Is Political Like-Mindedness Tearing Us Apart?

Red_state,_blue_state.svgA couple of weeks ago, my wife and I moved from rural Southwest Virginia to Portland, Oregon. During the flight out, a cat safely stowed beneath the seat in front of me, I read Amanda Quraishi’s recent The Broad Side piece, “Being Blue in a Red State: Hope for Democrats?

I confess to feeling a twinge of guilt as I left behind a red community for a blue one. It quickly passed, though. Ideological missionary work grows tiring after years, too tiring for me, anyway.

Quraishi explained why she, “a progressive, liberal, Muslim, feminist, Democrat,” remains in Texas. She and other progressives fight to help the Lone Star State swing back from the far right, at least a little. They celebrate “every political and social victory that brings our state politics closer to the center.”

It reminded me of a conversation I had with gay rights activists in Virginia shortly after voters in 2006 overwhelmingly passed one of the nation’s most mean-spirited constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.

I asked, “Why do you stay? Why not move to a state that doesn’t discriminate against you?”

Virginia is their home, they answered. They want to make it a better place.

I heard much the same from atheists I recently interviewed in Southwest Virginia where a school board fought a fruitless legal battle to display the Ten Commandments in schools and local governments go to court to continue opening their meetings with prayers to Jesus. He stays to spread the good word about non-belief.

Quraishi, the gay rights activists and the atheists are missionaries, and they are the exception in modern America. Most people have much less tolerance for banging their heads against ideological walls. Instead, they find communities that fit them better.

From the outside, Virginia might appear purple, a rare swing state that helped elect President Obama twice and has two Democratic U.S. senators. That blue tinge is thanks to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Most of the rest of the commonwealth remains reliably red Bible Belt. The Old South is alive and well.

Republicans hold all of the state executive offices and control both chambers of the legislature. In the last couple of years, they pursued a ludicrously anti-abortion agenda. They taxed hybrid vehicle owners for doing right by the environment. They opted out of as much of Obamacare as they could. They even decreed that colleges may not withhold funding from student groups that discriminate against women and gays.

If those sorts of policies appeal to you, I encourage you to consider moving to Virginia. It’s a lovely state with a lot going for it. We have friends and family there and will be back to visit, but it wasn’t where we wanted to live. We moved to bluer pastures.

Sociologists and political scientists years ago noticed Americans increasingly sorting themselves politically. Greater mobility and long-distance communication have empowered people to live where they want and not lose touch with distant relations.

In their 2008 book “The Big Sort,” Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing argued that this has a tremendous downside. Because so many people today choose to live in communities with like-minded neighbors, the national dialogue suffers. Americans are no longer exposed to different ideas. The art of compromise suffers.

It’s a good theory with some truth, but it is not the entire story. Bitter political polarization is not just a consequence of sorting but also a cause. There is a feedback loop. It is difficult to blame anyone for choosing to live where public policy aligns with personal views and neighbors can have a pleasant conversation about the issues of the day.

Such clustering might even help in some ways. The two major political parties and extremes of the political spectrum are so far apart that all they can do is shout at each other. Clustered communities of like-minded people are sanctuaries from the noise. Too much conflict causes inaction, as we see in Washington. Remove it, and states can be laboratories of democracy that experiment with novel social and economic policies.

If you want to do something about global warming or believe women should have reproductive choices, why live amongst people who not only disagree but also demonize your views? If you think government is too large and same-sex marriage is an affront to your god, why live where gerrymandering ensures your representative will never vote your way?

Find the right place for you. Leave the rest for the missionaries.

The Broad Side’s newest contributor Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance, pursues a couple of book projects and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License

  • I think you just made an argument for states’ rights. Am I wrong or pleasantly amazed?

    FYI I’ve lived as a conservative in both blue and red states.

  • Chris Trejbal

    You are not wrong. I believe in both state’s rights and federal authority. There needs to be a balance. Part of the problem with the national dialogue today is that too many loud people fall into the extremes on states v. federal, at least when it suits their agenda. One whole point of having Brandeis’ laboratories of democracy is that when a state does hit on something successful, it can roll out across the country.

    • Chris, shucks! I was hoping to be pleasantly amazed!

      I agree with you there needs to be a balance. Part of the problem today is extremism per agenda, as you point out, but it’s also an overreaching federal government that wants to control things like the portion size of proteins in school lunches–matters much better managed at the state and local level–or wants to legislate in the federal courts.

  • Christie

    As a fellow former Virginian (and now forever New Yorker), this touches my heart. Thank you.

  • Chris Trejbal

    Hi Christie. You are most welcome. I am happy that you have found a home that fits who you are. Thank you for reading.

  • Even people who choose to stay where they are can isolate themselves from others’ viewpoints and reinforce their own by spending time with like-minded people on the internet and reading only the news sources, blogs, etc. that support their own positions. We are all the poorer for the failure to exchange ideas and to take the opportunity to learn from those with whom we disagree–or even just to know them and respect them as people. Political views are not the totality of a person.

  • Michael

    I live in the town you just left and have lived in the same area for most of my life. I tend to lean to the left when I walk, if you catch my drift. My town is blue, my county is purple, my congressional district is red, my state is purple, and right now my country is bluish purple. I like most of my neighbors. Even the ones I mostly disagree with I find pleasant, friendly, and good-hearted people. I have always been surrounded by people lots unlike me and I’m fine with that. I’m happy to live in a country where I can freely speak my mind and practice whatever religion (or none) I prefer. Yeah, Virginia has passed some stupid laws (like, as you mentioned, penalizing people who buy hybrid cars). And I love Oregon! But generally I feel unoppressed and happy to live in such a talented, relaxed, friendly, supportive, intelligent, largely rural community.

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