Once upon a time, Dewey could have been describing the origins of America's suburbs. In the planned community of Levittown, New York, houses were built identically, rows and rows of lot size 60 by 100, unfinished attics peeking through sloped roofs. The standard lease
for the first Levitt houses infamously specified they could not ''be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.'' That was 1947.
Fast forward to 2017, when it might be the suburbs that revitalize democracy, or at least restore it to Dewey's vision
: A system that works best when individuals do not just advocate for themselves but advocate for others.
The political upsets
we've seen this year in New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama represent
not so much a blue wave as an affirmation of moderation and civility and neighborliness. It's a far cry from the polarized America of tweets, headlines and political rhetoric.
In fact, it is a rejection of that -- and a window into what the suburbs have become. Most Americans do not live in such extremes. Like Doug Jones
, the incoming Democratic senator from Alabama, they might support the right to bear arms (with background checks). Or like Virginia's governor-elect Ralph Northam
, they might not want to outright demolish Confederate statues but move them to museums.
The narrative of America's great divide in 2017 doesn't actually reflect most of the country and where they actually live, geographically or politically. We've been entirely miscast.
Most Americans are neither coastal elites nor inhabitants of flyover country (both objectionable tropes on their face). Most Americans live in the suburbs, a geographic term the US government is curiously loath to define. But suburbanites are not; a survey by an economist at Trulia, the online real-estate site, finds that 53% of Americans say they live in one
. The suburbs mirror US demographic trends; minorities represent 35% of suburban residents, and in 2010, the share of blacks in large metro areas living in the suburbs surpassed 51%, meaning the majority of black Americans are suburbanites, according to Brookings.
Fourteen years ago, my book, "Suburban Sahibs"
delved into this upheaval of America's bedroom communities, based on dozens of interviews with Indian immigrants in central Jersey redefining local schools, politics and the economy. I found that suburbs are no longer bastions of "white flight" nor the isolated places of their founding. They embody many, if not more, of the vicissitudes of cities: diversity, crime, great schools and failing ones, too.
As much as we focus on the assimilation of immigrants (and melting pots and salad bowls as metaphors
), the reverse also happens: They change the attitudes of the people around them. When you end up with seven pages of Patels in a yearbook, a certain give-and-take is inevitable; the cafeteria serves vegetarian meals and the senior center offers yoga and tai chi, alongside line dancing. Whites value diversity, too; these recent elections show them sticking up for their neighbors and a certain way of life.