Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Neighborhood Spirit

Everybody used to be normal and decent to each other. Then something changed
Two women looking over fence

Reader PatrickSheaEsq comments:

I would really like to believe that the polarization and political obsessions of the fringes aren’t having an effect on most of the country and the lives of ordinary people, but I can’t disagree more with the idea that daily practical political disengagement shields people from the kind of conflict you find on twitter. Let me explain…

We live in a very ordinary conservative Florida suburb. Nobody ever talks about politics because it’s assumed everyone believes the same thing. There are at least seven churches on the two mile drive to our nearest grocery store strip mall (that’s if you don’t count the two churches under construction and the other one that meets in the public elementary gym and the other one that meets in a local seafood restaurant). They are always busy on Sundays and Wednesdays (and the Catholics on Saturday afternoon!). It’s obvious when it’s time for choir practice.

Ours is a large neighborhood (approximately 1200 homes) of well-maintained tract houses with an active HOA and an associated board that runs our CDD (for non-Floridians, that’s a community development district, a kind of quasi-public neighborhood authority that issues bonds to pay for large common projects within the planned community like roads, schools, or other improvements and has delegated authority from the state to charge homeowners an annual CDD fee which is kind of like an extra property tax — it’s a big deal since the average CDD fee is usually pretty large [for instance, ours is larger than our state and local property taxes combined]). It’s basically a way our state and local governments can get local things paid for with local revenue without making it look like they are raising taxes which is of course forbidden here.

In any event, when we first moved to our neighborhood, the atmosphere was generally friendly, helpful, and neighborly, and that’s despite the fact we moved in during the real estate crisis when many of the homeowners were deeply underwater if not facing immanent foreclosure. Now, of course, living in any HOA community always has its fair share of busybodies and the dumb hoops you have to jump through to get your rose bushes approved by the architectural review board, but the vast majority of interactions between neighbors were cordial and unremarkable.

During the waning year or two of the Obama administration, especially during the lead up to the 2016 primaries, little things started to change. You’d hear about more bullying by big kids up at the community center. More people began to complain on our neighborhood facebook page about speeders at the bus stop and minor acts of vandalism or petty theft. People started being more open about sneaking alcohol into our community center and pools. A couple of fights broke out in the gym and on the basketball courts.

Mind you, the demographics and economic health of our neighborhood has been improving dramatically during this time period, and it was quite good to begin with aside from the mortgage crisis. Our school system is routinely ranked among the best in the state and the whole country, and our unemployment rate is barely measurable.

When we first noticed these dust ups, the tenor of most interactions was still positive, but it started to become clear that something was changing. Facebook interactions became more argumentative and aggressive. When one parent wrote to ask for help because a group of middle school boys were exposing themselves to the kindergarten bus riders every morning, nearly armed camps formed — one outraged that something like this could happen, the other saying “boys will be boys, it’s no big deal” or the ever popular “heck, I did that when I was that age, and I turned out alright”.

That kind of thing rocked on for a while. The election comes and goes, along with the sea of Trump and DeSantis signs, but the level of anger and often just plain old meanness continues to intensify. By this time last year, people had started avoiding each other. People don’t wave anymore, rarely do they speak if they walk by while you’re out getting the mail. Keep in mind, I have never had a single conversation with a neighbor about politics pro or con on any issue or about any party. Ever.

Now, every HOA or CDD meeting is full of shouting and angry, vitriolic language, insults, threats, not to mention a good bit of profanity. People are talking like Trump tweets or a lot worse. Our neighborhood facebook page had to split into various pages run by groups of warring neighbors who now hate each other (some of whom are suing each other at great expense to themselves and to a lesser degree to the neighborhood itself). It’s literally insane. I will spare you all the details of these feuds, but one anecdote represents the whole: a group of neighbors (yes, these are adults and also parents to minor children) mailed themselves chocolate phalluses so they could call the police to accuse another group of neighbors of being sex offenders or something. It wasn’t a prank, it wasn’t funny, the morons called the cops on themselves! The sheriff’s office has basically told them to quit calling or they all will be arrested for wasting police time.

When people used to post about kids up to no good in the past, they would always hint around about who it was or obscure the faces of the children in a photo but still alert the parents they need to be watching out. Now they just post the pictures of the kids smoking weed and tell Karen she needs to go collect Bobby behind the back fence. People have complained for years about kids ringing doorbells in the middle of the night, but now people are describing the firearms they sleep with and saying if it happens to them, they’re going to shoot first and let the police figure it out afterwards.

These are the same people we’ve lived among for more than a decade, perfectly lovely, securely middle class, ordinary Americans, but something big has changed. What happened to the people who moved heaven and earth to help a family whose home was heavily damaged in a nearby tornado? What happened to all the nice people who used to post lost and found animals? Or the lady who was always ready to notarize a school form at 10pm because the field trip leaves first thing in the morning? Or the retired contractor who would offer to come over in the middle of the night to fix a broken AC or flooding pipe? Or the nurses, paramedics, doctors, and military EMTs who would post they were staying through the hurricane if anyone needed emergency medical help while the roads were going to be flooded?

They’re all still right here, they just don’t make the offers anymore. In fact, two of the people I just listed are at the center of one of the worst feuds.

Listen, I’m not longing for some golden age of 1950s Eisenhower Republican niceness, and I’m not some liberal ideologue dreaming of a new utopia either… I’d settle for 2006 or 2012, even with all of their many faults! Here’s the deal: my family and I are literally scared for our physical safety if one of us was to get actively involved in the HOA or CDD. I wanted to put out a yard sign in 2018 (as our HOA rules allow, for two weeks, and as many neighbors do), and I was told in no uncertain terms, “No, honey, they’ll slash our tires or break our windows.” And yeah, well, that was a pretty convincing argument because it was entirely plausible.

Am I trying to lay all of this at the feet of Donald Trump? Not really, though I definitely believe his narcissism, coarseness, dishonesty, corruption, and bullying have accelerated the trend by giving ordinary and sometimes not-so-mentally-healthy people permission to let all of their worst tendencies hang out into public view, too. But really, Trump is more a symptom than the disease, or maybe the right way of thinking of him is as an opportunistic parasite, the staph infection that takes hold while you’re recovering from a cold. If tens of millions of people hadn’t already been willing to let it all hang out, Trump wouldn’t have been possible.

The historical root causes of broad cultural changes like this are no doubt complicated, probably much more so than we realize, but on an individual level it’s plain and simply an inchoate anger and resentment about almost everything that’s driving the changes in my neighborhood. And Trump is thriving on it.