The real reason for America’s polarization? Look next door.

A month or so ago, an early copy of Marc J. Dunkelman's "The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community", arrived in my mailbox.  I started reading it -- and was fascinated by how Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, diagnosed the problems of partisanship and polarization in the country. With Dunkelman's book out today, I asked if we could publish an adaptation of it in the Fix. He said yes. It's below.

In the spring of 2012, Canadian radio host Eleanor Wachtel asked Toni Morrison to describe what it was like growing up in the industrial town of Lorain, Ohio. The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist explained:

This was a working class town, a steel town, with shipyards, and it was not segregated. People came from Poland and Italy and Mexico and I even knew black people who came from Canada who had escaped there during the 19th century and had come back. So it was a big mix of working class people, mostly unionized, and we had different churches . . . but one high school. . . . Together we just worked it out. I mean the Golinis lived next door, some Czechs lived next door. They gave my mother beef wrapped in cabbage. They traded recipes. It was sort of like the women in [Morrison’s novel] Home, but they were all races and religions.

Not every community in America was akin to Lorain. Other towns and cities in other parts of the country were more explicitly divided by race, ethnicity, and class. Nevertheless, the sense of interconnectedness so colorfully portrayed in Morrison’s memory describes a certain enduring American archetype.


When traveling through the United States on the journey that would inspire Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans maintained a remarkable social architecture. American communities were oriented from the bottom up—a feature that contrasted drastically with those in France, where they were preponderantly structured from the top down. That distinction was most evident in their respective systems of government: French power flowed from the central government in Paris to leaders deputized to run each municipality; in the United States, local residents selected their own representatives, and power bubbled up from the municipal to the state to the federal level.

Consider what that meant. In the New World, towns and neighborhoods weren’t just clumps of residents sectioned off into wards. Quite the opposite, “townships,” as Tocqueville and others termed them, were of a more organic quality. Through their typical routines, neighbors were accustomed to hashing out their differences. And that had a profound effect. In the United States, citizens emerging from different experiences—bankers and lawyers, policemen, and teachers—couldn’t escape some element of interaction.

More recently, however, things have changed. The circumstances that once compelled Americans to develop familiar but less intimate relationships have faded. The time and attention we now spend online and with our closest friends is time not spent outside talking with neighbors, shooting the breeze at a bar, or grabbing a burger with a colleague from work. And while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, we ought not to be so naïve as to think that that those new relationships don’t come at a cost.

There are elements of the new social architecture to celebrate. A 2009 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that those who use sites like Facebook are generally in touch with a broader—and more diverse—set of acquaintances. But Stanford sociologist Norman Nie designed studies to explore how investments in certain types of relationships affected others. He concluded that every minute an individual spends on the Internet reduces the time he or she spends with friends by seven seconds, and with colleagues by eleven. In the absence of the sorts of relationships we once had with people who were familiar, but not intimate, we’ve become walled off from people who hold different points of view.

Earlier this year, Pew released eye-opening new polling data that shows that the partisanship on display in Washington isn't some sort of elitist anomaly; regular Americans, living their everyday lives, have also been pushed the partisan extremes. If we want to understand why the nation has become so polarized, we need to examine what's happened to the social ties that shape the way we each understand the world. The spirit of compromise that so many Americans long to reclaim was grounded in an everyday sense of mutual understanding. But the element of American community life that de Tocqueville identified as the cornerstone of compromise — the way in which power flowed from the bottom up rather than the top down — has more recently come undone.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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