I Was Born in a Small Town ... but I Left

Over the weekend I had a piece in the Los Angeles Times arguing that there's something wrong with the fact that candidates who grew up in small towns tout their roots, but those who grew up in the cities or suburbs -- where most Americans actually live -- never do. Here's an excerpt:

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?

I don't mean to pick on Rick Perry, but as I say in the piece, it's no wonder that he left Paint Creek, where there are only 6.5 people per square mile. An ambitious young man could hardly do otherwise. If it was really such a fantastic place, he'd still live there. But he doesn't. Nor did Bill Clinton settle in Hope, Arkansas, nor Bob Dole in Russell, Kansas. One day, we'll have a candidate who extols the terrific values and lessons she learned growing up in the city. But for the moment, we hold on to this romantic, and mistaken, view of small-town life as the source of all virtue.