Blue Commoners, and Abstractions in the Red Zone


November 13, 2006


Browse in Community Politics

The Red States/Blue State trope lost ground last week, at last. It never was what it seemed to begin with. As numerous writers have pointed out, the electoral divide is less between states than between urban, suburban and rural areas within states. California’s Central Valley is Red, while the coast is Blue.  Much as with the concept of race, there is as much diversity within the so-called Red states, as between them.

That leaves the big misconception about the Blue areas themselves – namely that they are hip urban enclaves inhabited by “cultural creatives” in the smug and self-congratulatory parlance of the demographic trade. Those Red people with their rec room projects! We have Thai food and couture.  In this version Blue is a kind of cultural emanation that floats through the urban ether, imparting an affinity for gay marriage and welfare and a snooty aversion to churches and guns.

Yes, that does exist.  But have any of the people who think cities are dominated by these “cultural creatives”  ever ridden the San Francisco Muni to the Outer Sunset or Boston’s Blue Line to Orient Heights?  Hipness is not the only thing that’s going on, or even the main thing. What these people really share is the experience of living in or near cities — rubbing the proverbial elbows, sitting next to all sorts of people, passing them on sidewalk, dealing with them at work, seeing at first hand both destitution and extreme wealth.

This does not produce uniformity of view but it does tend to produce a toleration of difference.  You are less likely to make bogeymen of gays when they are the neighbor who waters your plants while you are away.  Black, brown, yellow or whiteness is not that big a deal when the overwhelming majority of black, brown, yellow or white people you encounter are going about their business, just as you are – and when you actually do encounter such people as opposed to cartoon portrayals of them.

Cities also produce an understanding that we all are in this together.  Tax dollars are going not to a loathsome abstraction called “the government,” but to parks and libraries, fire fighters and police. The government isn’t always efficient, any more than private corporations are.  But damn, we need it. The noise of one neighbor, the fumes from a single restaurant with faulty ventilation, can make life miserable for a whole block.  We all need to bend a little in the “rights” department so that we all can get along.  City people tend to understand this.

They also understand that commerce – good commerce — is not part of another abstraction called “the market.”  It is part of a community.  It surprises visitors to learn that New Yorkers actually are villagers – the village being the roughly three-block radius from one’s apartment. You know your dry cleaner and the man at the hardware store by first name.  The owner of the little Chinese place down the street asks if you would like the Szechwan Rice Noodles, as usual.

You know these people, and the relationship often extends beyond what is called “market exchange.” In Washington, D.C. it once was common in some neighborhoods for the owners of corner stores to take package deliveries for customers during the day, or hold keys for visitors from out of town.  In towns and cities thoughout the country, local merchants used to extend credit to people who were down on their luck – not as business people but as neighbors.

These thoughts came to mind when I read the new book, Big Box Swindle, by Stacey Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance. The book is a lot better than the title might suggest, less an anti Wal-Mart tract than a thoughtful and informed discussion of the role of local commerce in the making of communities. Among other things, Mitchell has resurrected the groundbreaking studies of Walter Goldschmidt, a sociologist who worked with the US Department of Agriculture, in the 1940s.

Goldschmidt studied two towns in the California agriculture belt, one dominated by a handful of large growers and the other populated by smaller family farmers. By just about every measure, the town with the family farmers had a better community infrastructure and a richer civic life. It had twice the number of civic and social organizations, two newspapers that both were larger than the one in the grower-dominated town.  People were much more engaged in public affairs.

In other words the nature of the business in a locality affects the civic life of that locality.  All business is not the same.

Goldschmidt lost his job for his efforts.  The Department of Agriculture was becoming the Department of Agribusiness, and – as with the Bush people and climate change – it didn’t want to hear anything that might rain on the parade.  Still, a host of subsequent studies confirmed Goldschmidt’s insights. C. Wright Mills, the noted sociologist, and a colleague undertook an urban version of Goldschmidt’s work in manufacturing communities in the Midwest.  Cities with many small manufacturers, they found, had better public facilities and a larger middle class, than cities with one or a few big ones.

In economic downturns people in the small-company cities were not laid off as quickly, because the business owners had a greater sense of responsibility to the whole. Infant mortality was much lower, and class differences as well.  Just last year, a sociologist at Baylor University in Texas by the name of Charles Tolbert looked in particular at the civic and social value of locally owned retail business.

He found,  in Mitchell’s words, that “states in which a larger share of the retail activity is captured by locally-owned businesses rank higher on a wide range of social, economic, and civic measures.  Poverty, crime, and infant mortality are all lower in local-retail states than in those with a greater share of chain stores.”  Tolbert also found that voter turnout is higher where retail businesses are locally owned.

This is not surprising. People tend naturally to be more engaged when they have a personal connection to the economic life around them – as producers and neighbors, not just as shoppers. I see this in my own town, which is a small community on the Northern California coast. We patronize the local merchants out of loyalty to them, and not just in a quest for the cheapest price.  In my household we often check the impulse to get an item at Target or Costco, and say, “Let’s give the business to so-and-so instead.”

Our local pharmacist kept his prices rock-bottom, and was known to cut them further for people in need. (He died recently, which has caused people to appreciate the gem we had.)  The Bovine Bakery is known almost as much for its community-mindedness as for its scones. When a coffee bar opened not long ago at Toby’s Feed Barn down the street, Bridget Devlin, the owner of the Bovine, was among the first to patronize it.  (Bridget maintains the Bovine as an “espresso-free establishment” anyway.)

Economists call this “irrational” behavior – which says more about economists than it does about the behavior. To the rest of us it is reciprocity, the invisible glue that holds communities together. Invasive chains such as Wal Mart try to buy good will with cash donations. But studies show that such donations fall overall when local businesses decline. More, the human engagement that is the substance of the glue disappears. Do you think the manager of Wal-Mart goes to buy a shirt at Target when one opens up nearby?

Could it be that this glue is part of what distinguishes the Red zones from the Blue ones?  Red America is largely suburban, which means commerce there largely has been ingested into the corporate enclosures of the mall.  Suburbs are where people pass in cars rather than on the street, pass credit cards to clerks at Target, and sit next to the like-minded in church rather than the other-minded on the subway.

This is stereotype I know; but there is something to it.  When I visit friends in newer suburbs I am amazed at how much time I end up sitting in a car. A friend of a friend worked in such a district during the campaign. This place, she wrote, “went from small town to 130,000 in about the past ten years through growth of sub-divisions. Talk about no commons! All streets, houses and lawns and nothing else. No people outside, except on the very occasional cul de sac with a few kids out on bicycles. It’s like On the Beach.”

Abstraction flourishes in such disembodied settings.  It is easier to think in the mechanical abstractions of “the market” when you deal with a Wal-Mart rather than with a neighbor. It is easier to rant about liberals and gays when you are screaming into a cell phone to a talk radio host from the isolation of your car, than when you are sitting next to such a person on the bus. A commons by contrast flourishes in the concrete.  It is how neighbors help one another, as opposed to  how  textbook integers seek to gain from one  another.
(Wasn’t it Burke who said that true conservatism is grounded in the concrete?)

I am not saying that Blue urbanites are somehow virtuous and Red suburbanites are not. The Bluer precincts can be insular in their own way; they can demonize earnest Christians and conservatives, much the way those groups demonize them.  But there are different attitudes towards the common sphere; and the settings are a part of it.  It is hard to relate to the idea of the commons when you don’t have much tangible experience of it in your life.

Strange as it may seem, Blue America is closer in some ways to the traditional village culture that spawned this country, than are many of the Red America (was the colorific a sly joke?) politicians who thump the tub for “traditional values,” even as the values they actually promote are pecuniary ones, couched in the abstractions of the  “market.”  I have a hunch that there is a hunger  for this culture among much of Red America too.