Diversity makes Bangor a great city

Posted Sept. 17, 2010, at 9:48 p.m.

You may have seen this spring that Bangor was again named one of the nation’s best places to live by a national publication. Such rankings usually rely on quality of life factors such as employment, health care, recreation, education and the arts. What’s so great about Bangor? We do well in most of those areas, but I think Bangor’s best quality is something entirely different — diversity.

I know that sounds crazy. After all, according to the 2000 census, Maine is the whitest state in the nation, with a minority population of less than 4 percent. Bangor is a little more racially diverse than the overall state, but not by much. However, our modern preoccupation with defining diversity solely in terms of things like race, ethnicity and gender masks what is almost certainly a more important form of diversity in a democratic society — political diversity.

Political diversity, at least as we experience it in our daily lives, is fast approaching extinction. In “The Big Sort,” Bill Bishop showed that Americans are self-segregating themselves into homogenized enclaves at an alarming rate. We have an increasingly mobile population where people, aided by the Internet, find places to live that are largely populated by near carbon copies of themselves.

Are you a hip, young liberal into organic Tex-Mex food, hybrid cars and psychedelic country music? Try Austin, Texas. A semi-retired conservative with a predilection for Tommy Bahamas shirts, deep-sea fishing, golf, smooth jazz and fine dining? Naples, Fla., is the place for you.

Even though we are a nation with roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, fewer and fewer Americans actually talk on a regular basis with someone from the opposite party. In fact, a majority of Americans now live in a place where one party regularly wins elections by landslide margins.

This self-segregation also has extended to our use of the media. Conservatives flock to Fox News to see Glenn Beck discuss President Barack Obama’s supposed racism. Over on MSNBC, liberals cheer Keith Olbermann as he calls Sarah Palin an “idiot” while crowning her the “Worst Person in the World.” On the Internet, conservatives follow the Drudge Report’s daily mocking of Nancy Pelosi, while liberals prefer The Huffington Post and its attacks on the evils wrought by corporations and evangelical Christians.

It’s no wonder our politics have become coarser and more polarizing in recent years. Even if they wanted to, most Americans would have a hard time readily locating a person from the other party with whom to converse.

By walling themselves off from people unlike themselves, many Americans have lost the ability to have a civil discussion about political differences. This is deeply troubling because a healthy democracy depends on active deliberation, not just asserting one’s opinions.

Which brings me back to Bangor. We are fortunate to live in one of the rare places in the U.S. that still has political diversity. According to Bishop, in the last two presidential elections nearly half of all U.S. voters lived in a county where a candidate won by 20 or more percentage points. The average margin of victory in Penobscot County in those elections was less than 3 percentage points.

In Bangor, I come into daily contact with people from all walks of life — doctors, lawyers, construction workers, teachers, millworkers, janitors, nurses, farmers and retirees. My neighborhood has hippie vegetarians who frequent the farmer’s market and bridge-playing conservatives sipping their cocktails.

Nowadays, very few places can claim that sort of diversity. Our politics, despite an occasional dust-up, is still largely characterized by civil discourse across party lines. We should treasure that.

Richard Powell, a Bangor resident, is a political science professor at the University of Maine.

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