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A political neighborhood watch

October 16, 2008|Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a freelance writer.

Last night marked the final stage of a monthlong civics experiment on my block: watching the presidential debates with the people across the street.

Against the grain of polarizing wingnuts on cable TV, in defiance of maps of red and blue states, the Democrats and Republicans in our neighborhood have gotten together for three rounds now of John McCain versus Barack Obama, plus the bonus Sarah Palin-Joe Biden smackdown. Our mission? To do what the campaigns have had such a hard time doing -- get through this high-stakes election without being unneighborly.

To give credit where it's due, this idea didn't emerge from my house, where reaching across the aisle isn't exactly a family tradition. Not that we're dogmatic -- center-left is as close as we get to either end of the spectrum -- but like so many in these tribal times, we mostly hang out with people who think and vote as we do. (Life is short. If you're going to yell at Fox News, pick friends who'll yell along.)

But several years ago, we moved to Orange County, and before it occurred to us to ask how they voted, we discovered that our new neighbors were exceptionally nice. They were smart, our age, played good music. In short, they seemed like our kind of people. By the time we realized they were backing a different candidate for the White House, it was too late.

When they invited us to watch the presidential debates with them, we hesitated. What if politics ruined our friendship? What if one of us were to lose control and say something that was, well, true?

But then we heard that the gay Democrats in the house kitty-corner were also invited. And the people on the next block, whose party we weren't sure of. We worked up the nerve to head over and found about a dozen neighbors from across the political spectrum gathered around the Republicans' big flat-screen TV.

Yes, the get-togethers have occasionally been awkward. One woman at the second debate kept doing this little clapping thing every time McCain talked. When the gay guys felt outgunned at the Biden-Palin faceoff, one retreated to a corner of the couch with his wine. I reflexively say things I don't mean while trying to project bipartisanness I don't feel, and at the last debate, my husband kept excusing himself to "check on the kids" whenever things got tense.

But despite the civility, interesting exchanges have occurred. The gay couple told the conservatives how thrilled they were, after 10 years together, to finally be able to marry -- and how pained they were by Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that would take that right away. The Republican investor explained to the Obama backers why he's concerned about a probable rise in the capital-gains tax: He relies on his investment income and won't be able to afford to keep funding the small businesses he now backs if things change.

Would it have been more amusing to stay in our own respective living rooms and jeer the candidate we disagree with? You betcha, as Sarah Palin might put it. But these are not amusing times. We're going to wake up on a Wednesday morning not very long from now and find that we're past the point at which tribalism is useful. As Robert Cushing and Bill Bishop, authors of "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart," recently reported in Slate, social scientists have long found that too much time with like-minded cohorts tends to harden people's positions. Mere liberals turn to hard-core leftists; reasonable conservatives become full-on right-wingers. Things being what they are in this country, you might argue that there's a certain patriotism in just talking and listening to one another.

Plus, hard times feel a little less hard when you can get along with your neighbors. Even the ones who watch a lot of Fox News on that flat-screen TV.

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