptance speeches are.) As she reminded the country that Obama is a senator who’s had time to author two memoirs but not a single piece of major legislation, she sounded like she could have easily been talking, not to an audience of 37 million, but to a group of fellow hockey moms or even just her best friend.
Lacking John Kerry or Ted Kennedy’s flat Bostonian Rs, or Hillary Clinton’s gut-bellowing theatrical oratory style, Palin didn’t speak in lofty tones or utter grand abstractions. She didn’t sound like a politician, but she sure as hell sounded like a person, saying the very things about Barack Obama that many small-town folks think, too. If Obama’s supporters consider her remarks harsh because they revealed him as the man behind the curtain, perhaps they’d do well to remember another word often used in conjunction with “harsh”: reality.
In a small town, you are what you do
“In the small town each citizen had done something in his own way to build the community.”
— Daniel Boorstin
When you come from a small town the mayor’s not someone you only know from television news. Chances are your town isn’t big enough to have its own station. The mayor might very well be someone you grew up with or the mother of your kid’s classmates. Mayors, you realize, are just neighbors contributing to the same community you live in; they just get paid for it — and sometimes they’re even civic-minded enough to refuse offers of a higher salary, as Palin did.
Small-town residents are, in a sense, all “community organizers.” When someone takes over the local paper and ditches coverage of community events in favor of national news, we roll up our shirt sleeves, raise funds, and launch our own newspaper. When one of our own gets injured and insurance runs out we raise money to help pay her medical expenses. If the town’s park grows shabby and the playground equipment’s outdated, we pitch in for renovations and updates.
But you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that helping clean up asbestos qualifies them for the presidency, and that’s why small-town residents throughout the country chuckled when Sarah Palin made light of Barack Obama’s audacity for thinking his community efforts entitle him to the highest office in the land.
Small-town people understand that life happens, despite our best hopes and plans
“If nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen, then you don’t live in a small town.”
There’s no problem faced by big cities that small towns don’t share, aside from crowding. The thing is, when you live in a small town, the cause of the problem might very well be your neighbor or, at the least, someone your neighbor is friends with.
Small towns, unfortunately, deal with immigration raids as well as domestic violence and murder. Even in small towns, predators try to abduct children and some force children to do unspeakable acts. Once unthinkable even after Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood chronicled the brutal murders of a Hutchinson, Kansas, farmer’s family, drug-fueled killing sprees happen in small towns, too.
So Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter got knocked up by her longtime boyfriend who’s now her fiancé? Big deal. It beats having 16 of her small-town friends form some kind of pregnancy pact so they could raise their babies with hers like the girls of little Gloucester, Massachusetts, did. Besides, as one person has pointed out, if every woman who was pregnant at her wedding voted for McCain, it’ll be a landslide.
Small towns grow strong women
“I just owe almost everything to my father and it’s passionately interesting for me that the things that I learned in a small town, in a very modest home, are just the things that I believe have won the election.”
— Margaret Thatcher
Women in small towns aren’t the pampered, spray-tanned, gym-rat trophy wives of Orange County. Many of them work, whether that means running the combine while their husbands walk the rows, manning the farmer’s market stand selling off extra produce, or serving as the “mom” part in the local “mom and pop” store. Sometimes, like Sarah Palin, they become mayors and later governors. Sometimes, as in the case of Margaret Thatcher, they become prime ministers. So when it comes to questioning whether a woman can juggle work and motherhood, small-town women know the answer is “Yes, we can!”
So when it comes to Sarah Palin, and the surge she’s brought to the McCain-Palin ticket that supporters of Obama refuse to recognize, people in small towns get it. When you come from a small town, and whether you agree with her or not, it’s hard to deny the fact that Sarah Palin is just like you or someone you know. And we in small towns like it when one of our own makes good.