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Main Street, USA: Rest in Peace
When I returned to my house in the Cascades after a 10-week stint on the road, I discovered that yet another area restaurant had closed its doors. This one about 10 miles from me. That leaves those of us living up here with only one café reasonably close enough to go out for breakfast, this one also about 10 miles away.
There used to be a couple places nearer than that, but they long ago flipped their last eggs and browned their last pound of spuds. And now all we have are empty buildings to mark their failed status.
Last time I counted, I came up with eight such buildings within a 20-mile radius of me, all of which had housed restaurants or cafés or some sort of eateries, a considerable number if you factor in how small these towns are. And that doesn’t count all the other buildings sitting empty from businesses having gone bust in recent years.
But that’s the reality of rural America, a fact confirmed by my travels in the last few years. From coast-to-coast, I’ve seen evidence of a backsliding economy and its disproportionate toll on rural areas and the small towns that support them. That’s not to say large urban centers have been left unscathed, but most of the cities I visited were still functioning, for the most part—unlike the small towns I traveled through, where boarded up windows and deteriorating buildings defined a new era in Main Street aesthetics, regardless of state or region or political proclivity.
I’ve read a number of reasons why small towns might be taking the brunt of this fiscal beating. Wal-Mart putting Ma and Pa enterprises out of business. The proliferation of drugs in rural settings. The decline of tourist dollars in some regions. Farmer subsidies. Welfare. Industry outsourcing to third-world factories filled with indentured indigents. No doubt there are other such explanations out there. And probably no single one to fully describe what’s been happening. But something’s gone wrong, and a fix doesn’t appear to be looming on anyone’s horizon.
Unfortunately, the economic well being of our small communities has, for the most part, escaped the notice of the ambitious brains of Washington’s elite and those desperate to join their ranks. Rick Santorum, for example, would rather proselytize about his old time religion when preaching from the small town pulpit than offer real solutions. In fact, all four of the boys currently in the GOP band—Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and of course, Santorum—have been playing the rural card to its fullest, attending town hall meetings, hanging out in local diners (those still open), and hunting pheasant with their fellow Christians and good-ol’-boys. Yet the focus has rarely been on how to revitalize the communities, but rather on why the communities should fear birth control, homosexuality, and the sitting president.
Politics founded on such shortsighted thinking, along with rhetoric grounded in fear and hate, are nothing new. The Romans used these tactics. The Nazis used these tactics. Al-Qaeda used these tactics. So too have a number of US presidents.
And now we have the Fab Four pounding the pavement, hoping to convince rural voters of their small town roots and small town sensibilities and small town conservative values, despite the fact that they’re all highly educated millionaires with advanced degrees in law and business and medicine, something not so typical on Main Street in any part of America.
But the candidates are a shrewd lot. They know it takes more than assuming a shared set of values and then promoting those values. What people want is someone to blame: Washington insiders, liberals, Muslims, academia, queers, feminists, and anyone else who provides an easy target. Politicians need not espouse a message that’s logical or credible or even hopeful; it need only be aimed at anyone who doesn’t appear in sync with the perceived notions of how rural Americans think and live their lives and, most importantly, decide how others should live theirs.
Of course, hate-speak doesn’t create jobs or build communities or save homes, but it does provide a distraction—an extremely effective one—just like all-terrain vehicles and satellite TVs and the barn-loads of meth filling haylofts from Bloomington to Biloxi. It’s such a winning formula, in fact, that just about any straight, white male can win an election, as long as he sprinkles in an ample helping of Jesus and a generous measure of bombastic bullshit.
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