Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tea-Party and the Small-Town Myth.

One of the usual features of American political campaigns is the insistence on a connection to small-town America even though most voters live either in the cities or the suburbs. As this McClatchy article shows the Republicans launched their campaigns by conveying a picture of “real America” that draws on the imagery of the small town. For Michele Bachmann, it is the place where “we work hard” and “don't spend more money than what we take in”. For Rick Perry, rural life is “centered on hard work, and on faith and on thrift”. Even the president proclaimed that the true values of America are to be found in small towns when he visited one of them in Iowa on his bus tour : 

"You know how to make it through a hard season. You know how to look out for each other in the face of drought or tornadoes or disasters, looking out for each other until we reach a brighter day. That ethic, that kind of honor and self-discipline and integrity, those are the values that we associate with small towns like this one. Those are the values that built America."

This ideal small-town America is a fiction that has been used extensively by American politicians and US presidents in their speeches. The McClatchy article clearly demonstrates why it is a fiction, but it also implies that such a perfect place did exist once (but it is "no longer true"). In doing so, it may unwillingly be feeding the myth and re-enforce it - after all, if it was true once, it may be true again. 
Indeed both politicians and the media have actually turned the ideal small town into a myth by treating it as both sacred and true.  In "The Reagan Range: the Nostalgic Myth in American Politics" James Combs shows how it has been linked to the “nostalgic myth” in American politics. It is also rooted in the myth of the good community, à la Rockwell. It is about paradise lost and regained, about youth (innocence lost) and not maturity. It is what Combs called an "unusable past" and particularly appeals to the past oriented people who believe in a story of descent – typically the Tea Party. 
The “Take OUR country BACK” motto of Tea Party leaders such as Sarah Palin (here) or Michele Bachmann (here) is typical of nostalgic rhetoric. It is based on a desire to return to an undefined past (we never know when that past really was) which never existed - an ideal place of innocence. More importantly it also about a sense of dispossession (“OUR country”) and loss of power. It is thus not surprising that Tea Party supporters tend to be wealthier white, male, married and older than 45. (NYTimes poll) They are disenchanted with the world and their lives and have the feeling that they may be losing control. Typically, the more active people are in the Tea-Party movement, the more pessimistic they tend to be about the present and the future (CBS Poll)- hence the anger and the desire to find refuge in the comforting past. The new changing reality becomes so hard to deal with that re-empowerment becomes necessary through what might be called a “re-enchantment” of the world. The popularity of a rhetoric of simple answers echoes the longing for what is perceived as a more simple time, typical of small-town America when simple answers seemed to solve problems. Some could argue this is not so typical of the American mindset which tends to be more future oriented, but it is typical of times of major social changes such as these. 
The small-town myth may be better understood in its implied opposition to the city myth. The opposition between cities and towns became acute in the 1920s when a major demographic shift took place - more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas. Small-town America became a popular myth in that period as the city represented the OTHER - be it the immigrant, the black, the ‘hobo’, the ‘flappers’, the drinker, etc....whereas the Town represented the proper WASP majority. The dichotomy between cities and towns thus became religious in nature, in its opposition between good and evil, between corruption and innocence. There again, you have the myth of a paradise lost. 
It is also in the 1920s that the suburbs started to emerge  - primarily thanks to new availability of cheap cars such as the Model T - but it was also an attempt at recreating "small-town America" with its controlled nature, its openness and community oriented environment - even though, contrary to towns, it had no center. Essentially the suburb has been about people living among their peers, and excluding the threatening Other who lives in the city. It makes life very simple as you do not have to deal with the complexity of facing the unknown, the stranger and those who are different from your own kind, either socially or racially. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in wanting to be with your own kind but the result is a lack of exposure that encourages bias. In this regard, suburban life makes life seem so much more simple and the myth of an enchanted simple world thus seemed within reach. This is where the Tea Party electorate tends to reside in suburbs and why the small-town America myth is so appealing to them and has the tone of credibility. 
In many ways, we may live in times similar to those of the late 19th century and 1920s with many technological, economic and social changes that people are not ready to cope with. Myth meets the need for a simpler narrative in a world that has become too complex, and that's exactly what the Tea Party has been providing them. Unfortunately, this is based on fear and the exclusion of what is different, which may be why President Barack Obama has become the target of so much of that anger.

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