So, we went to bed Tuesday evening knowing that Barack Obama would be president for another four years. We also went to bed knowing that a substantial portion of the American public went to bed shocked – shocked!– that President Obama was re-elected. Karl Rove’s reaction on Fox News was unnerving and engrossing at the same time. Many Republicans apparently are genuine in their admission that they simply did not see a second term in the President’s future – they know no one who voted for him, they saw no signs in support of him, and just had no connection to the abstract “other” that returned him to the White House.
There are all sorts of political explanations for the stunned reactions. Everyone’s talking about echo chambers, epistemic closure, and the conservative media as contributors to this phenomenon. But hey, I’m a planner and there’s a planning explanation for everything: this is also what happens when you have a built environment heavily reliant on insulation from the outside world.
This isn’t something new. Many people are familiar with the alleged quote by New York Times film critic Pauline Kael in the 1970’s, saying she couldn’t believe Richard Nixon won the Presidency when she knew no one who voted for him. That comment has often been cited by conservatives as an example of the severe insulation of the liberal elite at the time.
True enough, Manhattan can be its own cocoon. But now the shoe is on the other foot.
Three generations of conventional suburban development as our built environment paradigm has meant that we have a substantial portion of our nation that just doesn’t know how the rest of us live and what we believe. After World War II builders got better and better at selling the American Dream to a desiring public. People not only wanted homes, they wanted lifestyle. And they got it.
There are people who grew up in a Levittown-style bungalow in the ‘50s, bought a split-level ranch in the ‘70s, and later moved into a gated-community McMansion in the ‘90s, when each location was relatively conservative in its politics and culture. Problem is, at each move, those people did not generally look back to see what was taking place in the subdivision they left behind. If they did they would’ve seen expanding diversity in demographics as well as social and cultural perspectives.
But the insulation didn’t stop there. At each stop, the new homeowners were encouraged to express even more of their individuality through the way they live. No need for public parks – we engage in outdoor play in our backyards. No need to interact with neighbors – we drive our SUVs right into the attached three-car garage. Soon enough we have stores, restaurants, office parks – even churches – suited to your particular market niche, and you don’t have to interact with anyone that’s different from you.
And all you really know about what’s different from you is that it’s, well, different. Maybe you saw your old neighborhood on the TV news last night because of some awful crime and you thought, “it wasn’t like that when I was there.” And you’re right. But your understanding of it is just an abstraction.
I remember a lot of talk in the ‘80s and ‘90s about the growing “underclass” in America’s cities. A lot of attention was given to how isolated inner city communities were – and are so today. However, I can’t help but think that isolation cannot exist without insulation. If there are people who are always on the outside, doesn’t that mean there are also people on the inside oblivious to external events?
Physical insulation might not enter everyone’s mind as a contributor to our current political climate, but it’s definitely a factor.