Community

Community-horz

Well, I voted on Election Day.  I presume many of you did too, judging from the reports of high turnout.

My initial reaction is one of relief.  I can finally watch television without watching one candidate (or those friendly to him/her) trash the opposing candidate over and over and over again.

My second reaction is a little less clear.  Is our loss of community one of the causes of the nasty political divisions we have all been experiencing?

Up until the second world war it was not uncommon for a person to be born at home, die at home, and spend the intervening lifetime within a single county.  That person’s entire life was spent around two groups: family and a local community.

Even then the advent of radio brought the wider world into our communities, but that was purely a one-way interaction.  Any discussions about news, entertainment or popular trends were still largely within the confines of family and community.

In postwar America we became mobile.  It became common for a family to move to a different city or a different State.  Extended family was still there by way of letter and the long distance telephone call but the days of seeing your relatives every day were dwindling.

One thing about communities involving real people is that each has its own flavor.  I live in Indiana, a state that is deeply red in politics.  I have traveled the State extensively and have noticed that there are several deeply blue communities within it.  But each is different.  There is the combination of working-class Catholics of eastern European ethnicity and African-Americans in the area that borders Chicago.  There is the mostly white protestant union members of the factory towns of Muncie and Anderson.  Then there is Monroe County, the location of Indiana University and a bastion of the kinds of progressivism found in college towns on the coasts.

The red areas of the state differ too.  There are the affluent suburbs north of Indianapolis, the protestant farming communities of the northern parts of the State and the increasingly conservative Catholic small towns of Southern Indiana.

Each of these communities (and the many others I could have mentioned) has its own unique flavor.  However, whatever the flavor the community is not monolithic and includes unique individuals who live and work side by side.

In my own neighborhood I have lived next door to a couple for decades.  They are a little older than we are but are similar in many ways.  Except that we disagree on almost every political topic that might come up.  But I know them and they know me.  I watched their kids grow up and leave home and they have watched ours do the same.  David and I have commiserated in our driveways about weather, moles in our yards and aging relatives.  We occasionally talk politics, usually disagree, and are always civil – because we know each other as people and not as the abstract “thems”.

Today so many of our communities are online.  It is easy to fall in with others who agree with us on topics that push our buttons.  And those who have other views?  They are often people we have never met and who live in communities we have never visited.  This makes it so easy to dismiss them as stupid or evil or just plain wrong about everything.  The fact that we will never run into them at the grocery store or the gas station makes it all the easier.  Yes, we consciously know that they are actual people, but the limited ways in which we interact makes this a difficult concept to flesh out in real life.

Modern mass media and the internet have nationalized and homogenized modern politics.  It was once said that “all politics is local” but I am not sure this is true any longer.  Interest groups of one side will pour money into a particular state or congressional district while interest groups of the other side do the same elsewhere – all like government is a big chess board or a game of fantasy football.  All’s fair to give “us” the advantage against “them”.

What is missing is the idea that our system was designed for each community to elect someone to represent it.  There are undoubtedly differences and some spirited arguments along the way, but it is about each community having some kind of voice in the larger process.

I realize that there are some big questions out there about which course we should choose in governing ourselves, and that these big questions can make for some serious disagreements.  But there are many differences among us – are we urban or rural, young or old, religious or not, and a host of other demographic factors that can color our outlook.  And many of these differences come down to the demographics which predominate in each local community.

The maps I combined for the opening graphic show that even in what is considered “a red state” our local communities are able to come to their own decisions (and change their minds) given the unique choices presented with each election.

I wonder if one of the sources of political friction today is the increasingly common occurrence of outsiders bringing their money and influence into a community in an attempt to bulldoze over local mores.  Or perhaps this is just an inevitable side effect of the higher and higher stakes that come from a government that controls more and more of our lives.

I am being told that the 2020 election season is essentially underway now.  I am sure I will survive it, just as I did this one.  But I wish that each of us could pull back just a little from our macro-focus and devote a little more time to our extended family and our State, County and neighborhood.  I think it might be good for us.  It would certainly be good for me.

 

Illustration credit: Indiana Senate Results By County (L to R) 2012, 2004, 2016.  Source: Wikimedia Commons, with images combined by the Author.  Yes the years are out of order but the visual asymmetry of chronological order was more than I could handle. 

11 thoughts on “Community

  1. Bang on again JP, all those advances that were supposed to bring us closer together have allowed us to get further apart.

    I find this whole pouring money thing very disturbing, a quick google tells me the 2018 midterms cost 5 billion dollars. How much useful stuff could you do for 5 billion? Or even half that, would people object to having half as many TV ads and robocalls?

    Wondering about the “melting pot” vs the “cultural mosaic” here. Maybe our sense of community isn’t as strong but on the flip side our sense of other isn’t either.

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    • You add a good counterpart to the weakening of community. There are a couple of places near me that were downright unwelcoming to outsiders (let alone outsiders of a different race or religion). Happily they were few, but they were there. They seem better now.

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  2. “Is our loss of community one of the causes of the nasty political divisions we have all been experiencing?” Yes, I think so — and your example of the neighbor with whom you disagree politically but still get along is a perfect example. But beyond the breakdown in our collective sense of community, there are two more factors I think are contributing to the divisiveness: disparate information channels, and politicians’ deliberate use of “wedge” topics. The average person is going to have a very different view of the world if they watch only Fox, for example, than if they watch only CNN. But even more disturbing is how politicians are deliberately pitting Americans against each other, telling them that those who differ are “deplorables” or “mobs.” In fact, the deplorables and mobs are those very neighbors we wave to; they’re our waitresses and co-workers; our kids’ teachers … our priests and pastors. I don’t know what the solution is on the macro level (if there is one) but on a micro level I’m trying to remember Gandhi’s admonition that we must each be the change we wish to see in the world. In the end, a more united United States starts with each of its citizens and the small actions they take every day. Thank you for this very thought-provoking piece!

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    • All excellent points. I might quibble just a touch on the news media thing. Back before the advent of AM talk radio you got all the news variety you wanted, so long as you were happy with a soft center-left outlook. So while there were not disparate news sources, those news sources we had just all slanted the same way. It would seem that there should be a good balance between allowing the slants of competing news outlets (they all have one) and keeping those sources within some boundaries of what is reasonable. Darned if I know how to get there, though.

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      • You’re absolutely right that the news is always going to have a slant of some kind, JP. No matter how objective journalists (and editors) strive to be, the very words they choose and the order in which they present facts can inject bias into their reporting. But what worries me is the utter disregard for objectivity, which used to be (at least in principle) one of the sacred tenets of journalism. When one group is being told that the U.S. is being invaded by a mob of muscular, tuberculosis-ridden criminals and another group is being told that the caravan is mostly women and children who are walking on bloody stumps to escape starvation and brutal violence, of course it’s hard to collaborate and come up with a reasonable, rational solution. It takes both discipline and discernment to understand these complex and nuanced issues, but sadly most Americans aren’t getting past the sound bites. Sigh.

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      • I attribute much of this to 24 hour “news channels”. Take Fox News. They do a small number of actual news shows that are straight-up news (with, of course, a conservative bias in story selection and angle of inquiry). But the other 95 percent of programming is all editorial commentary in the yellow journalism tradition of old. CNN and MSNBC do the same thing but in a mirror image.

        These guys have 24 hours to fill every day and every hour must have higher ratings than the day before, so they spend their days throwing chum into the water. The partisans (and the unstable among them) eat this stuff up and take it outside into the real world.

        I agree with you that there has been a blurring between journalism and advocacy and entertainment. And it is not good.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Brilliant analysis, JP! You’ve hit on the root cause, I think — and something I had not considered. Well … Americans rebelled against yellow journalism 120 years ago, so perhaps they’ll do so again. As you say, though: No bueno. Thank you again for all this stimulating thought-fodder!

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  3. $440 billion is the US budget for 2018.
    This doesn’t include state budgets, easily worth at least half that – perhaps more.
    Whoever wins control of our government – wins the chance to spend 1 trillion dollars during a two year term in the US Congress.
    So, spending $3 billion to win that trillion is worth it.

    My old political science profession told us on the first day that all politics can be boiled down to one question – “Who pays?”

    So, if we don’t want hundreds of millions of dollars ripping us apart every two years, perhaps we need to change the rules of winning that trillion dollars. That figure, probably can’t go down much – but we can sure double, or triple the number of seats needed to get there. If we had 1000 congresscritters and 200 senators, each seat would plummet in individual value. If we had term limits, they could be further diminished in value. Right now there is more outside money pouring through our communities during elections than many of those communities are actually worth.

    So, our communities are getting torn up for that trillion dollar jackpot. We’re getting politicized over everything from sports, movies and fraternities, to universities, corporations and churches. We’ve gone off the rails.

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    • My take is that government at the federal level has become so much more involved in everything than was ever envisioned at the start. When that government starts affecting your livelihood, of course people are going to pay for protection.

      My father used to say that Congress should be in session for only maybe 60 days a year. That’s enough time to fix what needs it but not enough time to get into mischief.

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