Modern Suburban Tribalism

I heard a fragment of conversation on the radio the other day. The woman was speaking about the growth of tribalism in the United States, and its impact on our politics and viability as a democracy, particularly in light of the challenges we face in the next thirty to fifty years.

I’ve been personally gnawing on the observation that the suburbs are the real powerhouse for conservative politics. You see it plain as red-versus-blue if you look at results of the voting precincts in Fort Collins: townies vote liberal-blue, the suburbs are red as ink in Washington.

Michelle Bachmann — arguably the furthest-right-delusional of the Tea Party conservative candidates — comes from the Minneapolis suburbs, which provided all her initial support.

Are suburbanites a tribe?

It seems a rather bizarre way of looking at it, but let’s play with it and see if there’s anything there.

At first glance, you wouldn’t associate Ward Cleaver with anything as primitive as a “tribe.” Tribalism is supposed to be about dirty bands of nomads who herd goats and make war with rocks and sharp sticks. But I’ve long observed that most social forms grow in the strangest soil.

Neo-Paganism, for example, the “nature-oriented path,” is a deeply urban phenomenon. It actually makes a lot of sense that it would be an urban practice. Those of us who were bred, born, raised, and have lived all our lives in the cities (or the suburbs) are going to naturally romanticize “nature” in a way that a typical farmer or rancher would find ridiculous. We are hungry for the touch of nature because we have so little of it, but we are also heavily sheltered from the rougher aspects.

One of my most memorable Pagan rites was at a particular Spring Equinox. The sun set, and it got freaking cold, while rain verging on sleet spat at us. A beautiful and moving rite, a touching reminder of nature’s wildness, followed by a nice warm-up in a thoroughly-modern restaurant with hot food and cold beer.

Would that celebration have been different if we had contemplated going home to a tent or a hut that barely kept out the wind, then shaking the stiffness out of our limbs the next morning to gather firewood?

You betcha. We’d never have risked hypothermia that way, for starters. We’d have prayed earnestly to the gods for an early summer, and we’d have gone home to a modest feast at best — what we had left in storage would have to get us though to warm weather, and only the gods would know when that would happen. We’d find nothing romantic about having sleet spit at us — we’d get plenty of that tending the herds all winter, to say nothing of staying on top of lambing/calving season.

I see much the same paradox in the “conservatism” of the suburbs.

Suburbs are a thoroughly modern development, a direct result of oil-based energy. You find nothing like it in human history prior to about 1950. So it seems perfectly obvious that suburbanites would long for a mythical “way things were” that shields them from the desperately experimental and tenuous nature of their way of life.

Furthermore, the suburbs are going to be the first casualties of the coming Perfect Storm. Suburbs and bedroom communities depend utterly on a very efficient and perfectly-functioning infrastructure, most of which people simply take for granted.

Garbage removal. Well-stocked supermarkets. Automobiles. Mail and UPS and FedEx deliveries. Electrical power grids. Water and sewage systems. Piped-in entertainment in the form of Internet and cable services. A profoundly orderly society where neither a beat cop nor barbed-wire is needed to protect your belongings. Lots and lots of easy money that allows you to hire services from private contractors, rather than relying upon your neighbors.

Suburban dramas are correspondingly shallow. Dog poop. The guy down the street who doesn’t mow his lawn often enough. A FOUR HOUR cable outage! My God, you’d think the cable company had hired chimpanzees to do the work for them. Maybe I should write a letter of complaint.

It won’t take a Japanese tsunami to reduce the suburbs to an uninhabited wasteland.

Denial runs deep in the suburbs, but despite humankind’s enormous skill in self-deception, I have to think that most suburbanites can unconsciously feel the cold wind tickling the short hairs where their bare collective posterior hangs out.

What ARE they going to do when gasoline hits ten dollars a gallon? What will they do when an electrical substation goes down, and their fully-deregulated, privatized power company decides to write their entire community off as insufficiently profitable? What happens when a major trucking line goes bankrupt and the grocery stores all run out of Twinkies — and everything else?

I would actually expect the suburban tribe to band together in an especially fierce orgy of denial and magical thinking. They might even found a new political party dedicated to denying that they need any government services at all….

It makes a weird kind of sense.

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