Irony and small towns on the campaign trail

The Republican convention, having now departed our city, left a lot to mull over. Perhaps most interesting was the role given to Gov. Sarah Palin as ambassador of small-town virtue and small-town grit. She is now, as her speechwriters specified, our new hockey mom and pit bull in lipstick. Like a rock she stands against the elitism and guile of metropolitan America.

This is apparently the outline for the next 60 days: small town against big city, talk radio and Fox News against “mainstream media,” heartland against elite. The campaign “is going to be fought in cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 residents,” GOP pollster Frank Luntz told reporters. “Instead of going to Detroit and Cleveland, you’re going to see [the Republican ticket] a lot more in the small towns.”

Luntz is not exactly a small-town guy talking from the cracker barrel; he’s one of Washington’s elite public-opinion analysts, a man who knows how to calculate the exact precincts — and resentments — on which Palin and Sen. John McCain should invest their time.

Probing the open sore of rural against urban isn’t exactly new. From the Republic’s earliest days, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton presented a town-and-country contrast, with Jefferson’s argument for agrarian virtue winning the American heart. But Hamilton’s cities prevailed in reality, overcoming the crowding, the bad sanitation and the immigrant cacophony to become the generators of American commercial and creative influence in the world. It was New York and Hollywood that won the day, not Wasilla, Alaska.

Migratory life: ‘the price of getting ahead’
In his 1995 book, “The Revolt of the Elites,” Christopher Lasch chronicled the movement of talent and ambition from country to city in the last quarter of the 20th century. “Success has never been so widely associated with mobility,” he wrote. “Ambitious people understand that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead. It is a price they gladly pay, since they associate the idea of home with intrusive relatives and neighbors, small-minded gossip, and hidebound conventions. The new elites are in revolt against ‘Middle America,’ as they imagine it: technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.”

The new elites turn their backs on the heartland, said Lasch, and “cultivate ties to the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all.”

Many of those left behind in small towns, however, carry resentments every bit as obnoxious. Barack Obama was not wrong about small-town people coping with uncertain times by clinging narrowly to guns and religion; he was simply wrong to say it out loud. Now, with an election hanging in the balance, Obama stands to pay a political price.

What’s new in all of this are the layers of comic deceit. One group of big-city elites (Republican) is playing small-town voters as pawns against another group of big-city elites (Democrat). It’s a cynical ploy that many small-town voters never seem to recognize because — and this has become an important point — they lack a full sense of irony.

A big difference between red and blue
A well-developed sense of irony is one of the big differences between red and blue. When Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart dispatched a “reporter” to interview Republican delegates about what exactly constitutes small-town values, some were stumped; others were profoundly earnest in their replies. They seemed not to get the fact that their earnestness is both comic and tragic, coming as part of a script written by slick people in order to get their votes.

It’s not that small-town people are dull-witted. It’s just that their sense of humor fails to include the absurd. If you don’t believe me, check the popularity of comics like Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Stewart, himself, in various media markets. What’s funny in blue America falls totally flat in places where the McCain-Palin ticket plans to spend most of its time.

And so McCain can say with a straight face that he’s an agent for change even though his recent political career and voting record have held fast to the administration’s line and even though his remedies are drawn from a Republican boilerplate that has failed spectacularly on the economic and foreign-policy fronts.

And McCain and other GOP leaders can defend without laugher the vice-presidential selection  on the basis of Palin’s experience as a small-town mayor and her state’s geographic abutment (sort of) to Russia.

And Palin herself can tour rural Wisconsin and Michigan as an enemy of earmarks after plotting to collect $27 million worth of them for Alaska. She can also pass herself off as a pillar of small-town virtue and a hockey mom (whose 17-year-old daughter, by the way, just became pregnant by a high-school hockey player) without a hint of irony attached.

Remarkable, but sad and ironic
Even McCain’s own remarkable life story, his courage and inner strength as a POW and his status as a true war hero is, upon deeper reflection, a sad and ironic tale because many people then and almost everyone now, in big towns and small, considers the Vietnam War a tragic mistake.

“Laughter through tears” explains the ironic reaction of many blue-state Americans to the Republican convention, but the same irony doesn’t apply in the redder precincts.

“I’ve had the privilege to live most of my life in small towns,” Palin said at the convention, and will continue to say on the campaign trail as if it, in itself, is a qualification. It’s a short sentence brimming with meaning.

Populist anger or tactical pose?
Democrats interpret the small-town emphasis as a restart of the culture wars that dominated Republican politics a decade ago. But what was once an authentic expression of populist anger now seems more like a tactical pose.

“Then the ascendant right wing was really looking to change America by steamrolling out of the country people whom they felt like were anathema to their idea of American values. Now, there is a more self-conscious sense that they are saying they want to do that so as to create a divide in the electorate that they can exploit for political gain,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a liberal commentator who gets her own show on the cable network starting tonight.

The problem for the Democrats is that, even as 80 percent of people continue to see the country on the wrong track, they are now running behind in the popular vote. A newly energized Republican base has pushed McCain from a six-point deficit to a four-point lead, 50-46 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll.

Worse for the Democrats, the electoral map has begun to resemble the 2004 version. Four years ago, the election came down to a handful of small towns in southern Ohio. If those and other small towns vote their pocketbooks, Obama should rally to win. If they hold to their cultural roots, McCain should win. Maybe the final ironic joke is really on the Democrats: Small towns aren’t so small after all.

Steve Berg reports on a variety of topics for MinnPost, including urban design, transportation, national politics and world affairs. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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