On a long drive to the Gulf Coast a few weeks ago I happened to drive right past Leakesville, Mississippi. This would be of no interest to me or anyone else ordinarily, but Leakesville is the final resting place of Bill Hicks. Now, Mr. Hicks was an important figure in my life even though I never met him. My respect for him goes a bit beyond Fandom or "He's a comedian I really like." So I considered it obvious that I should stop to pay my respects.
Briefly, Leakesville, MS is a goddamn dump.
In my travels through 49 of the 50 states (I'll get you, Alaska) I've been through hundreds of Leakesvilles and so have you. The rusted-out farm implements / hardware store announces the beginning of the town and its end is marked by the combination gas station / Subway. Between those navigational aids you find a handful of churches, one or two dilapidated bars, and mostly deserted houses of the pre-WWII vintage. Despite having only a few hundred or thousand residents there are three or four pharmacies in town to tend to the elderly and a not-incidental number of prescription opiate addicts. If anything else is open for business – and that is a big If – it is a rehabilitation center to help old people move their withered limbs and wheeze through their Winston-stained lungs for another year or two. The only thing in the town that looks like it could withstand a stiff breeze is the Post Office (or on the Plains, the USDA office). The population consists of people under 18 waiting to escape and old people waiting to die.
Census after census we see that small towns are dying all over the country. Very few Americans live in them anymore. Once the current cohort of elderly stragglers dies, they will be abandoned for all intents and purposes. From that perspective I can never figure out why we venerate these places. They are, by nearly any criteria, terrible. And more importantly, they're already shells of their former selves. It is as if we have some kind of collective hysteria in which we pretend that Small Town America is a thing even though it is about as real as the Wild West at this point.
Even in so-called rural states, the majority of the population now lives in urban settings (including suburbs). The election year pandering to "hard working Americans" and good ol' salt of the Earth types (read: white and white, respectively) is indicative of nothing more than lazy, Beltway-centric media coverage that relies on tired tropes and is aimed at an intended audience with an average age of about 70. Even those elderly news viewers are increasingly urbanized, unless anyone out there considers southern retirement meccas to be small towns.
Every election year – and more accurately, every time I take a long drive through the back roads – I am baffled by our obsession with the idea of small towns. We might as well be holding tight to the idea of Conestoga wagons. If it's anything other than a yearning for the idealized version of the 1950s Norman Rockwell America that never was and actually kinda sucked if you weren't white and male, I don't know what it could be.