Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here
Ruben Navarrette says Sarah Palin's critics challenged her because of prejudices about small-town values.
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- During the presidential election, some Democrats demanded to know how I could defend Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Simply put, Palin is my people. She's small-town folk who wound up in the big leagues.
Because I grew up in a small town with a population of less than 15,000 people, I was disgusted by the insults and condescension coming from those who think of themselves as the enlightened elite. Meanwhile, in small towns, I detected great affection for Palin. People talked about how she was "a real person" who "reflected their values."
The most significant divide in America isn't Red State vs. Blue State, it's rural vs. urban. The country mouse and the city mouse are still slugging it out.
In 1982, New York Mayor Ed Koch ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York. Some say the deciding factor was when Koch described life in upstate New York as "sterile" and said he dreaded living in the "small town" of Albany, if elected. That didn't play well in rural areas.
Now comes Colin Powell. During a recent appearance on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Powell attempted an autopsy on the Republican Party's failed presidential bid. He went after Palin, accusing her of pushing the party so far to the right that it went over a cliff.
"I think [Palin] had something of a polarizing effect when she talked about how small-town values are good," Powell said. "Well, most of us don't live in small towns. And I was raised in the South Bronx, and there's nothing wrong with my value system from the South Bronx."
You'd think the presidential campaign was about conservatives picking on urbanites. It wasn't. Sure, some Republicans probably made a mistake by using phrases such as "real America" or "real Americans" as a rallying cry for the base. Americans who live in cities might have thought they were being slighted.
But those phrases referred as much to people's politics and values as it did their zip code. I live in a city with a population of more than a million people and I never thought the GOP singled me out as not being a "real American."
If anything, it appeared that big-city liberals were tapping into prejudices about small-town America to belittle the governor of Alaska
After Powell attacked Palin, one of the governor's most vocal defenders, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, returned the favor by attacking Powell.
"What is this hatred for conservatives and small-town people and Sarah Palin?" Limbaugh asked on his radio show. "I know a lot of people that are from the Bronx, Gen. Powell, and if you think the values there in the Bronx today reflect the ones you grew up with, take a trip back and see if the street corners and the activities there are the same as when you were growing up."
Limbaugh got it. When people use phrases such as "small-town values," it's as much about time as it is place. The idea isn't that people who live in small towns have better values than people who live in cities. It's simply an attempt to recall, with nostalgia, what life was like when more Americans lived in small towns.
It used to be that more families ate dinner together and high school students worked summers and after school. It used to be that our schools didn't make excuses for why some kids don't learn because they were too busy trying to teach them.
It used to be that parents weren't interested in being their kids' best friends, only good parents. And it used to be that people pulled their own weight and would never dare ask for a handout.
During a recent interview with the conservative newspaper, Human Events, Palin was asked if she thought her humble background accounted for some of the flak she got from the media. Palin acknowledged that she didn't come from elite stock, but said that she was grateful for that.
"I got my education from the University of Idaho because that's what I could afford," she said. "No, I don't come from the self-proclaimed 'movers and shakers' group and that's fine with me. It's caused me, or rather, allowed me, to work harder and pull myself up by my bootstraps without anyone else helping me. I think it allows me to be in touch with the vast majority of Americans who are in the same position that I am."
Sarah Palin understands a lot about America. Too bad many Americans don't understand Sarah Palin. No worries. They may get another chance to acquaint themselves with her -- in say, four years.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.