If you grew up anywhere in New York state other than Gotham, you have a choice to make. When you tell people you’re “from New York,” do you stay silent when their eyes widen and they tell you they love visiting but they could never live there? Or do you blow your unearned social capital by clarifying you’re from Buffalo, Syracuse, Mechanicville, or, in my case, Shushan, which isn’t even a town but a “hamlet” with a population of 763? 

Shushan does, however, have one claim to fame: It is part of New York’s 21st Congressional District, currently represented by Rep. Elise Stefanik, the rising GOP star and 2024 vice-presidential contender. Nothing and no one more starkly demonstrates the difference between New York City and the New York I grew up in than this woman. The daughter of a forklift operator who rose to become a regional plywood tycoon, Stefanik is listed among Time’s most influential people of 2024. Her trajectory says something about what has been happening in America since 2016—about the way quiet communities like mine, and the unglamorous people who inhabit them, have begun baring their fangs. But she is also the illustration of how easily the political energy of these places can be harnessed by interests other than their own.

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