Friday, September 19, 2008

SMALL TOWN AMERICA


An oft-repeated theme in this year's election is the virtue of small-town Americans. One of oldest themes in American political and cultural history, the notion that small towns are repositories of all that is good, true, moral, and American continues to resonate. Echoing Richard Nixon's pitch to small-town voters in his "silent majority" campaign (Nixon himself was a product of little Whittier, California), John McCain and Sarah Palin have touted "small town values" on the campaign trail. As Palin stated in her acceptance speech: "'We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.' I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman. I grew up with those people. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America ... who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars." (Note to reader: big cities = lazy, consumers not producers, shirkers not workers, naysayers not patriots).

I thought of Palin's speech this morning as I spent an hour walking the streets of Newark, Ohio, the county seat of Licking County, a town of about 47,000 people that has seen better days. Founded in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Newark's architecture reflects its late nineteenth and early twentieth century prosperity. Among the town's real treasures, The Home Building Association, a jewel box of bank (now vacant) built by the great architect Louis Sullivan in 1914.

The Louis Sullivan building is one reminder of how the Republican tribunes of small-town glory have it wrong. They emphasize the virtues of small rather than the virtues of town. The Home Building Association building reflects the cosmopolitan aspirations of small-town America, the attempt to be something greater than itself. Nearly a century ago, Newarkers were proud to imagine themselves as a city.



But life in small-town America today is less. There is an anomie in many of the small towns I have visited in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. These are places that have lost population and jobs, whose downtowns have been gutted by the expansion of Walmarts and suburban shopping centers, and where politics can be narrow and nasty. (The stories of Palin's reign in Wasilla give the lie to the images of small town politics as uplifting). One of the synomyms for small is petty. And there is a pettiness, a parochial localism, in small towns that gets lost in our romantic evocations of Elm Street.

Newark is one of those towns that has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Like many Rustbelt towns, its economy is dependent on manufacturing, but it has been hit badly in recent years. Licking County is not one of Ohio's worst-off areas: its current unemployment rate is 6.6 percent. But you can see the effects of the downturn in the shabby houses along the once-grand Hudson Street just a short walk from downtown. It's the sort of place where the Democrats should find a ready audience among folks burned by declining incomes, the stagnant housing market, rising gas prices, and insecurity.

But Licking County is a solidly Republican place: its voters pulled the lever by large margins for George W. Bush in 2000 and again in 2004. As I walked past the Newark Republican Party headquarters this morning, the McCain/Palin signs dimmed my morning cheer. Their campaign represents the worst of small-town politics: narrowly-defined local interest and the sanctimony of the small. And it doesn't offer much to small-town residents other than a boost of self-esteem that the candidates "know them" and "are one of them." And it doesn't offer much for the Newarks of America, big or small, that are the places left behind in the global economy. It's time to think big.