I used to make it a rule not to talk politics with neighbors, and not just because your side is a bunch of wingnuts and my side is right.
Just kidding. (Not really.)
It’s just that, as Pat Jackson-Colando noted in last month’s “My Orange County” essay, everyone just parrots the rants of mean pundits. It has consequences. We once lived next to a couple who liked us so much that they called us “the practically perfect neighbors.” Then one night over cocktails, somebody—not naming any names—started ranting about a certain past occupant of the White House, and suddenly the martini pitcher wasn’t all that was frosty.
Who knew they were the only ones on the block whose pundits actually liked the guys in the White House? After that, it was shocking how distant and polite we all became with one another. It was a miserable loss; policy aside, we’d loved those neighbors. So when we moved to O.C., we agreed: no partisanship, no kidding, no matter what.
How hard could it be to keep such a simple commandment? When the neighborhood came out to greet us, it was hard to imagine politics even coming up. Everyone seemed to have everything in common: Our children were all great. Our pets were all friendly. We drove the same cars and employed the same gardener and served the same nice wine to one another in the same nice wineglasses. Our block was—we scarcely dared think it—practically perfect. Then came the 2008 election, and out came the bumper stickers and campaign signs.
Who knew? The baby boomers across the street were backing a whole different ticket than we were. So was the lesbian couple across the alley, and the pickup-driving kid on the corner. The mother of four in the new house had joined a church full of gay-marriage opponents, to the wounded astonishment of the gay couple two doors down, who immediately festooned their front yard with “No on Prop. 8” placards. (“We’d thought she was so nice!” they kept murmuring, over and over.)
Suddenly, every encounter felt like an invitation to miserable, polite distance. Then the couple across the street suggested we all watch the debates at their house. Just two rules: Your stance had to be your own—no parroting some ranter—and no one could forget that we were all friends first. Even if some friends were wingnuts. Kidding! (Not really!)
We resisted, but they were offering free chips and guacamole. So when the candidates faced off, we gathered from all points on the political spectrum. Everyone was civil, though one woman did applaud her candidate’s every utterance and somebody—not naming any names—did regrettably shoot her the stink-eye.
And the opinions were, for a change, based on personal experience, not polemic: The conservatives told how the Bush tax cuts had underwritten their small business. The liberals told how health-care costs were crippling their families. The gay couple explained what marriage equality meant to their children. The kid on the corner explained what he saw in Ron Paul.
We called it “The Caucus.” It was utterly awkward, yet strangely patriotic. For once, the election seemed to belong, not to ranters, but to us. Yes, trash talk would have been more fun, but listening reminded us that we were in this together. Maybe we even influenced each other. Who knows?
So now the 2012 election is upon us. Any day, someone will holler, “Caucus!” and we’ll gather for more guacamole and debate. Not that much we discussed four years ago actually has been settled, but we’ve learned something the ranters have yet to discover: There’s just one commandment to talking politics—love thy neighbor. Even wingnuts can do it.
OK, now I’m kidding. But I’m right.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue.