Tear Down the White Picket Fence

Instead of segregating ourselves into “communities,” we need to reengage

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This article is part of a package on the American Dream. For more, read Reimagining the American Dream, A New National Narrative, Dreaming Across Class Lines, and The Pursuit of Square Footage.

In recent years, Americans from across the political spectrum, discontented with the isolation of fervid consumption, have sought refuge in the warm glow of community. Megachurches have consoled lonely conservative hearts with spiritual support, political proscriptions, and day care. Communitarian enclaves have comforted disgruntled lefties with meaningful connection, ideological tropes, and vegan potlucks.

Instead of fostering the civic ideal of engaging others, however, our communal instincts have stranded us in echo chambers of sameness. As Bill Bishop documents in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), Americans are segregating themselves politically and geographically. In 1992, 38 percent of Americans lived in counties decided by landslide elections; by 2004, that figure was 48 percent.

In these monocultures, groupthink doesn’t just shape opinions; it exacerbates them as members prove their allegiance to the group by upping the extremity of their views. “It’s counterintuitive,” Bishop writes, “but people grow more extreme within homogeneous groups as a way to conform.”

The result is that in troubling times that call for action, our 50–50 country is locked in a pitched standoff. Folks are loath to entertain compromise, since everyone around them agrees with them, and a central tenet of the American Dream—“government of the people, by the people, for the people”—languishes in division. To remedy this, we don’t need more community comforts; we need the hard work of civic engagement.

An emergent bloc of citizens is ready to throw off the yoke of gridlock this election season. Young people have celebrated their political coming-out ball as first-time voters and campaign foot soldiers. And given the urgency of their inheritance—climate change, spiraling education debt, a tanking economy, a crumbling health care system, and the war in Iraq—they’re not wallowing in the boomers’ ideological divisions. They’re focused on pragmatic solutions that meet the government halfway.

Case in point: In Maine, the League of Young Voters and a coalition of other groups pushed the passage of Opportunity Maine, legislation that stems brain drain by offering debt relief to college grads who stay in the state. The service ethic resonates nationally as well: When Senator Barack Obama routinely tells crowds of 20,000 about his plan to offer college tax credits in exchange for public service, the kids don’t slouch in their chairs. They get up on their feet and holler.

Whoever moves into the White House next year needs to nurture this civic reflex both within and beyond the under-30 set. And to help, a number of groups are already gearing up for the day after the election.

The November 5th Coalition, an informal group of civic engagement experts, is pitching national service programs that focus on developing leadership and problem-solving skills. Not the kind of service programs, says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and a coalition member, “where you just have a bunch of people drafted to paint buildings or something.” They’re also promoting national and local forums that bring together diverse groups to tackle the vexing issues that haunt politicians and communities, such as health care and education reform.

In Bridgeport, Connecticut, for example, “community conversations” about the down-and-out industrial town’s schools not only led to improvements—smaller classes, more-involved parents, fewer poor-performing schools—but also laid the groundwork for a thriving culture of civic participation that has stretched beyond school halls, the think tank Public Agenda notes in a 2007 report.

 “Civic participation,” says Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, “is about engaging in a process that helps to improve your individual life, your family, your community, your nation, and your world.” Her group is launching academies to train activists to use new technologies, gearing up for the 2010 Census to make sure everyone gets counted, and planning a postelection debriefing with its young leaders.

As for the young people themselves, the question of what they’ll do if their horse doesn’t win on Election Day looms. And after that: What happens if promises aren’t kept?

You get back to work, says Heather Box, a 26-year-old San Francisco organizer and national fund-raiser for the League of Young Voters.

“Young people are smart enough to know that voting for a certain presidential candidate is not going to change everything and suddenly make things better,” Box says. “We know that there are problems in our schools and in our local communities. Once we realize that we can get together with our friends and get someone elected to the school board or hold a city council person accountable, then we understand what it really means to build power and to be engaged.”