Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The right to personal space

One of the key questions that Democrats need to think about is why the exurbs are so heavily Republican: 97 of the 100 fastest growing exurbs voted Bush this year. In thinking about this problem, I think it's worth doing a little David-Brooks-esque cultural analysis and stereotyping.

Here's the premise: there's something peculiarly American about wanting (in fact, feeling that you have the right) to have a lot of space around you. There are plenty of ways to observe this national trait. One microsocial way is by noting spatial etiquette in elevators or on subways. In Europe or Asia, if an elevator or subway is crowded, people jostle right up against each other. In the United States, people will pull themselves into the tightest possible wad to avoid touching each other -- and if you don't make that effort, it's considered invasive.

Or compare how the moderately wealthy prefer to live. In Europe (and even more in Japan), people prefer to live cheek-in-jowl, piled up on top of each other in dense cities. As they get richer, they tend to move closer to the city center. By contrast, in the U.S., central cities have become the exclusive domain of the poor, the young, and (on the coasts) the super-wealthy. For large swathes of America, the central icon of their materialist dreams is a McMansion on a quarter acre lot. (I'm thinking here of a friend of mine who just moved from a lovely two bedroom Pacific Heights apartment, to a 4000 square foot house in the San Antonio burbs, which he refers to as "his castle." When I asked him why he was doing this, he explained that he just didn't feel as if his family -- him, his wife, and their 20 month old -- could handle the cramped quarters in San Francisco. No criticism intended, but this perspective on space would be unintelligible to anyone but an American.)

The national preference for wide open personal space relates back to Aldous Huxley's famous observation that what Americans like about traveling in Europe is the high ratio of history to geography, whereas what Europeans like about traveling in America is just the reverse. It's also true that many Americans subscribe to a version of national identity with roots in homesteading -- hence the headline in the above-linked article refering to exurbs as "the New Frontier." (This New Frontier may not be quite what JFK had in mind, but it does have the virtue of being attainable on the planet Earth.)

What's interesting is that this attitude about personal space, which used to be an undifferentiated national trait, has now become part of the Red-Blue fault-line. On the one hand, if you live right on top of other people (i.e. in flats and apartments), it quickly becomes obvious that you need to have all sorts of regulatory apparatus in place to make the system work; the fantasy of total independence is unsustainable. On the other hand, someone with a big house, clear distance from his neighbors, a gun to defend it for himself, and an SUV to haul stuff onto and off of his patch feels like he's taking care of himself. When you live far enough from the next nearest folks that they can't hear it when you beat your kids, then it's somehow also easy to forget who paved the roads, who makes the water company keep your water clean, who prevents pharmaceutical companies from selling medicine that poisons you, who puts a $1200 check in the mail every month to your parents, who ensures that there are accurate ingredient labels on your food, who guarantees that you have Saturday and Sunday off of work, who insures your bank deposits and underwrites your mortgage, and who insists that telephone and mail service be available in the sticks at the same price as in the city.

In short, the sense of a right to private, personal space -- the right to your own independent chunk of sky -- represents a important, if little commented-on, cultural axis in the Red-Blue divide.

But what's most important for the Democrats to think about is how this faultline differs from the usual Red-Blue divider, namely religion. There's no real need to elaborate the distinction here, but I'll just note that what defines the open-spacers is their resolute desire to be left alone and to take care of themselves, to set their own agenda. Let's merely observe that the Religious Right is fundamentally unsympathetic to the core tenet of the "I want lots of space around me" members of the VRWC, namely that, "I have the right to do what I want in my castle."

The Democrats need to look for symbolic issues that will expose this faultline.

1 comment:

Zak Braverman said...

Maybe part of the reason is that people in red states tend to have more children, thus making more space an issue for them.