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Polarization? Blame Folks Outside The Beltway

Michelle Slatella's column in today's "Thursday Styles" section is a silly recounting of how she accidentally invited both Republican and Democratic friends to dinner on the same night. (Quelle horrerur!)  After explaining that this is simply not done in Northern California and then detailing her extreme anxiety over the potential for disaster as the evening approached, Slatella wraps up the whole cutesy-poo tale by revealing (surprise!) that everyone wound up getting along swimmingly.

I'd be inclined to write this off as another piece catering to the the political provincialism of certain upper-crusty liberal Times reader. (Ooooo! Can you imagine having dinner with a conservative!) But I think it speaks to a larger phenomenon, one that gives the lie to Washington's bad rep as more partisan, nasty, and polarized than the rest of America. 

You hear this line quite a bit: The problem isn't that the country is divided. It's that Washington is so into partisan squabbling. 

Professionally speaking, this may be true. I mean, you don't typically hear car salesmen in Toledo, for example, yelling at each other on the showroom floor about the pros and cons of health care reform or tax policy.

But socially speaking, I'm not convinced Washington is more divided than other places--and less so than some. My friends in San Francisco can goes days without seeing another conservative. My family in Houston may not know any liberals. My husband's family in Western Connecticut wouldn't recognize a Republican if one bit them on the buttocks. And I cannot count the number of Dems from places like New York and New Jersey and Boston who, following Bush's 2004 reelection, I heard wail some variation on: How did this happen? I don't know a single person who voted for him?! This is not to say that there aren't conservatives in Connecticut or liberals in Texas. (Thank god for Austin.) But whether they identify with formal political parties or not, people form little social clots with like minded folk and, in the absence of some artificial stimulus, can lead lives as politically segregated as the House floor. 

 By contrast, it's hard to be a part of political Washington and not wind up mixing with members of the opposite team. You get introduced to one another and must make small talk at professional dinners, cocktail parties, soccer matches, ballet classes, panel discussions, television green room, fundraisers, and so on. Even people who make a living publicly trashing one another learn to interact politely. Stories are perpetually written about Liberal Senator X's long-standing friendship with Conservative Senator Y and how that relationship might impact Legislation Z. Conservative lobbyists break bread with lefty reporters. Liberal pollsters invite Republican Hill staffers to their book parties. Bob Barnett serves as everyone's book agent. (Make that everyone famous.) You discover that members of the opposition don't have horns (well, most of them don't) and aren't trying to destroy the republic. Now and again, you even invite some into your own home.  

Apparently, this ability to mingle with The Other strikes some people outside of the Beltway as peculiar. I still vividly recall (with apologies to those who've heard this anecdote before) attending a taping of the now defunct "Crossfire" and winding up seated next to a graying Ann Coulter fan, in town for that year's CPAC, who explained to me that the reason he hated pundits like Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson so much was that they slapped each other around on air but were actually chummy chummy in real life. I didn't have the heart to point out that Ann behaved the same way. But I did ask the guy: Don't you have any liberal friends that you argue with? He looked at me as though I had a banana slug hanging out of my nose and informed me that, no, he didn't have any liberal friends. And you could tell that he was extremely proud of that fact.     

 --Michelle Cottle