Belshire Way is a street in a subdivision in Orange County. ("Close to Irvine Spectrum!" the real estate ads say. "Open floor plans!") Drive by, and the view is of 14 one- and two-story tract houses. Some have red tile roofs. Some have pools in the backyards. Some get notices from the homeowners' association about garbage-can visibility and unsanctioned tetherball pole setups. In other words, it could be any suburban street in America but for something invisible from the curbside: For years, Belshire Way has been a cul-de-sac divided--exactly divided--between Democrats and Republicans.
Eleven apiece. That's how many voters on that one Lake Forest street were registered, as of this spring, with the two major political parties, along with an American Independent and five others who declined to state a partisan preference. Nationally, such "political integration," as it is called, is thought to be declining. Analyses of voting patterns over the last few decades have shown electoral districts increasingly dominated by one party or the other. Part of it is gerrymandering. Another part, though, appears to be obvious: Liberals and conservatives are becoming less and less likely to live side by side.
Who can blame them? On the Internet, on cable TV, on talk radio, on the nation's op-ed pages, polarization dominates the national discourse. Compromise and civility are as passe as Walter Cronkite. It's O'Reilly versus Franken, Drudge versus Kos, Rove versus Wilson, McCarthyites versus moonbats. We are a nation divided--nearly exactly divided. Or so we are told.
Which is why, with the 2006 primaries set for this week and the 2008 presidential race shaping up as a fight for the middle, it seemed instructive to visit one of those spots where the two sides still have to look across the hedge at each other, interact with each other. What has the intense political polarization of the last few years done to ordinary life in a place such as Belshire Way? Has anybody blinked? Has everybody stopped speaking? Have all but the apathetic moved to more like-minded quarters? Or has the great divide been worn down by proximity?
The answers, as it turns out, range from the sad to the surprising, from the confused to the subtly comic. But to the extent that one neighborhood can reflect any society, the people of Belshire Way suggest that there is a profound divide--not so much between voters but between the cul-de-sac and the Beltway, between average, fed-up Americans and the professional partisans and pundits who frame the dialogue and whip up political bases and see no harm in insisting that everybody, right down to you and your neighbor, pledge allegiance to somebody's side.
"The first couple of times I went to vote here," Kathleen Frankeny confessed, laughing, "I felt like the only registered Democrat."
Frankeny is 46, a blond, freckle-faced sales representative with a smile like Doris Day's and a chatty, welcoming manner. On the hot summer morning when I first knocked on her door--the one toward the back of the cul-de-sac with the patriotic little American Spirit wreath on it--she and her husband, Dave, also 46, were doing chores with their two teenage sons in their ample backyard.
Sun glinted off the swimming pool; a barbecue sat in one verdant corner. The Frankenys, raised in the Los Angeles suburbs, moved here 13 years ago for the proximity to their jobs and the excellent public schools. Over time, they have become friendly and, in some cases, friends with their neighbors. When Frankeny was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer this year, nearly everyone on the block, regardless of party affiliation, rallied around with cards and casseroles and offers to drive her to doctor appointments. When one of the Republicans on the block--a 78-year-old man much beloved by his neighbors--died recently, it was Frankeny who sadly informed me.
But her assumption, at least at first, was that she had settled in hostile territory for someone of her political persuasion. One neighbor, long since gone, had been up in arms for months about same-sex marriage, she remembered. Another, a few streets over, "was just obsessed" with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
"A lot of people around here belong to the Saddleback Church," Frankeny noted, referring to the 20,000-plus-member evangelical ministry on El Toro Road, where the Rev. Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," is the pastor. That, she said, "isn't a bad thing at all--but it's not my thing."
Though the famed Lake Forest church is known mostly for its mass community-service campaigns and its lack of formality--people wear shorts to services, and the goateed Warren hangs out with Bono and recently organized a massive campaign to fight poverty and AIDS in Africa--its tenets are uncompromisingly Southern Baptist, and Warren made no secret of his personal support for Bush in 2004.