Having spent my early childhood years in a small town in the Northern Rockies, I have been troubled by the image of small-town life associated with Sarah Palin’s candidacy.
The McCain-Palin campaign suggests that to ask probing questions of Palin is to look down on her small-town roots. But that is a distortion and is also untrue to the very small-town values that Palin claims to represent.
Small-town America is not a single and unified culture, with everyone thinking the same way. Honest disagreement is possible, and a reality of daily life. Anyone who has ever participated in a church council meeting will understand that people who respect each other personally can confront one another with strong arguments when the group discusses a policy issue that affects the entire congregation.
The McCain-Palin campaign wrongly implies that skeptical, impertinent questions about Palin’s record, conduct, and knowledge show a lack of respect for her and for those who identify with her. But this suggests that small-town Americans are less capable than the rest of the country of handling the normal give-and-take of political argument. By insisting that to question Palin searchingly is to insult her, the Republican campaign actually belittles the segment of the American population that campaign is seeking to mobilize.
Central to the distortion being carried out by the Republicans is the remarkable idea that individuals who have some things in common with Sarah Palin have everything in common with her.
The real diversity of ideas and values that one can find in Montana and Idaho and other rural states is erased by a huge national organization—the Republican Party—that presents Sarah Palin as the complete embodiment of the small-town American West.
Whatever else the small town of the American West may stand for, one thing I know to be a reality within it is a capacity for personal respect that extends to open disagreement about a great variety of issues.
If we are going to be sensitive to insults, we can say that it is an insult to small-town America, first, to suggest that its citizens cannot connect with a larger, cosmopolitan world, second, to doubt that its sons and daughters often build on small-town values to achieve distinguished careers beyond the circles of their own upbringings, and, third, to hold that its inhabitants are too closed-minded to appreciate some of the things that Sarah Palin is against, even Barack Obama.
I have not lived in the Northern Rockies since I was a child, and I do not want to pretend to be part of Montana and Idaho life today. But let it be said that a small-town, Rocky Mountain childhood is not at all incompatible with a variety of styles of life in and beyond the region.
The Republican campaign’s effort to freeze small-town America into a single cultural unit for which Sarah Palin can be an emblem misses the dynamism of that America as I have experienced it in my own life and continue to see it when I visit Montana and Idaho today.
Small-town Americans, no less than residents of New York or San Francisco, should be glad to have Sarah Palin interrogated just as vigorously as any other candidate for public office.
To settle for less is to make her, and the small-town Americans who see her as a mirror for at least some parts of themselves, into second-class citizens.
With that attitude, the Republican Party actually disrespects the parts of the United States with which it claims to identify.
Guest columnist David A. Hollinger is a history professor at the University of California in Berkeley.