EDITOR’S NOTE: All Politics Is Local is a series of dispatches about life and politics in rural America.
Shortly before Christmas, the front page of our local weekly carried a photo of a big event: Santa and Mrs. Claus receiving a visit from a little girl who was dressed in pink overalls. Elsewhere on the page were stories about a planned memorial for Vietnam War veterans and the passage of next year’s county budget, which will increase only minimally from this year’s total.
On the whole, pretty good news, and I felt happy reading it. Of course, the local paper doesn’t do much in the way of investigative reporting, or evaluating the performance of town government, but still, I like it.
I think it’s because the paper emphasizes the many ways in which people in rural areas like mine help each other out and work for the good of the community. There are frequently stories about fundraising events to help families whose houses have burned down—such events are fairly common in an area where everything is made of wood—or to raise money for an operation for some local child whose family doesn’t have adequate insurance.
There are reports on more ambitious efforts, too. In the case of the war memorial, for example, it’s being installed in Greenville, one town one over from mine, along with a plaque of thanks, by a veterans’ association whose reunions the town has hosted for 20 years. This was the last year for the reunions, because the vets are getting too old.
The story points out the fact that in addition to being neighborly, people in rural areas like mine tend to be quite patriotic, which I would argue stems in large part from the same sense of community. Every town meeting starts off with the Pledge of Allegiance, and many of the people we’ve come to know here, just like my four upstate cousins, have served in the military.
Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Veterans’ Day—all of them get remembered with speeches and sometimes parades, just as they did generations ago. They remind me of the Memorial Day parades in the small city in western Massachusetts where I grew up; my grandfather (whose own grandfather served in the Civil War) ran them for years, and I used to love the little flags left over from decorating the graves that he gave my sister and me to wave from the sidelines. In our town here in the Catskills on the Fourth, everyone claps for the police and the floats and then lines up for free hot dogs and ice cream after the parade is over.
These qualities of neighborliness and patriotism are ones that remain strong in rural America. We need each other here—for anything from helping to jump-start a car in the winter to helping out with events for kids when our tiny town budget can’t stretch to accommodate such expenditures. We have a volunteer fire department, and volunteers run everything from a small history museum to sports programs at the old elementary school.
People get to know and respect each other even when they don’t necessarily agree politically. As one example of this, a few months ago there was a fairly animated discussion at the town meeting over a homeowner’s right to have friends spend a whole day engaged in loud target practice on his property. In the course of the discussion, my husband and another resident whom he knew only slightly made comments about guns that revealed their differing perspectives. A couple days later, the guy e-mailed asking if my husband would like to go to a shooting range with him. My husband, who had never held a gun in his life, agreed, and came back full of praise for the guy’s relaxed and friendly coaching on gun basics. The experience didn’t produce a new gun lover, but he and the guy are now, if not friends, then friendly acquaintances.
I saw the same kind of willingness to listen and engage a week or so ago, at a town hall a few miles from here put on by our Democratic representative, Antonio Delgado. One of his questioners was a well-known local Republican who criticized him for supporting impeachment, echoing a similar interchange I’d witnessed elsewhere in the district a few weeks before. What struck me was how polite both exchanges were. Afterward, the two Republican questioners told me that they regarded Delgado as a nice guy, a bright guy—they just disagreed with his positions.
I think that city people could learn a thing or two from their rural counterparts, who include one of every five Americans. Yes, to an extent getting along is a necessity when you know you’re likely to run into each other at the only gas station in town. But I also think it’s an attitude, a frame of mind.
I certainly don’t want to suggest that my neighbors are saints. And by no means do I think rural Americans are superior to their urban cousins (any more than the other way around). But as 2020 gets underway, I am hoping that at least a little of the spirit I see around me here will find its way into our national political life.