WASHINGTON – There are happier stories about those who travel the nation trying to find buyers for their wares than Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Just ask Marc J. Dunkelman.
In an essay in the summer issue of The Hedgehog Review, Dunkelman recalls a conversation two decades ago with his grandfather, a retired salesman, about how people discover good restaurants. Dunkelman was enthusing about then-developing technologies that would widely share information on great eateries and even tell people about how to get to the ones located nearby.
His grandfather wasn’t impressed. On his sales trips, he said, he regularly sought out “a friendly looking stranger” to learn where he might find a decent bite to eat. In the process, he would often make a new friend and see him again on a return visit.
“That’s how I got to understand the world – by talking to strangers,” the older man said. “With all these fancy technologies you’re telling me about, how are people going to get to know one another? You ask me, I think it’s going to make everyone lonely.”
Dunkelman, a fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute, is no Luddite when it comes to technology. But the author of the 2014 book “The Vanishing Neighbor” has a healthy obsession with how people connect with each other (or fail to), and his essay asks an important question: In the great revival of cities we are seeing all over our country, are we creating places “where neighbors remain strangers”? Are we thus robbing ourselves of “the crucial ingredient of a thriving American community”? Are we building great places to live (at least for those who can afford them) that are not actually neighborhoods?
He cites findings from the General Social Survey that “the percentage of Americans reporting a social evening with a neighbor has plummeted” and suggests that “cities may be coming back to life – but they’re being rebuilt with a very different social architecture.”
And our social architecture is playing a powerful role in deepening the political polarization we regularly complain about. We know the basic facts about 2016. Thriving metropolitan areas leaned toward Hillary Clinton while less affluent and less diverse places in the interior of the country voted for Donald Trump. As my Brookings Institution colleagues Mark Muro and Sifan Liu pointed out after the election, the 472 counties Clinton carried represented 64 percent of our GDP. Trump’s 2,584 counties accounted for only 36 percent of the nation’s economic activity.
These facts are important, but so too are the more subtle issues Dunkelman underscores. The ways in which we arrange ourselves, even within the big metro areas, reduce the likelihood that we will encounter, as a matter of course, people we disagree with but nonetheless like or, at the least, have reason to work with on common problems.
I will confess to a certain romanticism about the kinds of interactions promoted by smaller cities because I grew up in one. We shouldn’t be blind either to the benefits of the openness that today’s urban patterns encourage or to the sometimes vicious forms of exclusion, particularly along racial and ethnic lines, that could characterize relationships in older, tightly knit localities. We shouldn’t pretend that the past was a time of perfect comity.
Nonetheless, Dunkelman is right to worry that we may be weakening the connections that strong neighborhoods can nurture among those of different views. These links can take the edge off political divisions.
“You might not like or agree with your neighbor, but you could understand why someone might hold an opposing viewpoint,” he writes. “You might want to raise taxes to pay for a new amenity, or to reduce environmental regulation to attract new business – but neighborly relationships would help you appreciate any argument’s flip side. Often, such familiarity leads to compromise.”
No doubt the kinds of conversations Dunkelman describes still take place in localities around the country, but we are, more than ever, segregating ourselves along the overlapping lines of class, values and ideology. Our technological interactions, about which Dunkelman’s granddad was so skeptical, create a connectedness among like minds that is also leading to even sharper forms of separation from those who think differently.
No federal program can solve this problem and no app can force us to have dinner with people whose views we don’t share. But we would do well to ponder whether our social geography is aggravating our already pronounced tendency to treat so many of our fellow citizens as strangers.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.