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Small-town America is mostly a thing of the past, but in many ways we’re still the same country

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In a post HERE the other day, I touched upon Sarah Palin’s bogus claim during the 2008 presidential campaign that small towns are “the real America” and the “pro-America areas of this great nation.”

Paul Krugman deals with the myth of small-town America at greater length in THIS PIECE about how much our nation has changed since independence was declared 237 years ago this week:

Is America in 2013, in any meaningful sense, the same country that declared independence in 1776?

The answer, I’d suggest, is yes…

America in 1776 was a rural land, mainly composed of small farmers and, in the South, somewhat bigger farmers with slaves. And the free population consisted of, well, WASPs: almost all came from northwestern Europe, 65 percent came from Britain, and 98 percent were Protestants.

America today is nothing like that, even though some politicians — think Sarah Palin — like to talk as if the “real America” is still white, Protestant, and rural or small-town.

But the real America is, in fact, a nation of metropolitan areas, not small towns. Tellingly, even when Ms. Palin made her infamous remarks in 2008 she did so in Greensboro, N.C., which may not be in the Northeast Corridor but — with a metropolitan population of more than 700,000 — is hardly Mayberry. In fact, two-thirds of Americans live in metro areas with half-a-million or more residents.

Nor, by the way, are most of us living in leafy suburbs. America as a whole has only 87 people per square mile, but the average American, according to the Census Bureau, lives in a census tract with more than 5,000 people per square mile. For all the bashing of the Northeast Corridor as being somehow un-American, this means that the typical American lives in an environment that resembles greater Boston or greater Philadelphia more than it resembles Greensboro, let alone true small towns.

What do we do in these dense metropolitan areas? Almost none of us are farmers; few of us hunt; by and large, we sit in cubicles on weekdays and visit shopping malls on our days off.

And ethnically we are, of course, very different from the founders. Only a minority of today’s Americans are descended from the WASPs and slaves of 1776. The rest are the descendants of successive waves of immigration: first from Ireland and Germany, then from Southern and Eastern Europe, now from Latin America and Asia. We’re no longer an Anglo-Saxon nation; we’re only around half-Protestant; and we’re increasingly nonwhite.

Yet I would maintain that we are still the same country that declared independence all those years ago.

It’s not just that we have maintained continuity of legal government, although that’s not a small thing. The current government of France is, strictly speaking, the Fifth Republic; we had our anti-monarchical revolution first, yet we’re still on Republic No. 1, which actually makes our government one of the oldest in the world.

More important, however, is the enduring hold on our nation of the democratic ideal, the notion that “all men are created equal” — all men, not just men from certain ethnic groups or from aristocratic families. And to this day — or so it seems to me, and I’ve done a lot of traveling in my time — America remains uniquely democratic in its mannerisms, in the way people from different classes interact.

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Wuthnow

    Sarah Palin’s claim was indeed bogus and Paul Krugman is right about the demographics. But let’s not get dismissive about the 30 million Americans who still live in small towns. I’ve spent the past five years writing a book called Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future (just published by Princeton University Press) and there is a lot to be learned from people living there, including how people are struggling to preserve their communities, how they are adapting to change, and what makes some communities more resilient than others.

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