Obama’s Disconnect with Small Town America

I was born and raised in a farming family in small-town, rural, southcentral Pennsylvania. By any academic or stereotypical definition of “rural,” my family, friends and neighbors define the word. They also debunk the definitions.

Barack Obama’s recent remarks concerning the voting characteristics of “bitter” Pennsylvanians living in small towns displays a disconnect between how people might live in rural America and the ability of “outsiders” to understand that way of life. Over the past several days, many have commented on this disconnect, often falling short in their analysis of why small-town, rural American peoples may vote in favor of candidates that are anti-immigration, socially conservative, and/or protective of gun ownership, despite being on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

A 2007 report put out by the National Shooting Sports Foundation titled “Hunting and Fishing: Bright Stars of the American Economy,” found that the state of Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in the number of state residents who are hunters, coming in at just under a million people. Moreover, it is estimated that PA hunters spend some $1.7 billion annually on hunting.

Perhaps more telling, the PA section of the report states: “The majority of all sportsmen consider themselves ‘likely voters’ and 8 in 10 say that a candidate’s position on sportsmen’s issues is important in determining for whom they will vote.” Certainly, amongst hunters, gun rights is a sportsmen’s issue.

Throughout many school districts in Pennsylvania, the first day of buck season is like a holiday. Schools are closed so that administrators, teachers and students alike are able to take to Penn’s Woods in hopes of bagging an antlered deer. No matter the economic situation of the country, state, or a family, this ritual is played out every first Monday after Thanksgiving, year after year. For some lower-income people, a successful hunt means meat in the freezer, sustaining the family through the winter months. I know of several families living this reality.

Do rural Pennsylvanians vote for their guns because they are bitter about their economic situation? Do they vote to stick to their guns because they believe they are protecting a way of life that has been passed down generation after generation?

Could there be a religious experience occurring while hunting? Does a poor hunter sitting in the cold darkness of early morning waiting for the glorious sun to shine through the naked trees, waiting to see one of God’s creatures run through that light and killing it to feed his family, vote to protect that experience because it stirs him deeply, or does he vote out of bitterness?

For eight years I wrote a Sunday column in The Evening Sun, Hanover, PA, educating my hometown on the lives of immigrants living amongst us, among other things. My column began when I was a Peace Corps volunteer living in Honduras (1997-99). Over the years, we tackled many issues surrounding immigration, and what we found was that as people learned more about the way of life of Latinos living in our community, the more we recognized the similarities we all share and celebrated our differences.

More than a million tourists visit Gettysburg each year, just a 12 mile drive west of Hanover, but very few of those visitors make the drive a few miles north of Gettysburg to see the orchards of one of America’s top 5 apple growing regions. Immigrant farm workers have been picking the fruit of Adams County for more than 3 decades, and over recent years many of the fruit growers have united and made trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby in favor of a guest worker program of some kind.

I have worked in migrant education in the Gettysburg area, and over the years have watched as community events that were once not friendly towards Latino participation have begun to open their arms. Local celebrations now do include, for example, Mexican dance groups sharing their culture. Food booths selling carnitas and belting out rancheros from speakers are there.

Do my local neighbors who are said to be “bitter” about their economic situation, but also express wonder in the beautiful dresses of the dancers, go into the voting booth and vote “anti-immigration?” Do non-Latinos visiting the Mexican grocery stores scattered throughout the countryside in search of chipotles and poblanos vote to send the proprietors’ family members home?

And what about the notion of rural people clinging to their religion when they’re bitter? Do poor, rural, small town Latinos, many of whom are documented, living in southcentral PA vote for the candidate that is anti-immigration? Pro-choice? Pro-life? Does the poor white citizen vote to protect a woman’s right to choose? For the unborn child? Against the rights of homosexuals to marry? How would a poor white Catholic woman married to a Mexican farm worker vote?

What kind of person do we think of when we hear “rural, small-town American?” Is he brown-skinned with a cowboy hat on his head, speaking broken English at the checkout line?

It seems that Senator Obama has done what many a politician has done before him, and many will do after him: He has grouped a section of American society into stereotypes. What’s unfortunate is that Mr. Obama has been running a campaign that is supposedly running counter to that view of America. He is supposedly attempting to unite the country, ending the days of blue and red state America. How does a man who speaks often of his faith, and its importance in his life, suggest that because someone in small town America is angry about being poor, they might then vote on their religious beliefs? Do wealthy urban folks not ever cast a vote based on a belief system?

Saying that rural, small town Pennsylvanians vote against gun control, in favor of anti-immigration policies, or from their church pew because they are bitter about their economic situation is unfair, and his follow-up explanation still misses the point: Poor, rural people are not such simpletons.

JAMES MURREN is the son of a family farmer who butchers deer in a shed behind his house every fall. Jim can be reached at: www.vagoscribe.wordpress.com