Despite an absolutely gorgeous day, I’m spending the afternoon in front of my computer, poring over old writings still resident on my hard drive. What strikes me about what I used to write is that it doesn’t differ much from what I write today, both in temperament and topic. I attribute this continuity to the political environment, which reflects a mass dysfunction, no doubt intended by the powers that be. If you’re rich and comfortable, you don’t want a vibrant, viable opposition threatening your hegemony at every turn.
The piece below (slightly revised) was written sometime in the year 2000, when I lived in Marysville. I’ve also attached the March 1999 issue of The Observer, printed version. The subjects are similar.
It seems to us that it is individualism, and not equality, as Tocqueville thought, that has marched inexorably through our history. We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous—that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.
Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart
The Culture of Separation
When I started my small publication, a journal of opinion, in 1994 I called on several local individuals from varied backgrounds and occupations to serve as an advisory group. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of selecting people who were active in many organizations and causes. But on those few occasions we met, the discussions were lively, intelligent, and informative.
On one such occasion I had asked the group to consider the question: What does Snohomish County, Wash., just north of Seattle lack above all else? The answer was unanimous. Snohomish County, we concluded, lacked a sense of community. Instead, we were so many disparate individuals with little to bind us with one another. Why? Several members of the group suggested that most people who live here have no identity with place—what some call roots.
From my perch—high above the city’s distant sewer lagoon—I can see hundreds of roof tops, over which mostly young families live. On Sundays, many of these families attend church. From Monday through Friday their days are filled with school, work, soccer, and Little League. Saturdays are spent mowing lawns and pulling weeds. In a word, these families are busy; too busy, for the most part, to glance at a newspaper or read a magazine; far too busy to attend hearings and public forums. They travel from house to school and from school to office, then back home again. Quality time means an evening in front of the television. Their routines exist in a middle-class cosmos replicated in every suburb in America. Demographically, the people who occupy the single-family homes in Marysville look, act, and think much like the people who live in Sparks, Nevada; Urbana, Illinois; or Beaverton, Oregon.
Who are we? Ironically, we are where we are, but the ‘where’ has little to do with place; it has everything to do with real estate; and that real estate is increasingly suburban in character.
Suburban living isolates us, which used to be a handicap but is now a preference. We feel comfortable surrounded by folks just like us, as long as they remain impersonal ‘neighbors’ and not distinct Joes or Marys or Toms.
As parents we may run into one another at the baseball diamond or soccer field, but our perfunctory conversations serve only to affirm the suburban principle of homogeneity. Some of us feel good being together at church. Indeed, we believe that we’re basically good all the time, and the world would be a better place if everyone else had values just like ours.
But none of this survives as real community in which diverse people connect through invigorated, shared interests. The rare accidental encounters between essentially isolated beings are not the stuff of genuine democracy.
Consider William Greider’s prescription:
To create a democratic reality with any substance, active citizens have to engage others across…boundaries. They have to search for real bridges that connect one class perspective with another in common goals. They have to define goals that fuse the broad moral meanings of their politics with the visible self-interest of everyday citizens. This undertaking would put them at the messy center of a democratic dialogue—the arguments between ideas and values and the real experiences of real people. It would entail taking up the burden of teaching and listening and searching patiently for collective resolutions.
Genuine democracy is very difficult to do, regardless of the issue or context, and citizens understandably shrink from a challenge that is so hard. [Who Will Tell the People]
Habits of the Heart, a disturbing book written during the height of the Reagan era by Berkeley sociologists, took its title from Alexis de Toqueville, the French aristocrat who visited the U.S. in the early 1800s then wrote an extensive critique called Democracy in America. Toqueville admired Americans’ penchant for forming associations. Based on shared interests between any number of individuals, these countless associations served as forums for discussion, debate, and, above all, action. Toqueville noted that every association published its own newspaper, so that people never lacked for ideas or something to talk about. But, as the sociologists remind us, Americans no longer get together to talk about the things that should really matter: the stuff of genuine democracy.
The American search for spontaneous community with the like-minded is made urgent by the fear that there may be no way at all to relate to those who are too different. Thus the tremendous nostalgia many Americans have for the idealized “small town.” The wish for a harmonious community…is a wish to transform the roughness of utilitarian dealings in the marketplace, the courts, and administration into neighborly conciliation. But this nostalgia is belied by the strong focus of American individualism on economic success. The rules of the competitive market, not the practices of the town meeting or the fellowship of the church, are the real arbiters of living. [ Habits of the Heart].
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam studied the twenty states of Italy between 1970 and 1990. Some of these states, especially in the north, are politically healthy and financially prosperous; others are not. Putnam found that in the relatively prosperous states, citizens were actively engaged in social and political organizations. In the poorer regions, people stayed home.
Across the United States membership in civic organizations has declined since the mid–1970s, from the Lions Club and the Elks Lodge to the League of Women Voters and Business and Professional Women. Even political party membership has fallen. Those who remain are typically the elderly. “Among the DNC’s [Democratic National Committee’s] 100,000 regular contributors,” writes Greider, “the average age is seventy years old.”
But consider the obstacles to public participation, not the least of which is, once again, real estate. Can you think of any worse distribution of people to accommodate accidental encounters than suburbia, where one needs a car for nearly everything, even to retrieve a loaf of bread? In suburbia there are no public squares, parks, community centers, or coffee shops within walking distance where people can gather and chance to meet.
With tragic irony, suburban residents vote Republican, which further contributes to the isolation of the white middle class. Consider the words of Newt Gingrich: “Now [this was 1988] we have a way of dividing America,” Gingrich told the Washington Post. He was talking about the “value-laden” issues of crime, family, and education. The Democratic liberals, he charged, were responsible for all of society’s ills. “These people are sick,” he said. “They are destructive of the values we believe in.”
However, the Republican party, Greider continues, “deliberately coaxes emotional responses from people—teases their anxieties over values they hold important in their own lives—but then walks away from the anger and proceeds to govern on its real agenda, defending the upper-class interests of wealth and corporate power.” After suburbia’s anti-liberal ranting subsides how long will it take before white middle-class America realizes that the Republicans have no intention of helping anyone other than their wealthy clients? It took voters twelve years before they discovered that Reagan and Bush did nothing to reduce government (the federal bureaucracy and budgets expanded), nothing to lower the deficit (which grew larger than in all the previous years combined), and nothing to help the middle class (whose taxes increased, whose wages declined, and whose children’s college tuition costs skyrocketed)—all traditional Republican promises. Under this troublesome duo the rich prospered, the poor multiplied, and the gap between them widened.
And if the Clinton Administration has done anything it has aped the Gingrich recipe for political success in increasingly suburban America. That means lower taxes on the rich, increased spending on defense (where’s the enemy?), punishment of the poor and minorities, the watering-down or the complete elimination of environmental regulations and their enforcement, and the jailing and killing of more criminals.
But issues and political performance no longer guide the few who bother to vote. The increasingly angry and cynical electorate casts ballots against politicians, rarely for a candidate. We base our judgments on how we feel, not on how we think. The most successful purveyor of political feeling, Adolph Hitler, gave people permission to hate. In Germany it was the Jews. Today in America, Republicans and Democrats have expanded the list to include liberals, people of color, and the poor.
Despite their dollars and ownership of the media, the two major parties represent just a small segment of the population. After all, the very rich among us constitute only a few percentage points. To assume legislative power, then, Republicans and Democrats must appear to align themselves with other interests. In 1980, Ronald Reagan appealed to the conservative Catholic vote to claim the White House. In 1994, Republicans welcomed Christians to their fold by talking about school prayer, crime and bashing gays, the ideological glue of white suburbia. In 1996, Clinton turned right and has never looked back.
So, as more of us take up residence outside the cities, Republicans and Clinton Democrats will proliferate. The Republicans, the party of “rancid populism,” as Greider calls it, will continue to push the “values” button, ably assisted by the Christian Coalition, which is neither. Fueled by a thinly-veiled racist hysteria, Republicans and their Democratic partners in crime will continue gutting programs for the poor and people of color while they slash taxes on the wealthy.
But what about the rest of us? Only twenty percent of eligible voters determine presidential races. It’s tough to call any of these elections a ‘mandate.’ Most of us, nearly half nation-wide, stay home. Thomas Paine wrote , “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” (He also said that his mind was “his church.”) Yet, with so many opting out of the minimal political act of voting, what is our future and who are the “we” in Paine’s maxim? Given our abysmal voting record, it seems a bit scandalous for the U.S. to be trumpeting democracy. Indeed, those wretched developing countries we tend to feel sorry for (as we plunder their natural resources and exploit their workers) have much to teach us about the sacredness of the polling booth. After all, many of their citizens risk death to cast a ballot. In America, we just can’t find the time. How remarkably hypocritical and, in the end, self-destructive.
There is a small silver lining to the dark mess we’re in. The suburbs as a way of life may finally be doomed. Also, I am less critical now of those who abstain from voting. There are no real alternatives.