We have a neighborhood Internet listserve in South Austin that is often a source of good information about painters, plumbers, and lost animals. The e-discussion can also become a parody of liberal preciousness. One participant wrote to say that he planned to live-trap rats that had invaded his garage. The vermin-friendly homeowner wanted to know where it might be safe to "relocate" the rodents. The one Republican on the newsgroup, Stephen Mason, dared to say what most of us probably thought, volunteering that the man could release the varmints near Mason's rat terrier, Hotard, who would happily "relocate them to rat heaven." Our lone conservative correspondent, however, knew better than to make his comments overtly political. Mason, an intellectual property attorney and Texas A&M graduate, had tried to start a genuine political discussion on the list the year before. He wasn't about to try again.
It was the spring of 2004, so things were already tense when Mason called the newsgroup's attention to the election for the board of the local community college. Mason gave the names of both candidates, listed their websites, and then, after a warning that what followed was "possibly inappropriate electioneering," recommended one of the candidates. The man Mason backed was deeply conservative, a member of the Federalist Society, a former officer of the Young Conservatives of Texas, and an opponent of gay marriage and adoption. Within the day, the newsgroup reacted in a way that wasn't as much ideological as biological. Mason wasn't just someone to be argued against. For the protection of the group, he needed to be isolated, sealed off, and expelled.
Okay, as a member of this list, I'd really like to see this political discussion disappear. As a lesbian, obviously I'm not going to vote for anybody who doesn't believe I shouldn't be allowed to adopt kids . . . As a resident of Travis Heights and a member of this neighborhood list, I'm not interested in having this kind of discussion here. I have to defend myself against my government pretty much daily these days, and one place I don't want to have to do it is on this list.
A-men. Stephen, you're in the minority politically on this list and in this neighborhood, and while your opinions are your own to have, this list isn't the place for them . . . T-Hts is my home, and this list an extension of that . . . I hope we can all agree to prevent it from becoming a battleground.
[The] ideological balkanization of America is dead-on true . . . Living here, especially as an "out" Republican, is a great deal of fun, and I learn a great deal from it. The most valuable thing that I learn daily is the capacity to respect people with whom I have disagreements. I hope not to be exiled to some place where the vast majority agrees with me.
Then, alas, enough with the calls for reasoned discussion:
I'm really not interested [in] being surprised by right-wing e-mail in my in box, no matter what its guise. It makes me feel bad, and I don't like it.
There were dissenting views. "I really don't want political or other uncomfortable subjects segregated into some kind of opinion ghetto where only proselytizing activists and ideologues would venture," wrote one South Austinite. Another: "I'm going to stick my neck out here. I DO want to have political discussion . . . It is a tragedy that this country is becoming more and more polarized. Neighborhoods are becoming more and more homogeneous, either Democrat or Republican. Talk about segregation!" But Mason got the picture: he was a Republican Crusoe on this Democratic island, and so he withdrew, promising never to talk politics again with his neighbors.
"Look, I know a lot about homogeneous political communities," Mason said one afternoon at a South Austin coffeehouse. He'd grown up in the Republican suburbs of Houston and attended the conservative hive of Texas A&M University. He was pugnacious about his politics, ending every e-mail message with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: "Aggressive fighting for the right is the greatest sport in the world." Mason was also engaged to marry a feminist filmmaker, an experience that taught him that "nearly everything is political." But nothing had prepared him for the unsettling experience of being a political minority in the community where he lived for being a minority in the age of political segregation. "I ran off that listserve when the rhetoric became so shrill that I didn't have the taste for saying about anyone the things you would need to say to win that argument," Mason continued. "I'm not going to use that listserve for politics again, and there is some shame in that." The experience had changed the way he saw himself in the neighborhood. Knowing he was a minority, he wondered what people thought of him as he walked Hotard. "In some way after that exchange, I think I'm viewed with suspicion by my neighbors because of an act of political expression, which is a little on the bizarre side," he said. "I'm just a guy who has a dog and works a job."
Washington was, from its beginning, a politically segregated city. In his forty-year-old study, The Washington Community, historian James Sterling Young mapped three Washingtons, one created for each of the three branches of government. The nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court lived in the same house until 1845. Executive branch workers gathered in one section of the city, near the White House, while congressmen were bunched together nearer the Capitol. "Men whom the Constitution merely separated into different work groups separated themselves into different societies," wrote Young.
Congressmen lived in boarding houses. They formed eating clubs around common tables, and they slept together, two to a room. Young tracked the membership of these new boarding house communities and found that the residential segregation that marked the entire city was repeated in the houses. Men from one state or region would board together, finding comfort in their similar cultural ties, political outlooks, and, no doubt, culinary proclivities. "Legislators had a decided aversion to sharing their mess table, their living quarters, and their leisure hours with colleagues from regions other than their own," Young wrote. Washington had been created as the common ground of the nation, an intentionally heterogeneous society consisting of men gathered from across the new country. Without plan or foresight, however, the city had been transformed into an archipelago of culturally homogeneous and politically insular fraternity houses.
The homogeneity of the boarding houses crisply reflected the country, where communities were isolated by rivers, mountain ranges, and vast distances. The cultural segregation in early America was enforced by the lack of mobility, whereas today it's the ease with which Americans are able to move that has created political segregation. Even though we know much more now about the psychological effects of living in likeminded groups, the founders understood the dangers of self-segregation in ways we do not, and they sought to temper those influences. The research on the psychology of groups began more than one hundred years after the nation was formed. In scores of experiments, social psychologists learned about the power of groups to shape opinion and snuff out dissent. But without the benefit of science, the founders made an instinctual decision to embrace difference. It's not at all clear now that even with all of our knowledge, we are willing or able to make the same choice.
Rick Warren's wildly popular book The Purpose-Driven Life begins with a challenge to Americans' post-materialist self-centeredness: "It's not about you." In the sense of the Great Commission, that is exactly right. Life and the church are about finding salvation in Christ. The imperative of "like attracts like" evangelism, however, caters to the individual from the time the convert first answers the call to worship. Whenever the evangelist Billy Graham issued his altar call, inspired people would stream to the foot of the stage to pledge their lives to the church. At that first moment of their new faith, Graham made sure the freshly converted were met by volunteers of the same age, sex, and race. The shepherding of people into their proper "homogeneous units" begins at the beginning. Which raises a question: in this world of segmented Sunday school classes, stopwatch-timed sermons, "people like us" altar calls, and preachers in market-tested cruise ship attire, isn't there something very pervasive that's all about you?
The successful North Coast Church in Vista, California, follows a fundamentalist doctrine: the inerrancy of the Bible, water baptism, and the "imminent" Second Coming of Christ. North Coast has found an innovative way to grow through the homogeneous unit principle, beaming a central service to video screens in different meeting places. Everyone hears the same sermon, but everyone listens in a place with its own special "ambiance." The venues in 2007 were described on the church's website in terms that almost parody brand-defined, music-segmented, American mall-speak. In the central church, North Coast offered "a full worship band, Starbucks coffee, and a Barnes & Noble' style bookstore in the lobby." At the "Country Gospel" venue, North Coast adopted Hee Haw informality, encouraging just-folks, "Y'all come on over and . . . join us for some bluegrass/country gospel." The "Traditions" hall provided "an intimate and nostalgic worship experience led from a baby grand piano." At "The Edge," churchgoers could count on "Starbucks coffee, Mountain Dew, big subwoofers and teaching via big-screen video."
The goal of the church in other times was to transfigure the social tenets of those who came through the door. Now people go to a church not for how it might change their beliefs, but for how their precepts will be reconfirmed. "I find very little evidence that churches are really transforming their congregations," University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel told me. "It's rather quite the reverse. Ministers depend on pleasing a particular congregation for their longevity. The last thing they want to do is offend those people or try to transform their viewpoint . . . . It's conformity all the way." We have more choices than ever before in the hundreds of religious niche markets. But given a choice, we select sameness. This was hardly Donald McGavran's intention when he came upon a church community that was losing members and introduced a young generation of ministers to missionary techniques discovered in India.
"The church needed to be birthed within . . . indigenous cultures and take on that indigenous expression," Eddie Gibbs told me. "It was a missional principle, and when it came to the U.S., it became a marketing principle: how to gather more people like us. [Churches] picked up the tactical parts, but I'm not too sure they understood the deeper mission implications. And they didn't really address the cultural implications, because mission morphed into marketing."
Doug Breese ranches land his grandfather began piecing together in 1905. Homesteaders who had come to central Oregon realized that they weren't making any money and likely never would, so Breese's granddad was able to pick up land in Crook County at fifty cents an acre. Ranching is a make-do occupation, and ranchers are some of the world's best recyclers. The pipe running water from a spring to the Breese homestead was recovered from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The ranch is now a model of flexible production operating in a world market. Breese points from his pickup window to the pasture where he's experimenting with grass-fed beef. He grew peppermint until the Russians and Brazilians undercut his price by a third. He produced garlic seed one year, sold it for twelve cents a pound, and made money. The Chinese then put garlic seed on the market for two cents a pound. "It's okay," he said, in the best manner of a former president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. "They're learning to produce just like we learned to produce."
We drove down a road between Breese's ranch and the town of Prineville, the county seat. Doug pointed to the spot where the Democrats lost Crook County. Over there, Breeze said, the owner of the county's last sawmill went out of business. "He finally gave up because he couldn't get any wood," Breese explained, pushing back his Animal Pharmaceuticals gimme cap. In the mid-1970s, no matter where you went in Oregon, people had good feelings about environmentalists. But after a decade or so of fighting about old-growth forests, spotted owls, and endangered species, rural Oregonians concluded that environmentalists were the enemy the people who wanted to do away with jobs in counties such as Crook. Some people in fact, quite a lot of people argued that Oregon's milling operations were hurt more by markets than by the Endangered Species Act a bill, Oregon Democrats like to point out, that was signed by Richard Nixon. But there were once six sawmills in Prineville, and now there are none. The perception here is that those environmentalists were people from the city. They wanted to tell rural people how to live where they could build, what they could cut, and how many guns they could own. And those people doing all the telling were Democrats.
This isn't just the way rural Republicans view Democrats. At the Sandwich Factory in Prineville, Crook Democratic Party chair Steve Bucknum smoothes out a sheet of paper and draws a diagram of a wagon wheel that he says explains the Democrats' troubles in rural America. There are issues that cause problems for rural Democrats, Bucknum says, such as gun control and the Endangered Species Act. These are the spokes in the wheel. Spokes can be replaced, he said. The real difficulty the party has is the hub. "At the center of the wheel is elitism," Bucknum said. "The reason rural people become resentful is that they feel like in every one of these issues, they are being told what to do by someone who claims to know better. And that elitism is seen as Democratic, no matter where it comes from."
Back in Portland, it's easy to see how rural Oregonians might come to think poorly of the city and the Democrats who live there. At the too-cool Jupiter Motel one of the manifestations of hipness in the new century is the transformation of 1950s and 1960s flophouses into hard-to-book accommodations with concrete floors, low beds, and minimalist decorations a wonderfully nice woman with two-tone hair and tattoos that began on her fingers and disappeared up her shirtsleeve directed me to the Doug Fir Room. Young people ate off tables made of thick planks of Douglas fir and bought drinks at a sculpted Doug fir bar. They soaked in the romance of Oregon as a timber state while listening to whatever indie surfer rock band was making the rounds. Around Prineville, nobody cuts Doug fir for a living anymore, and there's nothing romantic about ranch work. Doug Breese and his son have spent the past three years pulling rocks from one field. The stones filled a dump truck and rested in piles, and the field still wasn't planted. That's ranching. The Breeses cut juniper and medusahead to keep the pastures clear, and when the stuff grows back, they cut it again. Breese sees endangered species laws protecting trees and birds, but there's no law promising that his ranch will be around for his kids.
Americans have been polarized before, of course, and these divisions have been cured by the eventual (some political scientists say inevitable) rise of cross-cutting issues. Although the two parties emerged from the 2006 midterm elections as polarized as at any time since the end of World War II, this kind of rigid partisanship can't last. Or at least it hasn't lasted in the past. Maybe the struggle to provide everyone with medical care will become one of those cross-cutting issues, urgent enough to put Republicans and Democrats in mixed company again. Already, an unlikely coalition including Wal-Mart, Intel, Kelly Services, and the Service Employees International Union is calling for a new American health care system by 2012. Similar combinations of old enemies and new friends can be seen forming in debates surrounding immigration.
But the Big Sort has not been simply a difference of political opinion. The communities of interest and the growing economic disparities among regions won't disappear with a change in Congress or a new president. Moreover, it's wishful thinking to predict that a Generation Y LBJ will emerge to become a twenty-first-century "man of the earth," some kind of web-based "deus ex MySpace" politician who could forge a national consensus out of our disparate communities. Presidential candidates and op-ed writers often lament the lack of leaders, as if entire generations of Americans were born without the skills of a Johnson, a Franklin D. Roosevelt, or a Dwight D. Eisenhower. There are, of course, just as many leaders as there have always been. What the country is missing is old-fashioned followers. The generations that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century lost trust in every vestige of hierarchical authority, from the edicts of Catholic bishops to the degrees of Free Masons to the stature of federal representatives. There haven't been any new LBJs because the whole notion of leadership has changed and the whole shape of democracy is changing.