Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The "Real" America?

The last several weeks have seen an increasingly more vicious ratcheting up of the rhetoric between the campaigns and their surrogates. In particular, comments made by three Republican women over the last 10 or so days has created a controversy . On Thursday of last week, Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin said the following at a campaign rally: "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation". That same day, Representative Michele Bachman, a Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota, said that there were "anti-American" members of Congress, implying that there was a connection between "liberal" and "anti-American". Later that weekend, Nancy Pfotenhauer, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign, referred to the parts of Virginia outside of Northern Virginia as "real Virginia".

All three of these statements, and the defenses made on behalf of them in the subsequent days indicate a dangerous trend in political name-calling. Democrats have gotten used to certain names thrown at them by Republicans (East Coast/West Coast/ Massachusetts Liberal, Big City Boss), but to call the very spaces that they are from "un-American" or not "real" America is to go beyond the pale. It is a new breed of geographic McCarthyism that exacerbates the already tenuous divide between red states and blue states.

What exactly is meant by "real" or "pro-" America? One of my favorite sites for political information, fivethirtyeight.com, provided an interesting demographic definition. Using information from the US Census, statistician Nate Silver looked at the ethnic make-up of the cities visited by Palin and Obama since the time that Palin was announced as the VP nominee. Interestingly enough, most were whiter than the US population as a whole, and most were smaller communities instead of big cities.

Palin, whether she intended to or not, was framing urban America as something not quite "American". Pfotenhauer did likewise by suggesting that Northern Virginia, including the urbanized areas of Arlington and Alexandria, were somehow less Virginian than the rest of the Commonwealth.

The bias against the urban space is not new. From the days of Jefferson, there has been an idealized version of America that focuses on rural and small town life. The Republican party has used anti-urban rhetoric with varying degrees of success over the last 150 years. For example, fear of "urban" Democrat Al Smith was effective in contributing to his loss in the 1928 election. Sometimes the strategy backfires, however. In 1884, The Republican criticism of the Democratic Party as the party of "rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" enraged New York City Catholics to the point that they handed the Republicans their first loss in the presidential race since the Civil War.

Coming from a suburb of a Midwestern city to the BosWash Megalopolis, I have found that the Eastern Seaboard is in no way less "American" than the part of the country I come from. In fact, its heterogeneity and multiplicity of ideas (including some that may occasionally be unpopular) makes it American. The diversity that makes up a place like Northern Virginia speaks to the way that people with different cultural histories can come together and provide individuality within community. Catholics, with our historic American roots in the urban space, know this fact better than others, and should be the first to defend the diversity of the city not as "un-American", but simply a part of the American experience.

As McCain and the Republicans get more desperate, I would anticipate more tactics of this nature. Playing on anti-urban bias, particularly against a candidate who made his political name on the South Side of Chicago, will become a more desirable action as the election draws closer. In an attempt to rally the base, the Republicans will try to play to the apprehension rural and suburban voters have for urban lifestyles. The best we can hope for is that all voters can see beyond the "un-American" label to cast their ballots on the issues.

Alex Pazuchanics

No comments: