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Seeking to end political disconnect

Seeking to end political disconnect

January 11th, 2017 by Michael Smerconish in Opinion Columns

I made two New Year's resolutions: one personal, one professional. The personal is patience. I'm forever trying to lengthen my fuse. Hopefully this will be the year. Professionally, my goal is to be better grounded.

I'm feeling a disconnect to just under half the nation. My failure to see Donald Trump's ascension was compelling evidence of my being out of touch with 46 percent of the country.

I attribute that to my living in a virtual gated community defined by a number of factors, including: my zip code (No. 189 in the nation for home value, according to Forbes); my Penn Law graduate degree; my political registration as nonaffiliated; where our kids go to school; the car I drive; my weight consciousness; and even the TV I watch (loved "The Crown"; "Duck Dynasty" not so much). Even my Christmas lights—white LEDs—not the fat, colored bulbs of my youth.

And while I'm well-read from sources across the spectrum, I admit that I'm quick to discount many stories due to their origin.

My bubble is a world much different from my grandparents' roots or the environment in which my parents raised my brother and me. Our family is Pennsylvania coal crackers who came from Eastern Europe with nothing. I grew up on a quarter-acre lot, in a three-bedroom house, which had no shower until I was in the eighth grade. That bathroom renovation was performed by an inmate on work release from the Bucks County Prison, where my father, a guidance counselor by day, ran the adult-education program. My mom stayed at home, then worked as a secretary, and, when I was in high school, hit pay dirt as a hard-working Realtor. I won't tell you her age, but she still works, long past the point where she needs to.

Charles Murray was prescient five years ago when he wrote of the isolation of the new upper class and the negative consequences that flow when they are segregated from the working class. In his book "Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010," Murray included a quiz that was designed to show people like me just how isolated they'd become. His questions were no-brainers, he argued, for ordinary Americans: Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Who is Jimmie Johnson? Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck? Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform?

I scored a 42, where 77 is a typical mark for a lifelong resident of a working-class neighborhood. Still, I didn't appreciate the political significance of Murray's work until this election, a point driven home during Christmas break when I shared breakfast with a near-nonagenarian in southwest Florida. The meal became an exercise in field research. We were at a diner on Route 41 in Collier County. Collier had the highest percentage of registered voters (87) who cast ballots in the state. Trump won Collier by about 45,000 votes en route to a critical Florida victory. The diner was as red as the county. I'd stepped out of my bubble and into another.

There were about 40 of us having breakfast, mostly male, all white, save an African-American father and son, the former of which sported a county EMT uniform. The decor was accentuated by the grille of a 1957 Chevy coming out of the wall. Marilyn Monroe's portrait hangs on the wall.

Not surprisingly, Fox News was playing on the largest of several TVs. This was what President Obama was talking about in a November Rolling Stone interview when he partly attributed Democratic losses to "Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country." My dining companion had sausage and biscuits; me, scrambled eggs.

"Trump is the only shot we have of turning this around," he told me, never quite defining what "this" is.

That day's main headline concerned President Obama evicting 35 Russian diplomats from the United States as a result of the presumed hack of our recent election. "Isn't that a serious issue?" I asked.

"Who knows if it was the Russians? How can we be sure that's true?" said my guest.

"Besides, we shouldn't alienate the Russians," he added. "They're the only ones we can rely on to straighten out this situation with the Arabs. Maybe Trump can get the Chinese to help. It's time to get this over with."

I sought counsel last week from J.D. Vance, author of the best-seller "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis." He told me he sees the nation's divide as follows: "These two separate communities: They go to different schools, they eat at different restaurants, they watch different TV shows, they send their kids to play at different sports even. And eventually I think that separation is starting to infect our culture and our politics. It really worries me that so few people even understand why someone would vote for Donald Trump."

Vance advises that people seeking a better understanding make it a point to interact with folks of a different social class, which can be a challenge today in comparison with 50 years ago when there was more mixing in the military, workplace, home, and at church.

So look for me taking more meals at Cracker Barrel, shopping at Walmart, or even lingering in the parking lot at Lincoln Financial Field instead of sidestepping tailgaters.

In 2017, I'm out to burst my bubble.

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