The country life was good to me, almost to the point of cliché. I spent a feral childhood roaming the 20-acre woods where I was raised, climbing trees, catching toads and eating wild raspberries off the vine.
So when I heard Barack Obama's recent generalizations about the attitudes of rural Americans toward guns, God and outsiders, they sounded at best clumsy, and at worst patronizing. But you could have just fallen off the turnip truck and still know the core of Obama's argument rang true: Many small-town voters feel embittered and frustrated by a government that largely ignores them. When people feel powerless or afraid, they seek solace in what they know and fortify themselves against what they don't.
Since Obama's remarks, Hillary Clinton has clodhopped through bucolic North Carolina to prove her hayseed cred. But before she helps herself to another plate of squirrel brains and gravy, Clinton should swing back west through my hometown of Mechanicsburg, Ind., population 300, where the cows outnumber the residents.
Many people there do cling to their guns and to God. And a lot of them are not fond of outsiders. If Obama happened to stop by, he would be one of the few black men to spend any time there since 1973, when my dad invited his friend from the factory over for Sunday dinner. And if Clinton were to sit around some supper tables in Mechanicsburg today, she might hear her hosts talk about "the goddamn Mexicans."
As Obama noted in the oft-overlooked portion of his comments, millions of these voters have felt excluded by the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. While tech boomed—not in places like Mechanicsburg—manufacturing went bust. After NAFTA, displaced autoworkers like my sister watched their jobs vanish from nearby industrial towns. And some of these former General Motors, Ford and Chrysler employees, rightfully or wrongfully, blame immigrants, unions or the government, whose poorly funded retraining programs failed to generate meaningful or good-paying work.
This is Obama's point: The next president must figure out how to regenerate hope in an increasingly bleak rural America. Being poor and hopeless in the sticks presents different challenges than being poor and hopeless in the city. The nearest grocery, doctor or social services agency might be 15 miles or more away. And your job at the big-box store doesn't cover the cost of gas—if you can afford a car.
I left Mechanicsburg as soon as I was old enough. The woods with the toads and the raspberries weren't enough to keep me. Yet I mourn the erosion of small-town America—the livelihoods, security and identity. Each time I return, I notice it's lost a little more.