Tear Down the White Picket Fence

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

| May - June 2008

  • American Dream 1

  • American Dream 1

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.

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