Monday, December 24, 2007

Rural appeal and Huckabee's ascent

As a native Arkansan (albeit one long out of the state when Huckabee became governor), I have been surprised at Huckabee's ascent in the polls not only in Iowa, but also in states like California. It's made me wonder if part of Huckabee's appeal lies in his rural roots -- or at least what voters perceive to be rural roots.

Huckabee comes across as an earnest, down-home guy from a proverbial Maberry. A recent feature on Huckabee in the NYT Magazine reported that he was born in Hope, Arkansas, a micropolitan area in southern Arkansas made famous because it is also Bill Clinton's birthplace. This story in the NYTimes a few days later noted the frequency of Huckabee comparisons to Jim Nabors. (Incidentally, the earliest online version of this story used the word "rural" in the headline, as in noting Huckabee's appeal in rural Iowa). Many of the places Huckabee has lived and worked in Arkansas (e.g., Pine Bluff and Texarkana) are not thought of by most Arkansans as rural. Huckabee may nevertheless be perceived by the wider electorate as a product of rural America, in part because Arkansas is a largely rural state and in part because of the rural persona in which Huckabee cloaks himself.

So, is there something in our collective nostalgia for our rural past that makes Hucakbee an attractive presidential candidate? Does Huckabee's appeal lie partly in the straight-talking, right-wrong, hard work, Christian-and-family values simplicity associated with rurality? (Perhaps his quasi-rural background also explains his attachment to fences as solutions -- even at the border!) Since long before Huckabee became a Presidential candidate, let alone a viable one, non-Arkansans who know him personally and those who just knew of him told me he could be a contender because he comes across as being so "nice" and "likable." Maybe Huckabee represents an antidote to Rudy Guliani, the ultimate urbanite, sophisticated but hard-edged?

I recall marveling in 1991 and 1992 at Clinton's ascent in the polls. I had then relatively recently moved on (at least in a literal sense) from my small-town Arkansas roots and was living in cosmopolitan London. I thought the British press surely had it wrong as they wrote of the viability of Clinton's candidacy. I was sure Clinton had no hope of getting the Democratic nomination (let alone the presidency) because he would be seen as a rube from the South. The negative stereotypes associated with rurality, I assumed, doomed his candidacy. Happily, I was proved wrong.

As different as I believe Huckabee and Clinton to be in outlook and in their pre-Presidential capacity to grasp complex foreign affairs matters, they nevertheless share more than a home town and stints as governor of Arkansas. Perhaps the viability of each of their candidacies was/is rooted, to some degree, in their rural identities and our own longing, however naive it may be, for a simpler time.

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