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.