I’ve split my professional life between two American cultures: half spent in the bluest-of-blue cities and the other half in the reddest-of-red rural South. I’ve split my jobs between universities and law firms that are almost uniformly Left and conservative nonprofits that are steadfastly Right. I attended a conservative, Christian college and then one of the nation’s most liberal law schools. My family has bounced between Cambridge, Massachusetts, Manhattan, rural Tennessee, small-town Kentucky, and Center City, Philadelphia (where we lived right at the edge of the so-called gayborhood). And after all those travels, I’ve come to at least two important conclusions: The sushi is better in Manhattan, and the freedom is better in Tennessee.
My conservative undergraduate institution — Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. — was far more open to dissent, including from angry atheist classmates (yes, I had a few), than was Harvard Law School. No one was jeered, shouted down, or threatened at Lipscomb. No one called future employers of atheist or liberal students to try to get job offers canceled. Professors didn’t scream at dissenting students, and activists didn’t plaster photoshopped, pornographic pictures of liberals all over campus walls. At Harvard, all those things happened — to conservative students.
My relatively conservative Kentucky law firm employed people of every ideological stripe, and we engaged in robust (and almost always friendly) discussions of virtually every kind of cultural and political topic. The firm’s pro bono work veered both liberal and conservative, depending on the views of the individual lawyer. When an LGBT activist complained to the managing partner of the firm about my conservative advocacy, she was shut down by a simple statement: “I’m running a law firm here, not the speech police.”
The overwhelming liberal majority expressed themselves freely, while the very few conservatives remained silent. Dissent was decidedly not welcome.
My Manhattan law firm, by contrast, performed only one kind of pro bono service: liberal. Political debates were virtually nonexistent in the workplace, but political conversations happened all the time. The overwhelming liberal majority expressed themselves freely, while the very few conservatives remained silent. Dissent was decidedly not welcome.
Even the conservative churches I’ve attended have been more ideologically diverse than the two major liberal campuses where I either attended (Harvard Law School) or taught (Cornell Law School). Indeed, the numbers demonstrate the truth of my anecdotal experience, with self-professed Evangelicals more politically diverse than not only Ivy League faculties but entire, allegedly “diverse” Northeastern cities. In other words, you’re more likely to hear a meaningful debate between people of fundamentally different political opinions in a church pew than in New York City.
This reality exerts a powerful influence on the residents of the two regions. While enjoying the undeniable organizational (and psychic) benefits of near-unanimity, urban liberals consistently think debates are “over” when they’ve scarcely begun, fail to understand (much less consider) opposing points of view, and consistently overestimate their cultural strength. An urban liberal can go his entire life without exposure to serious conservative ideas. This leads to an atmosphere rife with bullying but also prone to the occasional embarrassing overreach — such that brave conservatives can, for example, defeat even the largest universities in court as the universities’ ideological zeal outpaces their respect for the Constitution. I’ve been privileged to be a part of many such cases, in courtrooms across the nation.
In the South, I’ve found that rank-and-file conservatives are often amused rather than alarmed by most cultural debates. And while they have a much more difficult time escaping the Left (after all, everyone still has a TV and goes to the movies), they have a hard time taking, say, the Bruce Jenner story seriously. He’s more of a sad curiosity than a harbinger of cultural disaster. Unless they work for politically correct corporations (often those headquartered in Blue America), conservatives in the South usually find that radical social trends don’t affect their jobs, rarely affect their schools (which tend to retain a robust Christian and conservative presence at every level), and are barely a topic of conversation at church.
These two cultures create a reality that is exactly the opposite of that portrayed in Hollywood, according to which people always escape smaller towns and cities for the “broader horizons” of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Yet it’s not small-town America that’s narrow-minded. Our great cities embrace a curious and constricted kind of diversity, in which people of all races, sexual orientations, and personal proclivities are celebrated and embraced — so long as their minds belong to the collective.
The urban Left isn’t willing to embrace legal or cultural federalism and allow states to go their own way.
We have yet to see whether these cultural approaches can coexist indefinitely. While your average Tennessean doesn’t much care what someone in New York City thinks or does, the urban Left isn’t willing to embrace legal or cultural federalism and allow states to go their own way. Instead, it demands that all social trends conform to its agenda, demands that public schools teach social leftism exclusively, and, most recently, refuses to allow even Indiana to chart its own course on religious freedom and tolerance.
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Americans tend — over the long run — to reject censorship and intolerance, but past performance is no guarantee of future results. For those of us who live in Free America, our mission is clear: Resist legal and ideological aggression, and model the respect for free speech and individual liberty that we demand from our ideological foes. May the best culture win.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.