RNC UndercoverSEPTEMBER 6, 2008
- Jim and Hugh
- (Jim Gates)
- View the Slideshow
- Foreclosure Double Punch
- The End of Weekend America
- Conversations with America: Concluding the Conversation
- Good News, Bad News, No News
More From Jim Gates
The Democratic and Republican conventions that have dominated the last two weeks show American partisanship in the starkest terms: Huge convention halls filled with true believers cheering for the politicians that seem most like themselves. And in many ways, American communities are becoming more and more like political conventions all the time. Studies show that most of us spend most of our time interacting with people that agree with us. But that's not the case with reporter Jim Gates. He's a Democrat, but he found himself at the Republican National Convention as a personal guest of an Arizona delegate.
I first met Hugh Hallman in high school in Scottsdale, Ariz. We were both in marching band and the school musical Fiddler on the Roof. Yeah, nerd alert.
While other kids were off partying, we would spend Saturday night at the local golf course, diving for golf balls in the muddy lake near hole 9. We'd sell them to the Arizona State University's athletic department. We didn't make much money, but that wasn't the point. Hanging out with Hugh was always an adventure.
Neither of us cared too much about politics back then. But things changed during college. Hugh studied economics. I pursued a career in communications. Hugh worked on Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. I worked for Dukakis.
This year, Hugh was a delegate for the state of Arizona at the Republican National Convention and he invited me to be his guest.
The security around the convention center is pretty intense. Rows of riot police, secret service officers, actors. Jon Voight walks past us and Hugh greats him like they were old friends. I tell Hugh I loved him in Midnight Cowboy. Hugh explains that Republicans don't watch such movies. It's not just politics and movies that Hugh and I differ on. I read the New Yorker, he reads the Wall Street Journal. I rent an apartment in Los Angeles, and Hugh lives in a large ranch-style home in Tempe, Ariz., where he's the mayor.
Hugh and I have moved to cities that reflect our lifestyles. And that's typical of what's been going on in America. In the 30 years that Hugh and I have known each other, Americans have become more mobile and Republicans and Democrats have been moving further and further apart. Literally. Democrats have moved to densely packed cities and Republicans have moved to spacious suburban enclaves. Author Bill Bishop calls this mass movement "The Big Sort." It's also the name of his new book.
"By seeking out those places comfortable to them culturally," Bishop explains, "the decision is to avoid those places that are uncomfortable. They really are avoiding different points of view." And as Americans spend less time talking to people with different points of view, it's no surprise that the people they elect are more partisan than ever.
"There are incredible differences from place to place," says Bishop, "But what's missing then is any ability of highly different areas to ever get together and make any kind of policy nationally. So we have great consensus locally but no consensus nationally."
Of course, the presidential conventions are all about partisan identity. At the RNC, thousands of people crazily wave their signs all around me. I feel like I'm at a church revival with supporters deliriously proclaiming McCain as the next coming and Obama cast as the devil. But Democrats were doing the exact same thing a week ago in Denver. It's no wonder we have a hard time talking to each other.
I know this personally. There are things that Hugh believes in that really bother me. And of course at the convention, we can't avoid talking about politics. Hugh has always driven me crazy with his arguments. I mean, the guy was chosen as best orator in law school. I can never win. But that doesn't make me feel any less passionate about what I believe in.
After spending a day among the elephants, Hugh agrees to hang out with my people for a while. I take him to a rally that the Service Employees International Union is putting on. The event is only about a half mile from the convention center across the Mississippi River, but it feels like it's a world away. Thousands of people have gathered in a local park to listen to music. Hip hop music is blaring. Dreadlocks and tattoos are everywhere. Hugh is wearing a sport jacket and tasseled shoes. Within minutes he gets into an argument with a guy wearing a T-shirt that says "I never thought I'd miss Nixon." They're both shouting about the trade deficit and which party is to blame. And that's what I love about Hugh. He stands up for what he believes in. Even in a field full of liberals. And even though he often infuriates me, he challenges me at the same time. And I think I challenge him a little too. We share an odd curiosity towards each other's differences that has grown into a mutual respect. And I think the rest of America could use a little bit more of that too.