ColumnThe New Mythology

The Myth of Small-Town Virtues in Big-Country Politics

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Once, years ago, I was sitting on a plane next to someone from Los Angeles, making conversation, when they asked where I was from. I told them that I lived in Missouri and they paused, their brow furrowing in clear confusion and wonderment until they eventually asked me: “… What do you do there?”

To clarify, they weren’t asking what I do for a job. They were asking what there is to do there, what activities I had available to fill the long and presumably dull hours spent living in Missouri. One of the side effects of living in the middle of the country is that people who live in major cities along the coasts often scoff at the people who don’t. Most of the time, we’re referred to as “cow country,” “flyover country,” or other monikers that all carry the same message: There’s nothing to do in the Midwest but sit around and watch the corn grow.

Not now, though. Now that the presidential primaries are in full swing, Midwesterners get to enjoy a special thing that only happens once every four years: All the most important figures in American politics are coming together to announce, constantly and loudly, how great everybody in the Midwest is. Suddenly, we are the creamy middle of America, and the “coastal elites” are just so much dry cookie.

“We need Washington to look more like our small towns, not the other way around,” is the proclamation from candidate Pete Buttigieg, who leans heavily on his Midwestern heritage when he talks on the campaign trail.

In a campaign field choked with New Yorkers, it’s an easy argument for Pete to make, but he by no means has a monopoly on such rhetoric. Four years ago, Donald Trump made a similar argument when introducing “small-town” Mike Pence, who also hails from Indiana. Years before that, Sarah Palin traveled around the country touting the small-town values of “real Americans” in places like her home state of Alaska.

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Every election cycle, politicians from both sides of the aisle try to shore up their support with Americans by trying to tap into a deep well of goodwill Americans have for small towns, with their simpler lives, their old-fashioned manners, their family values, their work ethics.

Typically, when a large group of people get together to talk about how great I am, I accept it, naturally, as the universe finally making sense. But generally there is more to it than that.

If you look back, American mythology is filled to bursting with examples of this same belief, the idea that small-town Americans from rural areas are just better than other people.

You see it in Luke Skywalker. He’s not American but both created and portrayed by one, and he grows up on a simple farm doing chores for his aunt and uncle, providing the moral bedrock needed to master the Force and topple empires. The first stop on his journey of discovery is what passes for the “big city” on Tatooine, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” where everyone is out to get you, giant slugs run organized crime, and even the popular music is called “jizz.”

The contrast is stark and obvious: There are good and pure farm boys from the country like Luke, and there are slick city boys like Han Solo. By the end of the movie, it’s Luke’s goodness that rubs off on Han — goodness earned from a lifetime of repairing moisture vaporators for Uncle Owen.

Or take an even more American tale of rural goodness, The Wizard of Oz, where a Kansas farm girl gets whisked away to a magical land and ends up fixing everything through Midwestern pluck and a good heart. The Wizard of Oz has been interpreted by some as a political allegory, with Dorothy representing the entire Midwest with her simple morals (the yellow-brick road supposedly being about monetary policy) that she brings to the Emerald City (Washington D.C.) to set everybody straight.

Yellow Brick Road economic politics

Or consider the most Midwestern Midwesterner of all, Clark Kent. An all-powerful alien creature who not only fell out of the sky but did so without a green card, Kent should represent all that is terrifying to red-blooded Americans. But Superman’s creators knew how to make Kent seem as good and pure and trustworthy as could be: have him grow up on a farm, raised by simple Kansas farmers, absorbing all that “truth, justice, and the American way” we’ve heard so much about.

And as soon as he was old enough, Clark headed off to the Big City, because there’s no need for Superman in Kansas. Everybody is already great there, so it’s time for him to bring his simple Midwestern values to a place where they’re sorely lacking and desperately needed.

Of course, anybody who has ever lived in a big city knows firsthand that big cities are just as full of great people with strong characters as anywhere else. And anybody who has ever lived in a small town knows firsthand that they’re just as packed with assholes as anywhere else. People are the same all over, by and large, and no particular geographic area can lay claim to having the best morals or purest-hearted people.

So where did this come from?

Like a lot of things in America, this got started because of money, power, and votes. In the early days, when we were figuring out how this whole “democracy” thing was going to work, it was an open question who was going to be allowed to vote. Famously, women and most black people didn’t make the cut in the end, and we had to go back to the drawing board quite a few more times over the run of American history to correct that.

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And originally, one of the things the Founding Fathers were fairly divided on was whether or not people who didn’t own land should be allowed to vote. When debating what they called “universal suffrage,” many of our most prominent figures believed that people should only be allowed to help decide the fate of our country if they owned a small piece of it.

One of the big proponents of this was Thomas Jefferson, who said a lot of very-familiar-sounding stuff about how great simple farmers were: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”

Jefferson was not referring to “subsistence farmers,” the sort of people who grew crops to feed their families through the winter. He was talking about sprawling plantations, wealthy landowners who were essentially mini Monsantos dotting the landscape. “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”

Of course, it’s not enough to make the countryside look good and virtuous and appealing: You’ve gotta make the cities look bad, too. “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become corrupt as in Europe,” Jefferson also said.

Basically, people who owned property were good, and people who rented — like a lot of the people I know, and probably a lot of the people you know or have known, too — were bad. Most of the people I’ve known in my life wouldn’t have been allowed to vote under this system, and neither would I.

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Jefferson failed in his quest to keep poor people from voting, but he did succeed in helping to ingrain a vision of country folk into the American consciousness, leaving behind a pervasive belief in the virtues of the “simple life.”

In the last two hundred years the fate of the farmer has flipped somewhat. Most farming is now accomplished by big agri-business ventures, and the idea of the “family farm” is slipping further into the past. When in Jefferson’s time most of the country folk he was talking about were wealthy “job creators,” nowadays a lot of rural areas have a real problem with poverty.

But because Jefferson failed in his quest to keep poor people from voting, every four years those poor people become a very valuable source of votes. So somewhat ironically, the myth Jefferson created about the virtues and values of rural Americans is still very useful to this day — he didn’t succeed in using it to block people from voting, but politicians today often succeed in using it to get people to vote the way they want.

So there you have it: You probably didn’t think there was a topic that could combine Thomas Jefferson, Sarah Palin, and Superman together into one unified field theory of American presidential politics, but I’m just that good. Maybe Mayor Pete is right about me, after all.

About the author

Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly is a writer based in St. Louis. He quotes Galaxy Quest too much.