Dangerous Liaison? Palin and Rural America

Of course rural America is not monolithic. But what will the rest of the country think if the Alaska governor becomes the de facto spokesperson for rural?

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In his popular weekly essay New York Times columnist Frank Rich positions retiring Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a voice of rural America, if not its de facto spokesperson or even leader. (See Rich’s column here.) 

“Palin’s self-proclaimed representation of the ‘real America’ was accepted as a given, as if white rural America actually still was the nation’s baseline,” Rich writes.

The notion of Palin, who is preparing for increased visibility with a book deal and time for the speaking circuit and Iowa (in the 2010 and 2012 campaign seasons), as a representative of rural America is troubling. At a time when we need to be developing coalitions, building on connections with changing demographics, Palin would function as a marginalizer extraordinaire.

“The danger for small towns and rural areas is that you get broken away from coalitions and relationships with people from other areas,” says veteran Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt. “Rural areas have to build coalitions because we are a declining demographic.”

While we have some iconic voices in the U.S. Senate, Schmidt said rural America’s influence is waning in politics. For example, he expects Iowa to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House after the new Census count. “We need to make sure we aren’t essentially marginalized,” Schmidt said.

Yes, Palin draws support from rural areas. But we are certainly no monolith. Parts of Western Iowa have gone for both liberal firebrand U.S. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and rock-ribbed conservative U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, in recent elections.

When people think of rural American politicians, Palin may spring to mind. But she hasn’t been on the scene as long as genuine forces in Washington, such as Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee who has served Iowa in the nation’s capital since 1974. “Who does Tom Harkin represent?” quips Storm Lake (Iowa) Times editor Art Cullen. “Does he just represent Waterloo.” Harkin has won more votes in rural Iowa than Palin — although she may get her shot as a big-time surrogate soon.

“I’m assuming that she’s going to be campaigning for candidates in 2010,” Schmidt said.

Cullen said Palin’s appeal is not hard to analyze. “She offers a simple black and white view of the world,” Cullen said. “Shitkickers can identify with this.” For his part, Schmidt thinks Palin is more interested in sticking it to the Republican establishment than becoming a rural voice.

In many ways Schmidt sees Palin’s likely entrance into the GOP presidential field as an act of vengeance as much as ambition. “I think she’s much more annoyed and hurt by what the McCain machine did to her,” Schmidt said.

Since the founding of the nation many rural interests have viewed themselves as closer to the ideal of America than others and looked askew at urban residents as an exotic or eccentric species of citizen. Palin capitalized on this in rural Pennsylvania and elsewhere with the famously brazen assertion that she represented “real America.” “That phrase was seen as appealing to rural and non-minority voters,” Schmidt said.

While GOP presidential candidates appeal to the conservative rural base in Iowa in the years leading up to 2012, it should be readily remembered that the Hawkeye State launched the historic presidency of Barack Obama. He captured the Iowa Caucuses and then won the state in the general election.

Cullen thinks Palin’s popularity in Iowa says more about Republicans here than rural residents. “I think Dick Cheney could win the Iowa Caucuses,” he said.

 

 

 

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