Why were residents in Spokane, Washington so worried about crime even though they were listed as the fifth safest city in America? What does this have to do with conservative populations and how they vote?
I work with communities, districts, and public agencies on branding and identity projects; oftentimes in struggling areas, including lower-income suburbs, rural towns, and edge cities. This means I spend a lot of time in conservative locales, gaining insight into why those that lean right are so engaged by extreme Republican messaging, and are prone to voting against their own economic self interest.
The identity-framework process we employ in these communities is rather unusual in that we utilize the same story framework that improvisation artists use to help communities and public sector agencies build their own authentic story with their own words. This framework allows us to quantify all of the elements of a place's story…even (or especially) the elements they might not be aware of, or that they might want to ignore.
So, what has this process revealed about our more elephantine brethren? I will tell you below the fold!
The city of Spokane is a conservative community, which colors their approach to land use and governance: they don't want to be the first to do things, they like to watch how others do, and then implement what they think is best. This can be a very prudent method of governing. They also reap the benefits of conservatism's appreciation for tradition by having an incredible array of their historic assets designated, and therefore preserved, throughout their city.
One of the questions I asked as a part of my work there was, "What do the residents of Spokane most want to feel?" And two of the answers that popped up a lot were "Safe" and "Secure" -- in fact, those two words were themes throughout most of my outreach work. It was pretty clear that people felt very unsafe, and were worried about crime.
This puzzled me because I saw that Spokane was listed in a Forbes article as the fifth safest city in the country at one point. So, I just couldn't figure out from where this rampant insecurity, and concern for personal safety, was coming.
Until, that is, I realized the complex interconnection of insecurities that exist in conservative communities that are under financial distress.
Spokane has a median income that is about half that of the rest of the State of Washington, so there is a lot of economic insecurity to be had. And, what I came to understand during my time in eastern Washington, and that I’ve seen played out again and again in other communities, is this: if a neighborhood or city is economically insecure, then they feel a heightened sense of insecurity emotionally and criminally too. And if that community is conservative, then everything gets notched up another order of magnitude.
Interestingly, there isn't much distinction about the source of the insecurity, just that there is a strong sense of people not feeling safe. In fact, I have found that it is common for people who feel economically insecure to focus more on their feelings of being personally and emotionally unsafe than on their underlying cause--their financial circumstances
So, a conservative person who is economically insecure is going to worry about crime. A lot. And they are going to feel they are living on shifting sands emotionally, which, for people who naturally eschew change, is further exacerbated by the times we live in today. Present days do not exactly provide a bastion of safety. Stalwart companies, like Kodak, have gone bankrupt. Newspapers are fading. Kids don't care about cars because they socialize, shop, and work via the internet. Inner cities are massively gentrifying and the poor are being pushed to the suburbs. Cultural mores are shifting. The country is becoming more culturally diverse. Even in the best of circumstances, it feels to a conservative as if they are under assault. Add in a lost job, or dwindling wages, and voila, you have a person who is emotionally wrong footed.
And this is where the genius of the Republicans comes into play, they do a much better job than Democrats of connecting with this general sense of insecurity.
Red staters address personal insecurity by making guns readily accessible, by pushing for mandatory sentencing, and by continuing the ridiculously costly, and ineffective, war on drugs.
They address emotional insecurity by touting vague, but traditional, "small town values," by opposing gay marriage, and taking a strong anti-immigration stance. Their seeming desire to go back in time to the policies, the mores, and the mono-culturalism from another age is really a policy designed to address those in our country who feel adrift and disconnected from our rapidly changing society.
Ironically, the root of most people’s rampant insecurity, their terrible economic plight, is not addressed adequately by Republican policies. But, that hasn’t seemed to matter, for two reasons I think: 1) It is not easy to admit to financial insecurity and the sense of failure that it invokes, so they ignore it. 2) Because conservatives feel their emotional and personal insecurities are addressed adequately by the GOP, it makes it easier to pretend all of their insecurities are being addressed. Because financial insecurities are more complex problems to explain, and because they are harder problems to solve, they are often avoided by everyone.
Moving forward, the political reality for Democrats is this: to be more effective, they are going to have to address safety and security, in all of its forms, in order to make stronger connections with conservative communities.
The first step is to talk about, acknowledge, highlight, and participate in the strengths of conservatism -- not in a political sense, but in a human sense. I know that I seek out surgeons that generally take a conservative approach to surgical intervention! I admire business people that don't leap into the latest fad; instead, they study and watch others, picking the best strategies and implementing them better than anyone else. I love to participate in community tradition and ritual, which plays a powerful role in creating human connections in cities and towns. Democrats, rather than always presenting themselves as agents of change, should find ways to highlight, and participate in, tradition and ritual.
The second step is to really begin to listen to conservatives in these rural and suburban settings. I work in these communities all of the time, usually in revitalization and economic development capacities, and I cannot tell you how much of a thirst there is to feel that someone is actively, and genuinely, listening.
Third, talk about safety and insecurity, but connect the dots correctly: dire financial straits make us feel that we are out of control and that change is being imposed on us from outside of ourselves. Within traditional red communities, ones that lionize being in charge of their own destinies, and that celebrate rugged individualism, the byproducts of financial insecurity create stronger than normal concerns about criminal safety and deteriorating societal norms. So let's talk about it!
Fourth, and lastly, aggressively begin addressing the income inequities that exist in this country.
To be successful in the future, Democrats cannot depend solely upon demographic shifts to stay in office. They will need to work to close the income gap and restore the middle class to its previous might, because some of the biggest obstacles to Democratic policies will come from economic insecurity and the grab bag of issues it allows Republicans to leverage relating to criminal and social insecurities.
At the end of the day, everyone wants a decent life, happiness for their loved ones, and a community to call home. Blue…red…we are not so different when you zoom in and achieve a more finely grained resolution than a red/blue state-by-state voting map. So let's spend time with our fellow countrymen and women in conservative districts, one person at a time if we have to, so we can get to a point in America where we stop voting our insecurities, and instead choose our elected officials to reflect our most positive attributes.