The culture shock of a purple state

Illustrated | iStock

My Twitter feed in early May was suddenly deluged with screenshots of bubbly charts from The New York Times, which had launched an interactive tool for readers to learn if they “live in a political bubble.” “Enter your address,” it directed, “to see the political party of the thousand voters closest to you.”

I hardly needed to enter my address to know the answer. My majority-minority, historically working-class neighborhood in Minnesota was deep, deep blue — as indeed the Times tool confirmed. “You live in a Democratic bubble,” it told me. “Only 3 percent of your neighbors are Republicans.” The rest were Democrats, per the chart, which showed no independents at all. Maybe my husband and I, both libertarians, were literally the only ones?

If I’d zoomed out to the Twin Cities more broadly, the figures would’ve been a bit more balanced, but not much. The cities are a longtime Democratic stronghold trending left. Our friends’ politics pretty much matched our neighborhood, too. Two other libertarians and one Republican couple aside, the locus of our social circle’s political debate usually hovered around the choice between Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Then I moved to Pennsylvania. As you may know, it’s a swing state. My new neighborhood in the Pittsburgh area is far more politically diverse than our old haunts in St. Paul — that New York Times tool estimates around two thirds of my immediate neighbors are Democrats, but my educated guess is they’re considerably more centrist than the Minnesota crowd. (My old county was nearly evenly split between President Biden, Sanders, and Warren in 2020; here, Biden won 77 percent of the vote to Sanders’ 20.) We’ve officially left the lefty bubble.

I was aware of that difference before our move, but I’ve been surprised by how much of a culture shock it has proven. I didn’t expect much of an adjustment period, because it’s not as if I was a Democrat among Democrats in Minnesota. I never felt politically at home there, and our neighborhood’s extreme partisan uniformity produced an assumption of consensus that occasionally made for awkward moments.

Friends and acquaintances would broach political topics without a millisecond’s consideration that I might not share their basic beliefs and general policy preferences. I didn’t really mind, because, again, our neighborhood was 97 percent Democratic and overwhelmingly progressive. Our municipal general elections were functionally Democratic primaries. I’d never seen a MAGA hat in real life. Those assumptions about me were reasonable given where my home was — they just happened to be wrong.

When my husband and I came to our new neighborhood in Pennsylvania for the first time, I spotted a MAGA hat a block from our house within two hours of our arrival in the state. We started counting yard signs. I’d written here at The Week about political signs in our Minnesota community several months prior, and we found some of the same trends in Pittsburgh. The “In this house, we believe…” sign that had become ubiquitous in the Twin Cities was propagating in the Pennsylvania ecosystem as well.

But here, it’s far from the undisputed front yard champion it is in St. Paul. Its right-wing mirrors, we figured, were Trump 2020 materials, signs expressing vehement opposition to Democrats (“BIDEN IS A LIAR” declares a homemade placard I pass twice a week now, the centerpiece of a complex, multi-sign display with an extensive impeachment agenda), and enthusiastic Americana with a political edge (like the flag a few blocks over which depicts Jesus as both lion and lamb against a backdrop of an American flag plus the cross, which is draped with a second American flag).

Our tally came out nearly even, and that’s my rough impression in social interactions, too. On the left-hand side of the ledger: the church childcare coordinator who wondered if we’d be comfortable with our toddlers playing with toys other toddlers had recently touched given ongoing COVID-19 concerns. On the right-hand side: I got my hair cut and, while chatting with the hairdresser, found myself flailing to describe my work as a journalist in a way which would subtly communicate I understand Republican concerns about traditional and social media, even if I don’t share many of them. She asked about the topic of my new book, and I realized the elevator pitch I’d give a Twin Cities resident will need some tweaks here.

My mid-haircut revision is emblematic of the single biggest source of the culture shock I’m feeling: I never know what to expect.

In unfamiliar social situations in Minnesota, I could almost always predict where my conversation partner landed on the political issues they’d raise on learning of my job in journalism. I don’t like to argue about politics in social settings; it’s shop talk for me and feels like needless, pointless conflict that does no one any good. My brain goes to craft-a-column-and-present-a-complete-and-well-sourced-argument mode, and that’s not the mode I want to be in on the patio.

So I’d use that reliable estimation to steer toward topics where we’d likely agree — the usual libertarian-progressive nexus of criminal justice reform, the drug war, civil liberties, mass surveillance, foreign policy, or maybe our mutual opposition to former President Donald Trump were I in the mood for really low-hanging fruit — then swiftly drag the conversation onward to less political realms. I knew the probable pitfalls, so I could avoid them and get on with more enjoyable talk instead.

But here? It’s a coin toss. The pitfalls could be anywhere, in any direction, and the social uncertainty that has created for me is unexpectedly unsettling. I’m not talking about Trump much these days, but if I were, “How about X wrong thing he said?” would not be a good conversational go-to. Maybe my conversation partner loves Trump! Or maybe she doesn’t. There are plenty of Democrats here too, so defaulting to the old libertarian-conservative nexus of free markets, fiscal conservatism, deregulation, religious liberty, and opposition to President Biden is no good either. I almost don’t want to mention my job as we’re meeting new people just so I can avoid that tentative dance strangers do when feeling out each other’s politics in our polarized era.

I’m sure, with time, I’ll learn to navigate the political-social scene of Pennsylvania. The culture shock will fade, and I’ll get past the constantly-meeting-new-people phase, and revealing to fresh acquaintances that I’m an opinion journalist will become a less harrowing prospect. For now, however, the shock is in full effect. Life in the liberal bubble could be plenty annoying for me as a political outsider, but I didn’t realize until leaving it how convenient the consistency had become.



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