Friday, October 9, 2009

Are we sorting?

I just finished reading the book: "The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop. It has proven to be somewhat of a guide along my journey for the last few weeks. It was given to me by a friend after he had read about my disaffiliation from the Democratic Party and it couldn't have been more timely. The book was written by a reporter with the help of a sociologist who had compiled a tremendous amount of data from recent elections. For me it explained some feelings that I had about our country and my community that I just couldn't put my finger on. I know I am over-simplifying and hope not doing too much disservice to the book---I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a great deal.

The book is subtitled: "Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart". It starts out with presidential election results from 1976 and the race between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. There is a map that demonstrates that in 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, the map drastically changes and reflects half of all voters in the United States lived in landslide counties. There is a 2nd edition out in paperback that shows the results from the 2006 elections---and although I haven't seen it, I can predict the ugly truth. Essentially our country has been going through a process moving to like-minded communities and the electoral process is becoming more predictable and more extreme to boot.

I have had many opportunities to talk with people since changing my affiliation to "independent" and the conversation almost always ends up with heads nodding in frustrated agreement at the current two-party system. I have also found many other interesting blogs and reading to satiate my desire to learn all I can about how we got to where we are and what it will take for us to evolve to the next level of our democracy. In "The Big Sort" Bill Bishop surmises that there may not be much hope for escaping our current polarizing situation and our best bet might just lie with the next generation. Being the optimist that I am, this was somewhat hard to swallow and I wonder if the way the "sort" began is the way to it's end or at least its next iteration--at the local level.

Counties across the country are a unique level of government as we are sandwiched in between municipalities and the state--and are often overlooked. As county commissioners go, we aren't mentioned much and the majority of people don't really know how important this level of government is, much less how our decisions effect their lives. I remember getting a little angry looking at the state Democratic website and under the heading "elected officials" there isn't one mention of a county commissioner---yet it's a partisan race.

I am convinced we are the best part of the elected mix. We have the ability to be so close to our constituents that at times it can seem smothering and soothing all in the same grocery store visit. When I've had a particularly challenging week I often scrounge the cupboards for forgotten cans of food for a "creative dinner" (I don't think my family would describe some of them so favorably) in order to avoid the check out line or the bread aisle. I have spoken to many elected officials who know that living so close to those one makes decisions on behalf of is often a delicate balance--and interestingly enough, one they wouldn't want.

The complex issues at hand are made more complicated when we find ourselves so far apart that we forget what we have in common---and at any given moment we can allow differences to escalate to levels of intolerance and worse---become enemies.

For this reason I think the concept of "The Big Sort" is even more powerful. Every day in my job I see the value of diversity of thought and overall respect for differences. I have learned that when I truly listen and attempt to understand the commonalities are revealed and opportunities begin to emerge. When we loose the ability to listen to each other and remain open-minded, we and our decisions loose out on the best that we have to offer by way of solutions. I remember telling one member of our local Democratic Executive Committee when asked why I didn't just vote the way they wanted, that I would always look for compromises to achieve our goals and ways to move forward---but that I would never give in and do something that I felt wasn't in the best interest of our community. Giving in and compromising are two very different things. An elected official once told me that no matter what, you ultimately have to live with yourself---something no one else really has to do and you have to be true to what you think is right. Pretty good advice, I'd say.

This independent thing is turning out to be vast and expansive--and I love exploring it. For me, it's thought provoking, uncharted territory that gets to the root of our democracy. I belong here because there are no boundaries and nothing for me to fit into---just a lot of room to move around in. No wonder democracy is so difficult to master, it seems to require a level of authenticity that takes work and is sometimes uncomfortable---but seems to be so worth it in the end and would we really want it any other way?