Speak Your Piece: Since When is Dallas Rural?

New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who doesn't care for Sarah Palin, says the author and former candidate is going only to places that are "non-urban." The average size of the city on Palin's book tour tops 1.3 million people.

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The New York Times columnist Frank Rich figures that author and former candidate Sarah Palin appeals mostly to a demographic type, one that “is white and non-urban.” How does Rich know that Palin is pandering to ruralites? “Just look at the stops and the faces on her carefully calibrated book tour,” Rich wrote.

Unlike those who write for the Times editorial page, we at the Yonder have not been endowed with the ability to tell people’s places of residence from their “faces.”

However, we can “look at the stops” on Sarah Palin’s book tour. And what we find is that this is a tour of urban America. It may not be the urban America Frank Rich thinks about, but Palin isn’t selling books to rural people. She’s lining up crowds in the cities.

We count 28 stops on Sarah Palin’s book tour. Exactly two are in rural counties: November 24th in The Villages in central Florida (and the state’s largest housing development) and December 1 in Roswell, New Mexico. There are 2,050 U.S. counties (out of more than 3,100) considered rural by the Census. Sarah Palin is going to two of them. The other 26 stops are all in counties considered metropolitan by the U.S. Census.

In fact, the average population of all the communities where Sarah Palin is stopping tops 1.38 million people. (If counties were in metro areas, we counted the metro area population, just as the Times regularly does in its news stories.)

Since when did a metro area of more than a million people become “non-urban”?

The size of the places Palin is visiting on her book tour appears to be a preoccupation of New York and Washington, D.C. writers. And they all seem to agree that the author/candidate is going to some kind of American “other-zone” that is self-evidently small, non-urban, rural and Republican. The Times’ Kate Zernike wrote Sunday that Palin “skipped the big cities authors usually visit in favor of small places in areas, not coincidentally, where she and Senator John McCain of Arizona performed well on last year’s Republican presidential ticket.” 

Similarly, Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post Monday wrote a column headlined “Reading between the lines of Palin’s itinerary.” According to Cillizza, Palin planned to visit 31 counties on the tour and “just 11 were carried by President Obama.”

Are Zernike and Cillizza correct? Is Palin avoiding “blue” communities?

Okay, she’s not holding a book-signing in Democratic Austin or Greenwich Village. But did she skip the “big cities”? Palin’s tour includes Minneapolis (16th largest city), Dallas (4th largest), Phoenix (12th largest), Cincinnati (24th largest) Pittsburgh (22nd largest), Orlando (27th largest) and Washington, D.C. (9th largest). And she began her book tour in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the nation’s 66th largest city located in a county Barack Obama carried in 2008.

Cillizza is correct. Only 35% of the counties Palin will visit voted for Obama. At first glance, that’s not a big percentage. But lets compare that 35% to the percentage of counties in the U.S. that Obama won in 2008.

By our count, the Democrats carried 876 out of 3,114 U.S. counties. That comes to 28%, which is 7 points lower than the percentage of Democratic counties on Palin’s book tour. By Cillizza’s measure (if not by his assessment), Palin’s book tour is visiting communities that are disproportionately Democratic. If she had just picked counties at random, her stops would have been more Republican than they are.

What are these people talking about?

Unlike those who work at the Times and the Post, we here at the Yonder aren’t endowed with mind-reading abilities. We can’t even tell by “faces” whether people are urban or rural. We can count, however. And we have noticed that “rural” has become a synonym for “other” — for those who don’t live in certain large cities.

Rural isn’t a geographic designation to these writers. It’s a name for “them,” for “those people” who attended rallies this summer and will go to buy Palin’s book this fall. 

The Times has a particularly hard time understanding what a rural community might be. Just a few months ago, two New York Times reporters defined any place outside the 100 largest metropolitan areas as rural.  

Frank Rich repeatedly uses “rural” as synonym for the other, for a “position on the American spectrum of ideas …somewhere between a doomsday cult and Scientology.”  According to Rich, Republicans in 2008 lost every demographic group “except white senior citizens and the dwindling fifth of America that’s still rural.” 

Or, Rich again, who quoted Palin as saying she represented the “real America,” which Rich then describes as “white” and “rural.” 

Or, Rich again, who says the Republican Party has “melted down to a fundamentalist core of aging, rural Dixiecrats and intrusive scolds.” 

Time Magazine’s Joe Klein got in on the act in September when he wrote that the folks protesting the health care bill were “primarily working-class, largely rural and elderly white people.” Klein knows what frightens these rural people — and what scares “them” is everything he likes.

Klein wrote, “Finally, I should say that the things that scare the teabaggers–the renewed sense of public purpose and government activism, the burgeoning racial diversity, urbanity and cosmopolitanism–are among the things I find most precious and exhilarating about this country.”

How does Klein know what these people think and what they fear? We have no idea. He explains, though, that “they” are rural. Enough said. Urban, good. Rural, bad. 

What scares us at the Yonder is a world where writers for the nation’s largest newspapers can’t count but assume that they can read the feelings and fears of people they have never met — writers who label fellow citizens as “them” without the slightest hesitancy or self-doubt. 

 

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