The Wrong Kind of Social Distancing

We’re separating ourselves, even more than previously thought, by our political beliefs. This only deepens our divides.

My neighborhood on the near west side of Madison is replete with yard signs. In the fall we had just about every variation of a Joe Biden sign you could imagine and many remain, now in the snow, five months post election.

My neighbors are also very big on Black Lives Matter signs (again, all variations are represented) and many of those insufferable In This House We Believe… yadda, yadda, yadda signs. (The last line on that sign is, “Kindness is everything.” I get the sense that if you don’t agree with everyone in that house that kindness is, in fact, everything, they’ll come over and beat the bejesus out of you until you accept the preeminence of kindness.)

What’s curious about these signs, though, is that they don’t have a chance of convincing anyone. This is about the most homogeneous neighborhood — both politically and culturally — that you can imagine. We went about 85% for Biden in November. We may believe that Black Lives Matter, but very few Blacks are actually living their lives right here. So, people can’t be putting up these signs with the idea of advancing the cause. The choir has been spoken too and they’ve already sung.

No, these signs are about signaling virtue. You may agree with me that Black lives matter, but see, I have the sign!

You get the feeling that if you don’t believe that ‘kindness is everything’ the occupants of this house will find you and beat the bejesus out of you.

Even though I personally agree with voting for Biden, with BLM and even with all the insufferably pretentious sentiments on the In This House sign, I’d feel better about my neighborhood if I had seen just one Trump sign on my frequent walks along these streets. Just one.

I know Trump voters are out there. About 15% of my neighbors voted for him, but none of them felt comfortable putting up a sign. That reflects poorly on us. It even suggests that, if a neighbor were to put up a Trump sign, some of us might be unkind to him.

Contrast that with my other neighborhood. I’m lucky enough to own a lake cabin in the north woods. Up there, in a county that went 55-45 for Trump, there were Trump and Biden signs all down my road. In fact, my neighbor had a huge Trump banner and several smaller signs on his property.

And here’s the thing, The day after the election I noticed that his signs were down. I thought that was a classy thing to do, so I also removed my Biden sign.

Now, I make it a point not to talk politics with my neighbor. But Jeff and I and our wives have gotten to know each other. We share a cocktail now and then. We talk about how the lake is being managed, we share gossip about other neighbors and when somebody needs a hand lifting something, we’re there to help.

It’s not that either of us is going to convince the other of his politics. But we’ve gotten to know each other as human beings. I know Jeff and Cory to be intelligent, hard-working, nice and decent people. I can’t square that with voting for a man as just plain awful as Trump, but there you have it. Knowing them takes a lot of the edge off of my politics, while back in Madison my views are only sharpened and deepened as I’m surrounded by folks who are like-minded, only more so.

My experience is far from unique. In fact, a series of recent studies, reported about in the New York Times, shows that we’re segregating by our politics down to the street level. That’s right. Even in solidly blue or solidly red neighborhoods, you’ll find pockets of the opposition clustered together.

The theory is that people aren’t sorting so much on politics as they are on lifestyle choices, and the politics just follow. So, if you like mixed use, dense neighborhoods with transit, you’re more likely to be a Democrat. If you like large lot development with lots of breathing space, chances are that you’re a Republican.

To quote the Times story: “As new research has found, it’s not just that many voters live in neighborhoods with few members of the opposite party; it’s that nearly all American voters live in communities where they are less likely to encounter people with opposing politics than we’d expect.”

This explains much of our polarization and it presents a challenge for those of us who would like to reestablish a strong American political centrism. We can’t force political desegregation.

But electoral strategies like ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primaries would help. And, of course, an end to extreme partisan gerrymandering would be great, but our close clustering even makes that much harder.

And, frankly, any kind of casual social or civic interaction that is not charged with politics or controversy, but which mixes people of different political beliefs, would be a healthy thing. Because, after all, it’s hard to hate the devil you know. In fact, knowing them makes you want to be more kind.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “The Wrong Kind of Social Distancing

  1. Are we to believe that you think it’s surprising that you are amigos with a fellow white male lake property just because you usually check D on the ballot? I’d be much more surprised if you actually spoke to a Black person who shares your political persuasion on this remarkably insufferable self portrait.


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