Waltz of the Flowers

Guest: Bill Bishop, Reporter, Austin American-Statesman I read on humanflowerproject.com that the flower decorations at the inauguration’s “Democracy Ball” will be only shades of red. Perfect. That’s the meaning of democracy these days: we keep all the red flowers over here, all the blue flowers over there and all the gold flowers in another spot.

For the past seven presidential elections, Americans have been sorting themselves into monochromatic communities. By the end of the 2004 election, Americans were more politically segregated than at any time since the end of World War II. Half of U.S. voters (well, really 48.3%) live in counties where either George Bush or John Kerry won by 20 percentage points or more. In 1976, only a quarter of the population lived in one of these landslide counties.

This is no statistical anomaly. Whether you look at the members of Congress or the members of your church, most of society is curling up in the comfort of like-minded company. Peter Levine says this division may be “somewhat artificial and overstated,” and is brought on largely by a polarizing president. Our sense here is that Lubbock, Texas, really is different from Boston. It ain’t our imagination. These differences are real, they are deep and they aren’t caused by elites.

Richard Harwood asks if the next chapter in American history will be “one in which people can see, hear, and feel themselves once more.” In one sense, however, we’re hearing too much of ourselves. We hear so much of ourselves and those who think as we do that we can’t believe there are others who might have different opinions. This phenomenon is caused, in part, by an increasing tendency for people to live in like-minded communities.

Political segregation has been a part of the country’s struggles from the beginning. And from the beginning, the country established a government that forced people from different places with different opinions to meet and to compromise. Heterogeneity — flowers of different colors — was seen as a creative force rather than a weakness. I don’t expect “leaders” to help us retrieve our tradition of heterogeneity. The 2004 campaign, after all, was run in a way that fed off the polarization that existed in the country.

Like most good things, this is a do it yourself job. We either do it ourselves, or it won’t get done.