Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Another "Two Americas"?

Does Ferndinand Tonnies’ model of society—that there exists a division between Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, community and society—still apply? Is there opposition between genuine communities that are close to the land and the universality of the metropolis?

Tonnies’s social theory claimed that Gemeinschaften (the rural milieu of villages and towns) remained connected to the land and to each other in ways that were historical and natural. Remaining so close to the land, Gemeinschaften preserved the culture of the nation. Gesellschaften (cities and urban areas) were artificial communities composed of immigrants and men of the world; they created civilization that introduced foreign elements into culture. Of course, Tonnies idealized quite a bit—tightly knit communities formed in the middle of cities, and villages were closely associated with cities. In principle, the dichotomy between the two forms of settlement have has been well established.

Kevin Drum points to an article in the Austin American Statesman that examines the political dichotomy between the urban and rural worlds in the US. They analyze the results from presidential elections on a county-by-county basis. Their results show that counties are taking on distinct political identities, becoming either largely Republican or largely Democrat. More importantly, this analysis shows that rural areas are becoming more Republican while urban areas are becoming more Democrat: the population of Republican-dominated counties is significantly smaller than the population of Democrat-dominated counties.

The results are not surprising: stereotypes pretend that all the Homeland-loving Americans are rural Republicans, while all the Republic-loving Americans are urban Democrats. These stereotypes aren’t even American: in France and Germany, the religious right has been associated with peasantry while the liberal left clung to the urban intellectuals.

There are some problems with the survey: counties are not a good basis for comparison. They are not expressions of community per se, but units created by the states for their own administrative convenience. Furthermore, counties in America vary in size: Texas counties are Lilliputian, but California counties are larger (in both population and area) than other states. The problem is revealed in comparing Los Angeles County to neighboring Orange County. On the one hand, the article claims that Republicans still find the majority of their votes in Democrat-dominated LA County. On the other, Kevin Drum points out that Conservative powerhouse Orange County does not rank as one of the most Republican counties in the country.

To get back to the question that I originally posed, are the differences between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft still meaningful? There is a tidbit in the article that points in a different direction:

… since the late 1970s, Democrats and Republicans have been segregating, as people sift themselves into more politically homogeneous communities.
Mobility, rather than community, may be at the root of these political shifts.

Are people who are moving to rural areas more politically conservative? Is it possible that the choice of community is driven by political identity?

I must hold back on answering: the study does not give the data necessary to answer this. America is not divided into two distinct parts. John Friedmann (in Prospect of Cities (Minnesota, 2002)) points out that the urban/rural division has become meaningless. Between transportation and information, the two have become more alike. Cities have become less centralized, and towns have access to almost anything found in the city via warehouse stores and online shopping. So many middling types of communities have emerged that must be distinguished as well: planned communities, suburbs, edge cities, de-industrialized towns. Are people who flee the city to the suburbs connected to the land and the community? Some social scientists suggest that the answer is a partial yes. Simply, the different milieu are overlapping one another, and it is difficult to distinguish between them.

I think that overlapping extends to the realm of politics as well. Republicans fundraise in New York City; Democrats search for legitimacy in the country. Blurring can even be represented in the two candidates. There is little distance between George Bush and John Kerry when you look at their origins. Bush—who presents himself as a man of the soil—is actually an urban refugee, an example of the flight from the cities. Kerry—who is painted as a cosmopolitan New Englander—is really a townie, a Bostonian whose worldview is highly localized (he claimed that Springfield, MA was out by the New York border-ha!). Both men carry Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft inside themselves.


At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But.. but... there be dragons west of Worchester!

I guess that's better than Menino calling Newton "Western Massachusetts."


At 6:17 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

According to the Bostonian Weltanshauung, you are now swimming in the Pacific. How's the water?

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, it tastes like beer!


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