The world is still digesting the results of the recent election in the United States. We here at New City Commons are no different, and we’ll likely have more to say about the implications of Tuesday’s decision in future briefings. This week, we begin by addressing the challenge and promise of neighborliness in American life.
To our minds, one of the most important large-scale trends in American social life is the increasing degree to which we live near people who vote like we do—an argument made by Bill Bishop in his 2008 book The Big Sort. The week before the election, the New York Times published a series of maps and graphics that illustrate and extend the point. The piece reports on the percentage of Americans living in “landslide counties,” defined as counties that voted for the Republican or Democratic presidential candidates with at least a 20% margin. In 1992, 38% of American voters lived in such counties; by 2012, the number had grown to 50%. And while there are six times as many Republican landslide counties as Democratic ones, 20 million more Americans live in Democratic landslide counties than Republican ones (roughly 90 million to 70 million). As the authors put it:
Americans have been self-segregating by lifestyle, though not necessarily politics, for several decades, Mr. Bishop said, but lifestyle has grown to reflect politics. “We’re sorting by the way we live, think and — it turns out — every four years or every two years, how we vote.”
This sorting effect was evident to anyone watching the live coverage of Tuesday’s election. Vote tallies coming in from solidly red or blue states were important, but the real action was in the turnout in solidly blue or solidly red portions of key states—the reliably Republican rural vote in central Pennsylvania, for example, versus the urban Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
As the Big Sort continues, and political polarization intensifies, the challenges of neighborliness become simultaneously easier to avoid and all the more important. In one sense, the facts of self-segregation make it easier for us to avoid potentially awkward forms of interaction. Moreover, as anyone who has been online in recent days knows well, social media grants us access to the political views of those near and far. That it also provokes us toward willful misunderstanding, endless virtue signaling, and rhetorical excess is undeniable. But even in the most polarized areas of the country, majorities are not uniformities; and more to the point, voting data is a crude measure of what an individual or family cares most deeply about.
Writing for the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman reviews a new book by Nancy Rosenblum that addresses precisely this divide between our political debates and our neighborly lives. In Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, Rosenblum distinguishes between our political system, which centers around abstraction and elections, and what she calls the “democracy of everyday life,” which centers on the concrete realities of shared space. Politics in the first system is more about what government officials do to us; the politics of everyday life is about what we do together. Rothman begins his review by highlighting the tension between these two democracies in his own small seaside village:
As election day approached, life in the village seemed to have divided into two streams—a neighborly stream, which ran pure and clear, and a political stream, which was muddied and turbulent. When you met a neighbor in line at the pharmacy, it was easy to get along. But at home, contemplating his political position—or, worse, reading about it online—you were filled with contempt and disbelief. People were friendly on the street but angry in their heads; they chatted amiably in person but waged war online. They liked and loathed one another simultaneously, becoming polarized not just politically but emotionally. As the weeks passed, we were doubly in suspense. We wanted to know which party would win, but also whether our town could return to normal. Feelings had been aroused that seemed incompatible with neighborly life. Where would they go?
Rosenblum’s account of the “delicacy of neighbor relations” in America is premised upon the facts of shared space. For good and ill, barking dogs are not abstractions; nor are pleasantries exchanged on sidewalks and across backyard fences. Unlike the dynamics of online missives aimed at everyone and no one, living side by side makes abstraction difficult, if not impossible. Before they are progressives or conservatives, the neighbor is Chris, Ellen, or Javier.
For this reason, the primary virtue of neighborliness is decency. As Rothman puts it:
Throughout American history, Rosenblum finds, the word we have used to describe our neighbors is ‘decent’: good neighbors are “decent folk.” Decency, here, is a circumspect sort of virtue. Being decent doesn’t necessarily mean being good. It means accepting the flaws in others and returning, despite disruptions and disappointments, to the predictable rhythms of reciprocity.
Here Rosenblum extends a Jeffersonian insight at the center of America’s embrace of ideological and religious diversity. For Jefferson and others, meaningful and productive neighborly relations do not require full agreement about the substance or ends of a morally upright life. (As Jefferson famously quipped in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”) What is required is an ethic of reciprocity that recognizes duties of care, however minimal they may be.
Jefferson’s proviso about picking pockets and breaking legs does not require citizens to endure exploitation, cruelty, or hateful speech. It does require a commitment to a pluralism that recognizes differences will endure. But, as Rosenblum and Rothman point out, directing our attention to the dynamics of neighborliness gives us a place to begin. As Rothman puts it, when we pay close attention to our neighbors, “We recognize that, with one part of themselves, they may sincerely hold views that we abhor, while, with another, they may exercise virtues that we admire.” Despite all the challenges we face, people from either side of America’s cultural and political divide still can and do work together, eat together, worship together, buy and sell each other’s goods, and watch each other’s kids. Especially in these days, let us do all we can to see these forms of neighborly decency continue.