Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rick Perry's rural roots

The media have occasionally highlighted the rural roots of Rick Perry, the Texas Governor who is vying for the Republication nomination for President. One of the most prominent stories was this one on the front page of the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. The dateline is Paint Creek, not even a Census Designated Place, in West Texas. Deborah Sontag, in her story for the Times, reports that Perry has described it as "too small to have a ZIP code," and she refers to it as "simple and slow." It is in Haskell County, which had a 2009 population of only 5,185 and is on the decline, but wikipedia reports that the school Perry attended is still open.

Here's an excerpt from Sontag's story, which notes how Perry has played up his rural roots:
Many in itty-bitty Paint Creek, with its 259 registered voters, are proud and protective of Mr. Perry, the ardent Eagle Scout and scrappy athlete dubbed “most popular” and “Future Homemakers of America Beau” by his class of 13.

But others here will never forgive Mr. Perry for switching to the Republican Party five years after they elected him as a Democrat to the Texas House of Representatives in 1984. And they are leery now of seeing Haskell County, with its graying population, ailing economy and drought-parched landscape, used as a bucolic backdrop for his self-promotion.

“He’s overdone that small-town-boy thing pretty well at this point,” said Bobby Tidwell, a retiree and self-described “Y.D.” — yellow-dog — Democrat. “He’s living in a mansion in Austin while folks here are worried about losing their farms.”

The Sontag story illustrates the apparent attractiveness of the rural trope to a significant portion of the American electorate, even as more cosmopolitan types would ridicule it. Read earlier posts on this topic here and here.

Sontag includes this quote from a woman who went to high school with Perry, describing how people in Paint Creek were brought up.
[E]very boy played six-man football or basketball, and every girl was a cheerleader, a twirler or in pep squad ... They were all in Future Farmers of America. Everybody did projects. Rick raised calves. My husband-to-be built a gun cabinet. It was that type of community: normal.
This is a relatively vivid description of the stuff that made up high school life in that place and time. I find it simply priceless that the Paint Creek resident declares the community simply "normal," as if completely unaware of how abnormal it sounds to the vast majority of Americans.

An op-ed by Bill Killer in today's New York Times suggests that Perry's rural roots have shaped his politics--including, at least implicitly--his move to the Republican Party. In this column, "Is the Tea Party Over?" Keller writes of Perry's attachment to self-reliance and links it to the frontier, an arguably apt descriptor for Paint Creek:
The editor of Texas Monthly, Jake Silverstein, sums up Perry as “a child of the mythology of the frontier,” in which “every man is more or less for himself, a good neighbor is one who needs no help, and efforts by the government to interfere are not to be trusted.”
These pieces about Perry and Paint Creek seem to me to illustrate some of the tensions and inconsistencies in common perceptions of rurality. I suppose the self proclaimed Yellow Dog Democrat quoted in the Sontag story illustrates resistance to change, even when many rural residents across Texas and the South shifted loyalty to the Republican Party over the past several decades. Although it is hard to know how many Paint Creek residents share the Yellow Dog's views, his comments suggest that--for some rural folks, even those arguably on the "frontier"--the mythology of the frontier and self-reliance don't always trump.

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