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If your hometown is politically uncomfortable, where do you go?

If you’ve been away from your hometown for a while — or, if you’ve stuck around, and maybe not really looked at things closely – you might be shocked to notice how much it has changed. Where there used to be a department store downtown, there’s now an apartment building. A church is now a microbrewery. There’s a tattoo parlor in place of that dress shop – and your old house? It looks pretty battered.

So it all feels a bit less like home. And that’s what has happened to the politics of a lot of places, too — and as they’ve become less recognizable, they seem less comfortable to us. Which is why it’s not surprising to hear reports that the politics of places are prompting a lot of folks to pack up and leave. They’re voting with their feet, as the saying goes.

It’s understandable: People like to go where they feel welcome. But that sort of political segregation isn’t a good trend, and we shouldn’t accept it as inevitable.

It’s not just the phenomenon of Ronald Reagan’s California turning deep blue, or my home state of South Dakota, which elected the liberal icon George McGovern to the U.S. Senate, now giving Republicans 94 out of 104 state legislative seats. I don’t think I could live there anymore.

There are important policy consequences in these partisan shifts, but it’s not just that: If the increasing brutality of American politics prompts too many of us decamp to places where we’ll find more people like us, we will surely shatter the unity of purpose that undergirds the nation’s existence.

Researchers from Stanford and Brown Universities have found that the partisan divide has widened over the past four decades in the U.S., but also that it has occurred much faster here than in eight other advanced democracies. The professors offered two reasons: First, the growing demand for conformity within the nation’s two major political parties by ideology, race and religion. And, second, the influence of 24-hour partisan cable news in encouraging the divide between the two sides – and cheering it along like ESPN covers the NFL.

Interestingly, by the way, the researchers found that in the countries where political polarization has actually fallen over the last 40 years, there’s much greater investment in public broadcasting. Maybe Big Bird is the canary in our democracy’s coal mine – you know, if Big Bird isn’t healthy, is America about to choke on its own toxic political air?

So imagine a generation or two from now, when children raised in partisan enclaves will have taken the reins of power, having known only sharp division across areas of the country, and having few opportunities to make even friends with people whose views aren’t like their own. What will bind them to other Americans who don’t share those views?

Some people aren’t so worried. Ilya Somin, a Russia-born constitutional scholar at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, argues in favor of moving your domicile to find a more palatable ideological home. Voting with your feet, Somin argues, is mathematically provable to be a more effective strategy than voting on a ballot, since a voter in a presidential election has only about one chance in 60 million of affecting the outcome. No wonder people don’t bother to pay attention to the facts of public issues, he notes, because one person’s clout is infinitesimal – it’s “perfectly rational,” he says, “to remain largely or completely uninformed about the questions at issue.”

Yes, and the dollars I pay in taxes don’t have much impact on the federal budget, so why should I bother to pay? And my contributions to charities do so little, so I’ll keep my own money, thanks; and my gasoline-powered pickup is just one of the 275 million vehicles on the road in the U.S., so you can keep your damn EVs. You hear me?

Sorry. I might have gotten carried away there. Arguments that cite pure self-interest as justification for selfish behavior in what should be a caring community are immoral. Libertarianism is intellectually attractive and societally destructive. We are compelled by generations of moral and religious tradition to acknowledge that we are, indeed, our neighbors’ keeper.

You can’t blame people for wanting to be comfortable in their surroundings. Where we might fix our gaze, though, is on the powerful voices in politics and media who, for their own interests, continue to sharpen the ideological blades that are slicing us apart.

At their hands, we have been encouraged to turn policy differences into mean gang rumbles, and we’ve gotten fixated on culture wars when we needed to be fighting a pandemic, wealth inequity and the inaccessibility of healthcare. It is those fights, often waged on a vicious personal level and with flagrant disregard for facts and civility, that have made our neighbors seem hostile to us, and our neighborhoods less welcoming. The producers of those fights should be ashamed — yes, I’m thinking of Tucker Carlson and Ron DeSantis and Elise Stefanik just now, but you probably have some villains of your own in mind.

The foot-voters may have good reasons to move, but I’m hoping that there are more solid ballot-casters in our communities — and I’m grateful for them: people who choose to fight for this democracy where they live, one issue at a time, rejecting the divisiveness that suggests that we can’t find common ground with our neighbors. We can, and we must.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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