The culture shock of a purple state
My Twitter feed in early May was suddenly flooded with screenshots of bubbling charts from the New York Times, which launched an interactive tool that allows readers to find out if they are “living in a political bubble.” “Enter your address,” they said, “to see the party of a thousand voters closest to you.”
I hardly had to enter my address to get the answer. My majority, minority, historically working-class neighborhood in Minnesota was a deep blue – as the Times tool actually confirmed. “You live in a democratic bubble,” she told me. “Only 3 percent of your neighbors are Republicans.” The rest were Democrats, according to the table, which showed no independents at all. Maybe my husband and I, both libertarians, were literally the only ones?
Had I zoomed in on the Twin Cities the numbers would have been a bit more balanced, but not by much. The cities have long been a democratic stronghold in the trend of the left. Our friends’ politics also suited our neighborhood pretty well. Apart from two other libertarians and a Republican couple, the place of political debate in our social circle was usually around the choice between Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) And Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) In the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.
Then I moved to Pennsylvania. As you may know, it is a swing state. My new neighborhood in the Pittsburgh area is much more politically diverse than our old hangouts in St. Paul – the New York Times tool estimates that about two-thirds of my immediate neighbors are Democrats, but I assume they are far more centrist than the Minnesota crowd. (My old district was almost evenly split between President Biden, Sanders, and Warren in 2020; here Biden won 77 percent of the vote over Sanders’ 20.) We have officially left the left bubble.
I was aware of this difference before we moved, but was surprised at how much it turned out to be a culture shock. I didn’t expect much from an adjustment period because it’s not like I’m a Democrat among Democrats in Minnesota. Politically, I never felt at home there, and the extreme partisan uniformity of our district created a consensus assumption that sometimes caused uncomfortable moments.
Friends and acquaintances would bring up political issues without thinking for a millisecond that I might not share their core beliefs and general political preferences. I didn’t mind because our neighborhood was 97 percent democratic and overwhelmingly progressive. Our local elections were functionally democratic primaries. I had never seen a MAGA hat in real life. These assumptions about me were reasonable considering where my home was – they were just wrong.
When my husband and I first came to our new neighborhood in Pennsylvania, I spotted a MAGA hat one block from our home within two hours of arriving in the state. We started counting yard signs. I had written here at The Week a few months earlier about political signs in our Minnesota community, and we found some of the same trends in Pittsburgh. The ubiquitous “In this house we believe …” sign that has become ubiquitous in the Twin Cities spread throughout the Pennsylvania ecosystem.
But here it is by no means the undisputed front garden master in St. Paul. His right-hand mirrors, we thought, were Trump 2020 materials, signs expressing vehement opposition to the Democrats (“BIDEN IS A LIAR” explains a self-made poster that I now pass twice a week, the centerpiece of a complex, multi-part Advertisement with an extensive impeachment agenda) and enthusiastic Americana with a political head start (like the flag a few blocks above which depicts Jesus as both a lion and a lamb, against the backdrop of an American flag plus the cross draped with a second American flag ).
Our balance sheet was almost balanced, and that’s also my rough impression in social interactions. On the left side of the ledger: the church childcare coordinator, wondering if we would be comfortable with our toddlers playing with toys that other toddlers had recently touched amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns. On the right: I got my hair cut and during a conversation with the hairdresser realized that I need to describe my work as a journalist in a way that subtly conveys that I understand Republicans’ concerns about traditional and social media, too if i don’t share a lot of it. She asked about the subject of my new book, and I realized that the elevator pitch I would give a Twin Cities resident needs some tweaking here.
My mid-haircut overhaul is emblematic of the greatest source of culture shock I feel: I never know what to expect.
In unfamiliar social situations in Minnesota, I was almost always able to predict where my interlocutor would end up on the political issues he would address while learning my journalism. I don’t like arguing about politics in social contexts; For me it is a technical discussion and feels like an unnecessary, senseless conflict that is of no use to anyone. My brain goes into the mode of creating a column and presenting a complete and well-sourced reasoning and that’s not the mode I want to be on the patio in.
So I would use this reliable assessment to steer towards issues on which we would likely agree – the usual libertarian-progressive linkage of criminal law reform, drug war, civil liberties, mass surveillance, foreign policy, or perhaps our mutual opposition to former President Donald Trump was in me the mood for really low-hanging fruit – then quickly drag the conversation into less political areas. I knew the likely pitfalls so I could avoid them and move on to more pleasant conversations instead.
But here? It’s a coin toss. The pitfalls can be anywhere, in any direction, and the social insecurity that has arisen for me is unexpectedly worrying. I don’t talk much about Trump these days, but if I were, “How about X wrong with what he said?” would not be a good conversation partner. Maybe my interlocutor loves Trump! Or maybe she doesn’t. There are a lot of Democrats here too, so it’s no good to abandon the old libertarian-conservative nexus of free markets, fiscal conservatism, deregulation, religious freedom, and opposition to President Biden. I almost don’t want to mention my job as we meet new people just to avoid hesitant strangers dancing as they probe each other’s politics in our polarized era.
I am sure that in time I will learn to navigate the political and social scene in Pennsylvania. The culture shock will fade and I will get past the period of getting to know new people and it will be a less harrowing prospect of revealing to new acquaintances that I am an opinion journalist. For now, however, the shock is fully effective. Living in the liberal bubble could be quite annoying for me as a political outsider, but it was only until I realized how comfortable the consistency had become.