Recently, it’s been fashionable for pundits and journalists to blame liberals and leftists for the political and cultural segregation of the United States today. Liberals, so the story goes, have up and left middle America (AKA “real America”) and decamped for Democratic-leaning states on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and maybe a few liberal college towns in-between (Ann Arbor, Madison, Austin, and Boulder, for example) where they never meet a single Republican or white evangelical Christian, and this is why it was such a shock to them that the Human Stain was elected to the presidency. It’s a satisfying, truthy story, but every time I hear some version of this I wonder: have you talked to anyone teaching in non-elite public colleges and universities today, because a huge number of us left/liberals live in real America too. Do we count? Let me explain:
In my fabulous jet-setting career as a historian, let me list the number of Democratic bubble-cities I’ve lived in since leaving the shores of Lake Erie to begin my education 30 years ago. (And by “lived in,” I mean I received U.S. mail there for more than a month): Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Somerville and Cambridge, Mass., Washington D.C., Providence, Chicago, and Pasadena, California. Of the past 30 years, I’ve lived about 10 years of my life in those places, and it was fantastic. I love big cities. I love not driving and riding bikes and using public transportation instead. I love hearing people speak languages besides English on the street. I love the museums, restaurants, parks, libraries, shopping, and all-round awesome business of urban life.
If I could have found jobs in those cities I probably would have stayed in one or two of them, but alas! The two jobs I’ve ever been offered in my life were in Dayton, Ohio and Fort Collins, Colorado. That’s how our democratic, optimistic American “system” of higher education works: hundreds of years ago, our leaders decided that it was undemocratic to limit access to higher education to a few elite academies and colleges in a few northeastern cities, so through instruments like the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 and the Morrill Act of 1862, the federal government made provisions for the spread of educational institutions across the United States. As it turns out, the creation of all of these schools and universities was not only more democratic, they became major drivers of economic opportunity for their students and staff as well. This is the real story of education in the U.S., but you’d never know it to read most magazines and newspapers, who think higher ed is all about the former Congregational and Presbyterian seminaries in the East, which are just a drop in the bucket compared to the state colleges and universities everywhere.
But enough about you–let’s get back to my story: Given the fact that my spouse has never found a congenial job in the town where I work, I never lived in Dayton or Fort Collins, and instead lived (or still live) outside of these cities in smaller, more conservative towns–namely, in Oxford, Ohio and Greeley, Colorado. When we lived in Butler County, Ohio, Republican John Boehner–remember him?–was our congressional representative. Here in Weld County, Colorado, our congresspeople are among the most deeply stewed Republican tea-partiers you could ever meet–Marilyn Musgrave, Cory Gardner, and now Ken Buck. And it’s in Oxford and Greeley where I’ve lived for 20 years of my adult life. Not in any cool, fun, Democratic cities or academical villages, but in red towns or cities in heavily Republican regions of the country.
Ask the majority of university faculty you know, and you’ll hear a similar story. Most of us don’t live in Madison, Santa Barbara, Austin, Boulder, or even Columbus or Iowa City. Most of us live in cities and towns like Ames, Duluth, Fargo, Norfolk, Tuscaloosa, Chattanooga, Brownsville, Logan, and Kalamazoo, just to name some of the places I know some of you blog readers live and work. (I’m looking at all of you, friends!)
Mind you, I’m not complaining about my fate, or yours. I’ve made great friends and had wonderful neighbors in both of the places in which I’ve lived for most of the past 20 years. I’ve also been fortunate–extremely fortunate–to have tenure-track jobs and fellowships, and have made a pretty nice little career along the way. But when journalists and pundits think about professors, they think we all live and work in big Democratic cities or in the glamour university towns. They don’t think about the majority of us schleppers who are well-educated folks from coastal and Great Lakes Democratic enclaves and/or major university towns who nevertheless live openly and blatantly among the good people of “real America.”
We are cosmopolitans who also live in rural, red-state America. We live, work, and socialize with people of all political shades. But how many of our friends and neighbors here who are not affiliated with our universities have ever lived or worked anywhere else? How many of them travel regularly to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago to enjoy the sights and tastes of these cities? I’m guessing that many of them may have visited these Democratic, diverse pleasure domes, but that most have never collected mail or paid their bills there.
So who’s really in a cultural bubble–all of us university people in red-state America, or the red-staters who never left home? You tell me.