Culture shock

The culture shock of a purple state

My Twitter feed at the beginning of May was suddenly inundated with screenshots of sparkling graphics from The New York Times, which had launched an interactive tool allowing readers to find out if they “live in a political bubble”. “Enter your address”, he ordered, “to see the political party of the thousand voters closest to you”.

I barely needed to enter my address to know the answer. My predominantly minority and historically working-class Minnesota neighborhood was deep blue, as was the Time confirmed tool. “You live in a Democrat bubble,” he told me. “Only 3% of your neighbors are Republicans.” The rest were Democrats, according to the chart, which showed no independents. Maybe my husband and I, both libertarians, were literally the only ones?

If I had zoomed out wider on the Twin Cities, the numbers would have been a bit more balanced, but not much. Cities is a longtime Democratic stronghold on the left. Our friends’ policy pretty much matched our neighborhood too. Two other Libertarians and a Republican couple aside, the locus of political debate in our social circle generally revolved around the choice between the senses. 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 is a swing state. My new neighborhood in the Pittsburgh area is much more politically diverse than our old haunts in St. Paul – this New York Times The tool estimates that about two-thirds of my immediate neighbors are Democrats, but my educated guess is that they’re considerably more centrist than the Minnesota crowd. (My former county was almost evenly split between President Biden, Sanders and Warren in 2020; here Biden won 77% of the vote to Sanders’ 20.) We have officially left the leftist bubble.

I was aware of this difference before we moved, but was surprised at how much of a culture shock it caused. I didn’t expect a period of adjustment, because it’s not like I’m a Democrat among Minnesota Democrats. I never felt politically comfortable there, and the extreme partisan uniformity of our neighborhood produced an assumption of consensus that sometimes created awkward moments.

Friends and acquaintances would discuss political topics without considering for a millisecond that I did not share their core beliefs and general political preferences. I didn’t really mind, because, again, our neighborhood was 97% Democratic and mostly Progressive. Our municipal general elections were functionally Democratic primaries. I had never seen a MAGA hat in real life. Those assumptions about me were reasonable given where my house was – they just turned out to be wrong.

When my husband and I first came to our new neighborhood in Pennsylvania, I spotted a MAGA hat a block from our house within two hours of arriving in the state. We started counting the road signs. I wrote here at The week on political signs in our Minnesota community several months ago, 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 also spreading through the Pennsylvania ecosystem.

But here, it is far from being the undisputed champion of the court before he is in Saint-Paul. His right-hand mirrors, we thought, were Trump 2020 materials, signs expressing vehement opposition to Democrats (“BIDEN IS A LIAR” says a homemade sign I pass by twice a week now, the centerpiece of a intricate multi-sign display with an extensive impeachment agenda), and enthusiastic Americana with a political edge (such as the flag a few blocks away that depicts Jesus as both a lion and a lamb against a backdrop of a larger American flag the cross, which is draped with a second American flag).

Our tally is nearly even, and that’s also my rough impression in social interactions. On the left side of the ledger: the church’s child care coordinator who wondered if we’d be comfortable with our toddlers playing with toys that other toddlers had recently touched counts given ongoing concerns related to COVID-19. Right: I had my hair cut and, while chatting with the hairdresser, found myself fidgeting about describing my work as a journalist in a way that would subtly communicate I understand Republicans’ concerns about mainstream media and social, although I don’t share many of them. She asked about my new book, and I realized that the elevator pitch I would give a Twin Cities resident would need some tweaking here.

My mid-term haircut overhaul is emblematic of the biggest source of culture shock I feel: I never know what to expect.

In unfamiliar social situations in Minnesota, I could almost always predict where my interviewer landed on the political issues they would raise upon learning of my job in journalism. I don’t like discussing politics in social settings; to me, it’s a shop talk and it feels like unnecessary, pointless conflict that doesn’t do anyone any good. My brain goes into mode creating a column and presenting a complete, well-researched argument, and that’s not the mode I want to be in on the terrace.

So I’d use that reliable estimate to steer me towards topics we’d probably agree on – the usual libertarian-progressive nexus of criminal justice reform, the war on drugs, civil liberties, mass surveillance , foreign policy or perhaps our mutual opposition to former President Donald Trump was I in the mood to really fruit at hand – then quickly drag the conversation into less political areas. I knew the likely pitfalls, so I could avoid them and continue to talk more pleasantly instead.

But here? It’s a draw. The pitfalls can be anywhere, in any direction, and the social uncertainty that has created for me is surprisingly unsettling. I don’t talk about Trump much these days, but if I did, “How about X bad thing he said?” would not be a good conversation tool. Maybe my interlocutor likes Trump! Or maybe she doesn’t. There are also a lot of Democrats here, so missing the old libertarian-conservative nexus of free markets, fiscal conservatism, deregulation, religious freedom and opposing President Biden is not good either. I almost don’t want to mention my work as we meet new people just to avoid that hesitant dance strangers do when they sense each other’s politics in our polarized age.

I’m sure in time I’ll learn to navigate the social-political scene in Pennsylvania. The culture shock will fade, and I will move past the phase of constantly meeting new people, and revealing to new acquaintances that I am an opinion journalist will become a less painful prospect. For now, however, the shock is fully effective. Life in the liberal bubble could be very boring for me as a political outsider, but I hadn’t realized until I left how practical consistency had become.