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Social media won't win the suburban vote

A century ago, the philosopher John Dewey coined the term "...

Posted: Dec 15, 2017 4:14 AM
Updated: Dec 15, 2017 4:14 AM

A century ago, the philosopher John Dewey coined the term "social endosmosis" to describe an ideal democracy, made up of many parts dependent on each other. He warned of the dangers of a community whose interests limit "full interaction with other groups, so that its prevailing purpose is the protection of what it has got, instead of reorganization and progress through wider relationships. ... isolation makes for rigidity and formal institutionalizing of life, for static and selfish ideals within the group."

Once upon a time, Dewey could have been describing the origins of America's suburbs. In the planned community of Levittown, New York, houses were built identically, rows and rows of lot size 60 by 100, unfinished attics peeking through sloped roofs. The standard lease for the first Levitt houses infamously specified they could not ''be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.'' That was 1947.

Fast forward to 2017, when it might be the suburbs that revitalize democracy, or at least restore it to Dewey's vision: A system that works best when individuals do not just advocate for themselves but advocate for others.

The political upsets we've seen this year in New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama represent not so much a blue wave as an affirmation of moderation and civility and neighborliness. It's a far cry from the polarized America of tweets, headlines and political rhetoric.

In fact, it is a rejection of that -- and a window into what the suburbs have become. Most Americans do not live in such extremes. Like Doug Jones, the incoming Democratic senator from Alabama, they might support the right to bear arms (with background checks). Or like Virginia's governor-elect Ralph Northam, they might not want to outright demolish Confederate statues but move them to museums.

The narrative of America's great divide in 2017 doesn't actually reflect most of the country and where they actually live, geographically or politically. We've been entirely miscast.

Most Americans are neither coastal elites nor inhabitants of flyover country (both objectionable tropes on their face). Most Americans live in the suburbs, a geographic term the US government is curiously loath to define. But suburbanites are not; a survey by an economist at Trulia, the online real-estate site, finds that 53% of Americans say they live in one. The suburbs mirror US demographic trends; minorities represent 35% of suburban residents, and in 2010, the share of blacks in large metro areas living in the suburbs surpassed 51%, meaning the majority of black Americans are suburbanites, according to Brookings.

Fourteen years ago, my book, "Suburban Sahibs" delved into this upheaval of America's bedroom communities, based on dozens of interviews with Indian immigrants in central Jersey redefining local schools, politics and the economy. I found that suburbs are no longer bastions of "white flight" nor the isolated places of their founding. They embody many, if not more, of the vicissitudes of cities: diversity, crime, great schools and failing ones, too.

As much as we focus on the assimilation of immigrants (and melting pots and salad bowls as metaphors), the reverse also happens: They change the attitudes of the people around them. When you end up with seven pages of Patels in a yearbook, a certain give-and-take is inevitable; the cafeteria serves vegetarian meals and the senior center offers yoga and tai chi, alongside line dancing. Whites value diversity, too; these recent elections show them sticking up for their neighbors and a certain way of life.

As much as a referendum on President Trump, Democratic victories in New Jersey and Virginia and Alabama are also a noteworthy demonstration that suburbs no longer reflect the sameness of their midcentury founding. In Virginia and New Jersey, college-educated whites overwhelmingly voted blue. That was not the case in Alabama, but pollsters point out that Jones would not have won on the strength of the black vote alone; he needed a coalition of voters from multiple and overlapping demographics -- urban, suburban, rural, black and white -- to eke out the victory.

Political scientists talk about the rural-urban divide as the defining issue of the 20th century, but the suburbs in America defy this simple categorization. Some areas exhibit the same traits of cities, where neighbors don't know each others' names, let alone their politics. Schools in urban areas are more segregated than ever, some worse than before Brown vs. Board of Education. Suburbs, in contrast, have created more diverse spaces, from schools to soccer leagues to the local Olive Garden.

As Dewey predicted, the collision of different groups of people eventually creates a certain fluidity and unity among them. What he didn't account for was social media and its effect on polarizing political discourse. A recent University of Pennsylvania study finds the use of political words on Twitter were concentrated among a small group of people who are either "very conservative" or "very liberal." Moderates simply do not wade in. This reticence on the internet could extend to voter turnout -- and perhaps it did in 2016.

But America does not live on Facebook, even if it sometimes feels that way. Americans live in places that care about jobs and schools and taxes. Issues such as health care and anti-corruption efforts seem to matter to suburban voters more than immigration. Brookings also reports the suburbs are growing faster than urban areas, partly because of the lack of affordable housing in cities, making them younger, more diverse. Their outlook -- and values -- feel increasingly cosmopolitan.

As much as things have changed since my book's release, suburban politics still hover in the middle of the spectrum. In my book, I followed an Indian community organizer's campaign for county freeholder, a local legislator position. Pradip "Peter" Kothari had been a Democrat. When the party wouldn't let him run, he switched to the GOP. He lost. He's now a Democrat again.

Suburban denizens like him are a fickle, complicated people. What changed this year? I called him last month to talk about New Jersey's results. "We have representation now. That is different than before," he says, referring to the number of Asians in office. Indeed, voters seem drawn to women, minorities and other normal people running on what I call "people-like-us" platforms. In places like New Jersey, minorities can no longer only be energized as a constituency -- they must have candidates on the ballot.

And another thing, Kothari said with great certainty: "Social media cannot win elections."

On Facebook, people who disagree often do so in the ugliest of terms. They might even unfriend each other. In suburbia, they are people like my parents, who ended up with competing mayoral-candidate signs on their New Jersey lawn; "She came to the house and was nice," my mom said of her choice. My dad: "He's a friend of a friend."

In Alabama, too, a massive get-out-the-vote effort, especially in the state's "Black Belt," relied on door-knocking and carpooling. And it's no longer the red state of Jeff Sessions' Senate victory in 1996. Between 2000 and 2010, the state saw the second fastest growth in its Hispanic population, a group Jones was sure to call out and thank in his victory speech.

This complicated history and ever-changing demographics make suburbia a critical battleground for Republicans and Democrats. As we've seen on social media, when opinions get extreme, the moderates shut down. In internet parlance, they become lurkers. The big question over the last few months is whether they would do the same when faced with a choice between parties moving further to the right and left.

To be sure, the racial unrest at the roots of suburbia's creation are tough to fully abandon. This past year's deadly hate crimes unfolded in the suburbs: a stabbing on a commuter train in Portland and a shooting at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, outside Kansas City.

A few months ago, my daughters witnessed an angry driver shouting at passersby to go back where they came from. They recounted the story to their grandfather, my father who immigrated here in 1971. He remained calm, as though he understood this country better than us natives.

"There will always be those people. But they are the minority in America. You have to believe that."

Middle America might agree.

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