In an earlier post, Jonathan sums up Palin as a “frontierswoman.” This seems to me to be true, but she also represents an old tension – between the city and the country. The distinction between Moscow and pretty much all the rest of Russia seems to be awfully important to the few Russians I know; a similar tension exists between Paris and rural France, Prague and (especially) Moravia. One of the commuting families at U.T. in the seventies split because, the husband explained, his wife could not imagine not living on one of the coasts. (Not surprisingly, similar commutes began happening here: if Austin’s the sticks, how much more are the hinterlands.) Some people identify with a city and some with the city. I can hardly complain about such self-definitions, since I’ve always felt the powerful pull of place; it’s a key part to the identity of many of my family and friends. Those of us from flyover country speak of it with some irony, but also with pride: all intensified and sometimes defensive because we feel others say it with disdain.
If, as one wit put it, McCain/Palin gets all the votes of brides pregnant on their wedding days (maybe add in the grooms), then if we can add the votes of those with strongly felt country roots, the favored Obama/Biden ticket will need to resurrect all those dead voters Acorn was finding. How well this plays out depends on how many understand these two – and, on the other hand, how many can’t. They are hardly typical of “Jesusland” – but in important ways they represent it. Plain talking, for instance, arises from the Puritan plain style, echoed in the American middle west & west. (And embodied in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books my mother gave every grandchild.) We speak with a tough wit, but, aren’t ironic about duty, loyalty, resilience, perseverance, active engagement, hard work. We don’t consider them ambiguous; we assume they just are, in themselves, good.
The West is different from the South and from the Midwest, but the music of all three is “Country Western.” We might call heartland culture pastoral but that ancient description doesn’t hint at its conflict-laden drama. Sure, parts are pastoral (reflected in “My Front Porch Looking In”, for intance), but many aren’t (as in “Better as a Memory”). Country/western music is defined by a powerful self-reliance, an individualism that haunts these songs and our stories, evoking the loneliness of the prairie. It is the music of small town people like me (something I didn’t realize until in my twenties). Its reaction to the city is sometimes defensive and sometimes assertive; sometimes it really doesn’t give a damn – an attitude part narrow mindedness, part stubbornness, but also part integrity.
The distinction between the country mouse and the city mouse is another way of positing the difference between naivete and sophistication, simplicity and complexity, nature and culture. Emerson describes his quest to find the Carlyles: they welcome him, despite the fact he had written nothing they would have read – they are hungry for talk. Carlyle, himself, had just begun his career – but Emerson describes their long walk, the wit and food at the dinner table in remote and rural Scotland. Still, in those years Carlyle did some of his best work. Cities have delights more thinly populated regions – without orchestras, opera, libraries, museums – don’t. Its riches mean we are more likely to find someone with our interests. I can understand that – a city offers much and parts of us can’t grow so well in the sticks. But much goes on in the minds of those alone in the inky black rural night.
The city and country cultivate different virtues. America’s individualism has been defined (Turner’s overused but useful insight) by its frontier. Although that frontier closed in the lower 48 over a hundred years ago, its myths remain. And they have vitality in Alaska – still wilderness, still frontier. McCain, on the other hand, is an American whose family’s base was the service itself, restlessly patrolling our boundaries (and beyond).
What McCain and Palin have in common is a mixture many of us understand as more characteristic of the heartland: direct speech, confidence in human nature and human ability, humility before the size of our landscape and the power of our history, a belief in purpose and acts that are purposeful. When we think about America, we think about that individualism, that self-reliance. We think of Ben Franklin’s “God helps them that helps themselves” and Emerson’s idealism, Natty Bumppo & the astronauts, Gunsmoke & Marlon Brando struggling to stand in On the Waterfront, of Jimmy Stewart in movie after movie.
Obama sees the world in terms of ambiguity; he is a citizen of the quite ambiguous greater world and his resume and friends are peppered with ambiguous jobs and ambiguous projects. Biden is what he is. Both describe themselves in political terms. Strikingly, Obama sees as his greatest decision the one he made that agreed with the majority of Illinois politicians and had no effect on anyone – he would not, he tells Rick Warren, have voted to go into Iraq. McCain’s biography implies such a stand would be part of a day’s work. Palin’s experience, much less than McCain’s but full of consequential decisions, would as well. Neither votes “present” to life. It isn’t just that we might not agree with Obama’s decision – it’s that it doesn’t seem a decision in the same way as one that has consequences.
McCain and Palin are used to being deciders; they share a western outlook. Perhaps neither has been as immersed in nature as Palin’s husband, winning the 2000 mile snow machine trek four times. Still, neither comes from the world of ambiguity. McCain was molded by war – he learned humility and love in bonding with his fellow captives. There is little ambiguous about what is right and what is wrong in such settings. The weather in the great plains confronts us with its power; I can’t imagine how much more does the weather of Alaska. The elements are a part of the Palins’ lives – not places on posters behind the urban desk where they gather petitions against drilling in it. Those who fight nature are generally those who genuinely (and intelligently) love it. Feelings such as these may be complicated but they aren’t ambiguous.
Facing challenges doesn’t make for cynics. These two candidates have not retreated from the complexity of urban life – they have brought to it a more active, self-reliant strain of the American tradition. And some of us that love the world in which we grew up and often in which we live, the world in which Palin seems so at home, have found ourselves engaged in a way we hadn’t been. If McCain felt Palin would solidify a base close to these roots, he also chose her because they are “soul mates.” They share a desire to act, a sense of duty, a belief that acts demonstrate philosophy far better than words. His choice gave us a more compelling and attractive perspective on his character. He hasn’t changed but what we are likely to magnify about him has.