In 2nd grade, my teacher Mrs. Bahedry decided to conduct a poll. “Raise your hands,” she said—in the fall of 2000, an election year—“if your parents are voting for Al Gore.” A sea of hands went up. This was a private school in Bel Air, a notoriously wealthy—and, at least according to this sample, liberal—enclave. “Now raise your hands if they’re voting for Bush.” Only Julia Carroll and I raised our hands. Julia looked embarrassed. I was stoked. The same way I desperately wanted to break my arm or be on crutches or have to wear glasses—something happens to you, that’s out of your control, that makes you stand out and get special attention? What could be better?—I was elated to be part of this apparent minority that, apparently, carried some sort of meaning.
Mrs. Bahedry nodded as she contemplated Julia’s hand (which was practically buried in her armpit at this point) and mine (soaring in the sky): “Very interesting,” she said. She was taking it all in.
I sat down at the dinner table that night and told my parents the story of just how delightfully unique they were. But their facial expressions gave off more of an ‘a bomb just went off’ vibe. It wasn’t until years later that I understood why.
Mrs. Bahedry was peeking—and it clearly wasn’t because she didn’t intensely judge our parents no matter what.
Looking past the highly immoral methods of a second grade teacher, how many times in the past year have we each wanted to peek? Have we met a stranger who we liked and then, based on something in the way they talked or where we met them, thought, “Oh shit. What if they voted for so-and-so?”
I wonder if George Strait is for or against gay marriage. I get the creeping nervous feeling that he might be against it as I listen to Cowboys Like Us—which, for the record, is a delightful song that has nothing to do with politics, but the concern has arrived ready-made and I can only dismiss it by thinking, he’s probably for it. He’s been in the entertainment industry too long not to accept the LGBT community.
It’s as if I can only enjoy his work—which, as a reminder, is singing songs—if I can delude myself into believing that he has the same politics as I do.
Increasingly, when considering the people around us whose ideologies we do not know, we present ourselves with the following choice: to peek or not to peek? “Peeking” because we wonder if we want to know about the political views of, say, our favorite neighbor in the same spirit as we wonder if we should listen in on what’s said about us after we leave a room: risk learning something we don’t like? Or continue to live in a state of blissful ignorance? Just like right before we peek, the trademark emotion in this dilemma is nervousness: nervousness because we know, deep down, if they turn out to have politics we’re opposed to, we’re going to have a hard time liking that person as much as we thought we did. If they turn out to share ours, on the other hand, we’ll breathe a sigh of relief and like them even more.
Americans having different views from members of the opposite political party is nothing new. What is new is our fear that the people we know, like, and live near may indeed be members of that other party. As Bill Bishop writes in his book on the geographic clustering of like-minded America, in 1976, less than 25 percent of us lived in counties where the presidential election was a landslide. Meaning that 75 percent of us lived, went to school with, and played poker with people who were likely to have different beliefs than we did. Compare that to today. The statistic has flipped: 80 percent of Americans live in counties where either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton won in a landslide. Meaning that only 20 percent of us are living in places where we don’t expect the person we’re talking to in the grocery store line to have the same stance on abortion as we do. Only 20 percent of us are living in places where it wouldn’t be a potential piece of gossip that so-and-so voted for the other candidate.
One good example of ideological migration is a 1976 San Francisco County, where the Republican Gerald Ford got 44 percent of the vote. In 2004, George W. Bush got 15 percent of the vote. As Thomas Jackson of American Variety puts it and Bishop confirms in his data, “Republicans did not all die or convert; they cleared out”.
Ideological sorting, in other words, didn’t happen because neighbors influenced each other, but because they chose each other. It also coincides with a particular separate but interrelated trend: Americans are moving way more than they used to. More young people than ever are moving to cities where they didn’t grow up and more families are moving, too.
The changing job market, a growing emphasis on “lifestyle”, the skyrocketing cost of rent in major cities—the factors impelling us to move are rarely ideological on the surface. It’s not like a footloose liberal is looking up Multnomah County’s election stats before making the big leap…but well-known identity cues like “artsy”, “entrepreneurial”, “yuppie haven”, and “sanctuary city” leads them to conclude all the same that Portland, Oregon is a place where they’re bound to encounter plenty more of their own kind. A conservative doesn’t need to ask about politics to know what a town with a big Veteran’s Day parade and “strong hunting culture” connotes. We’re not using these gratingly cliché, horrifyingly simplified cues to define how we think about ourselves as individuals. We are, it turns out, using them pretty hardcore to define the type of place we think we would and wouldn’t be comfortable living.
My dad and I have an inside joke. “How many girls who went to private school in LA, do you think, want to live in Kentucky and Idaho?”
“I do well in red states,” I’ll say back with a smile.
But that’s not the whole story. The whole story is that I do well in liberal enclaves within red states.
I love Idaho, but my main vantage point is Sun Valley, Idaho, a tourist ski town heavily influenced by its coastal guests and the type of place where the bookstore sells “Blue Girl, Red State” bumper stickers. I live in Kentucky, but in Louisville, Kentucky, which is like if you stuck a half-pint Portland Oregon in the South. It allows me to wear cowboy boots unironically and drive a pickup truck and say to my overwhelmingly liberal, coastal friends, ‘hey, look at me: I live in Kentucky!’ (hey, look at me! I have glasses and a broken arm!) while ensconced in a thick ring of micro foam coffee shops and “No Human is Illegal” signs. I get to be simultaneously close to and far away from “the other”. I get to answer the dilemma, ‘to peek or not to peek’ by convincing myself that I already have, and that it’s all just fine with me.
Assuming we’re not going to inspire a conservative infiltration of Brooklyn anytime soon or undo 45 years’ worth of place-based preferences that most of us thought were incidental, what do we do?
I don’t know the answer, but I keep coming back to the image of me when someone I know professes a political opinion that I can’t stand: wringing my hands, trying to look like I’m listening but really I’m so stressed by what they’re saying that I’m not listening, switching back and forth between hoping they stop talking as soon as possible and hoping they keep talking long enough for me to develop a three point rebuttal plan.
No wonder we all moved so far away from one another. That person sucks. Nobody enjoys being that. Nobody enjoys receiving that.
Here’s a small shift we might try: as a game, the next time one of these conversations comes up, what if we didn’t allow ourselves to respond with our own opinion at all? With the stress off the table that comes with having to address a worldview to which we’re dramatically opposed, how would this change the questions we ask? How would this change the goals of the connection we seek to make?