The big dis
A third of Americans live in big cities. A fifth live in rural areas. So who gets the attention in presidential campaigns? And why?
Published: January 25, 2012
Shortly after lunchtime on the day of the 2004 New Hampshire primary, Joe Lieberman's bus pulled up to an elementary school on the east side of Manchester. Waiting there for him were three men who clearly had been sleeping on the street before they, briefly, became part of the Connecticut senator's campaign. On a cue from a campaign staffer, as Lieberman descended from his coach with the assembled media watching, the three men began waving signs and energetically shouting, "Go Joe! Go Joe! ... Joe-mentum! Joe-mentum!" Lieberman greeted a few voters, told reporters a somewhat sad anecdote about his lucky tie and got back on the bus to more cheers from his three biggest fans. When the votes were tallied that evening, Joe-mentum placed fifth.
Earlier this month, New Hampshire again occupied center stage in an American presidential race, and Manchester became the backdrop of some of the wall-to-wall coverage. But except for those who got a few bucks and a free lunch in return for playing campaign scenery, the city's significant homeless population was invisible in that narrative. So were the other issues facing the largest city in the Granite State, like a poverty rate 37 percent higher than the state average, a wave of layoffs this summer at a local hospital and a brewing debate over its designation as a "sanctuary city" for immigrants — none of it the stuff of gauzy campaign commercials.
"New Hampshire — even though it's more of a historically industrial state — it has a sort of pastoral image. Where they're campaigning or doing publicity in New Hampshire, it's in a barn or in a little town hall ... whereas Manchester or Portsmouth or smaller cities are more representative of the state," says Michael Bellefeuille, a Manchester native who runs a blog for an organization called Livable MHT (the acronym is a reference to the city's airport). "The image that they're portraying, it doesn't necessarily address the city."
But this is no surprise. U.S. presidential campaigns are built around appeals to the American heartland, a mythical place of farm families and simple wood-framed houses amid acres of wheat and corn. "They taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland, where they grew up: accountability and self-reliance," a certain Illinois senator said in a 2008 campaign commercial, "love of country, working hard without making excuses, treating your neighbor as you'd like to be treated." Sarah Palin got heat for referring to the "real America," but Barack Obama got a free pass for suggesting that loyalty and work ethic are somehow unique to the rural parts of this country.
Some of his predecessors were far more explicit.
"The mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1781's Notes on the State of Virginia, and in a 1787 letter to James Madison, he added, "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."
These weren't just idle words, noted planner Leonardo Vazquez in a 2006 commentary on the website Planetizen: "Jefferson was able to hardwire an anti-urban bias into the culture of the United States" in denying any powers to cities and towns in the U.S. Constitution and organizing land purchases in a way that discouraged dense population. And these disparities only deepened over time.
"I do think that overall, over the years, there is a consistent sort of anti-urban animus in Washington," says Roger Biles, a history professor at Illinois State University. "And historically a lot of that simply owed to the fact that a lot of the people who were elected to Congress and went there came from gerrymandered states where they were disproportionately representing the interests of rural people. Even as the nation became more and more urban, that wasn't reflected in the composition of Congress."
Today, some 87 million Americans — more than the population of Germany, France or the U.K. — live in cities with populations of 100,000 or more. Nearly one-third of the U.S. population dwells in central cities; only one-fifth lives in a rural setting. America's cities have built-in advantages for addressing some of the country's deepest problems, offering energy-efficient living, mechanisms for integrating immigrants, economies of scale for health programs and more.