The Way We Live Now: Land of the Free Market

I live just beyond the dilating fringe of the New York metropolitan area, in the kind of place that was called “the country” until a few years ago. That’s when the ratio of urban refugees to farmers shifted in a way that made that designation feel self-conscious, so people began calling it “the exurbs,” a word formerly used only by urban theorists. The place still looks the same, with lots of forests and fields outlined by old stone walls, but you sense it’s been brought under the cultural and economic jurisdiction of Manhattan. How can you tell? The quality of the coffee has suddenly gotten much better.

I quite like living in the exurbs, and while I hope this fine form of civilization—this late-20th-century cross of countryside and latte—will last indefinitely, I’ve always assumed that it won’t, that my town will eventually succumb to the ineluctable, almost geologic forces of sprawl. There didn’t seem much anyone could do about it, at least nothing that didn’t feel selfish or elitist or hypocritical, not to mention perfectly futile. But that was before the Clinton Administration made “quality of life” a fit subject for national politics, and Vice President Gore kicked off his campaign talking, of all things, about sprawl.

The sprawl threatening the quality of this particular life is massed somewhere to the south of where I live, and I recently took a drive down Route 7 in search of its current frontier. I had only driven 15 miles, through the cornfields and pastures strung along the Housatonic River, before encountering a new townhouse development just north of New Milford. I recognized it as sprawl because it has one of those sad picturesque names (“Twin Oaks”) that memorialize whatever feature of the local landscape has just been obliterated.

As I continued south, the big maples gave way to even bigger signs, the traffic thickened and the franchises began reiterating themselves every five miles or so, the only indication that I’d left one town and entered another. I tried to decide what it meant—was it ridiculous or significant?—for a Presidential candidate to declare that the sorry state of this landscape (even this traffic!) was the nation’s business. “In too many places across America,” Vice President Gore had said in a January speech laying out his Livability Agenda, “the beauty of local vistas has been degraded by decades of ill-planned and ill-coordinated development.” The agenda itself was so Clintonian in its modesty (a thimble of money for buying open land, a minor rejiggering of Federal highway spending, some funds to encourage “smart growth”) that I initially dismissed it as the urban-planning equivalent of school uniforms.

But the response to Gore’s initiative has been so vociferous as to make me think again. The free-market think tanks spewed forth studies arguing that sprawl doesn’t really exist or that, if it does, it’s exactly what Americans want. George Will detected in the antisprawl movement an echo of 60′s disdain for middle-class consumer culture. A high-ranking official of the National Association of Homebuilders issued a threat to any politician who dared get in the industry’s way.

As I thought more about it, I realized that George Will may actually be on to something. For by elevating “livability” to a national issue, the Vice President has put a new spin on two legacies of the 60′s that the right thought had been safely disposed of a long time ago. One of these is the conviction that “the personal is political.” The other is the habit of questioning the wisdom and sovereignty of the free market. Rub these two supposedly discredited ideas together, and you can generate some surprising political heat.

This Administration’s quality-of-life issues—a rubric that embraces everything from family leave and the V-chip to traffic congestion, movie violence and smoking—are often derided in the media as examples of small-bore, middle-class, “feminized” politics. Yet the very act of injecting such personal matters into national political discourse draws the middle class, unawares, into a conversation about capitalism that is anything but trivial. For implicit in that conversation is the notion that the free market need not have the last word on the state of the American landscape or public health or even popular culture. In a remarkable feat of political jujitsu, Clinton and Gore have taken the right’s own emphasis on “values” and turned it into a middle-class critique of consumer capitalism.

Conservatives like to argue that, with sprawl, the free market has given Americans exactly what their spending decisions say they want. And yet many of us—or maybe I should say some part of most of us—are dismayed by the landscape and traffic that our own dollars and desires have wrought. That’s why it is possible both to deplore the arrival of a new Home Depot in my area and also to shop there.

The right would have you believe that the real me, the only one that finally matters, is the shopping me—the consumer; the deploring me should be dismissed as a sentimentalist or elitist or hypocrite. Until now, that’s been the general view on sprawl, one I’ve bought into myself. But it overlooks a complicated truth about modern life that conservatives would have us forget. It is that although we are consumers, we are not only consumers, but parents and neighbors and citizens too. The sort of world we bring into being with our dollars does not necessarily match the world we would vote for with our hearts, and one of the things politics is good for is to help us bring those worlds into a more pleasing alignment. What a radical idea.