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Washington Diarist; Group Think

I live in the best apartment in Washington. True, it won't befeatured in the Style section any time soon, what with the kitchen  arranged in a fashion some might call "fire hazard" and the wall's little nooks left by crumbled grout that I can hold my hand over to feel the wind on gusty days. But the rooms are big, the location is sweet, and the rent is $375 per month. The latter is especially important, since I am a journalist, and, for the benefactorless among us, it can take some creativity not to end up homeless. In that sense, I am lucky. But the best feature of my apartment is actually my awesome roommate,who did not make me pass a political litmus test to live here.

We won't discriminate on the basis of politics, but if Palestine is a dirty word for you, you may have a challenging time here.--Ad for a roommate in Northwest Washington.

There have been many stories about the polarization of Congress and how it has led to toxic animosity among our elected officials. But what about the grunts? One of the things I've learned since moving to Washington is that even young people can't live together here without weighing the ideological implications. The proof is onCraigslist: A lot of people note their political preference in roommate-wanted ads, sometimes before smoking preference, sometimes after. An ad headlined "are you ready for some football?" included this note at the bottom: "Liberals and flakes need not apply." The advertiser, a government contractor named Doug, is quite candid about the dangers of sharing his pad with liberals. "[T]he mindset of a typical liberal is to blame others for their problems," Doug explains, "and we don't want to live with somebody that will unfairly blame us for their problems." Maybe an ex-housemate framed him after swiping the cheese puffs? I ask Doug if he has any horror stories from living with bleeding hearts. "Most of my roommates have had my conservatism rub off on them because I talk it and act it and live it," he says. "I had one dropout, but there wasn't any animosity. He said he voted for Kerry, and I just shook my head. He just didn't understand everything correctly."

It fits the stereotype that a conservative would not be able to bear living with someone who's not into Fox News. That's why it is so refreshing to read through the ads posted by liberals in which tolerance is a recurring theme. One very tolerant woman named Julie explained in her ad that she and her housemates are "pretty laidback, but to live with us you do need to be non-racist and non-homophobic." Maybe she's had a bad experience with someone who was otherwise? No. She tells me she has never lived with anyone who didn't share her views. Julie puts her political orientation in her ad because she's "part of an interracial couple and my housemate is gay, so we like to put this up front so that no NRA white-supremacist homophobes [will] think they might want to live here." (Otherwise, presumably, she'd have to beat back the hordes of gun-lovers desperate to live with her in this handgun-free city.)

The term "liberal" itself signifies a lifestyle, as ad posters often elaborate with you-are-what-you-consume personality traits, such as that a house's occupants listen to NPR or drink wine (I am not making this up! David Brooks popularizes a stereotype and the stereotyped embrace it). To wit: "[I]f you are smart, or creative, or into the arts, or activism, or community, biking, cooking, recycling, gardening, outdoors, etc., we'll have plenty in common."In Washington, there are far more liberal and progressive ads than conservative ones. One ad seeks a "young responsible professional... open minded and tolerant; no conservative politics or religion." Another: "Must be laid back and not too conservative."Another: "[N]ot a conservative or any other type of square." Kol, who prefers the company of liberals, explains, "Finding a good housemate is hard enough without tossing adversarial personal politics into the brewing pot of possible lifestyle conflicts."

I was excited to finally find a liberal poster who'd actually lived with a conservative, but that situation did not end well. Carrie,who emphasized the importance of being "political enough to generally give a shit about things" in her ad, laments, "I have in the past asked someone to leave the house because of a conflict which I believe came down to a lack of respect for women and apolitical superiority complex." Perhaps Carrie once roomed with Doug? Or this guy: "I am rather conservative and I prefer the house to be free of drugs, overly loud music, the smell of incense and skateboards."

The experience of those in a large, bipartisan group home on Constitution Avenue reveals why red and blue cannot live together. Of the nine young people, three are Ivy-educated East Coast liberals, two are state-schooled Western conservatives, three are moderates, and one is British. The era of good feeling lasted less than two weeks. The roommates trace the breakdown to an argument over global warming. "It's really hard to argue with them," Thomas, one of the liberals, says of the conservatives.  Now, "when we bring up pollution, it's mostly to see what their crazy views are, not to debate them." The cost of this ideological divide is more than awkward conversation--it's frozen toes. The conservatives live on the lower, warmer floors, and the liberals live in the colder rooms upstairs. At night, both camps sneak into the hall and fiddle withthe thermostat. "[The conservatives] have fans in their rooms, but they turn off the heat instead of turning on the fan," Stuart, a liberal, says. "They care not for the welfare of the house."

This is what polarization hath wrought. Sure, gerrymandering has turned congressional districts into safe little one-party bubbles, and that's bad for public policy and all that. But the real tragedy is what it's done to Adams Morgan. And, yet, there may be cause for hope. Jay, a nonprofit worker, recently advertised to fill the last slot in her house. Two of her housemates were looking for jobs on the Hill, and, when applicants found out, several offered to help put them in contact with the right people. "Some of them were just trying to help another young person out," Jay says. "But others were definitely trying to use their connections to sell themselves as roommates." Now that's what Washington is supposed to be about--shameless networking.

By Elspeth Reeve