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PARKER: A nation divided not by politics, but density

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker

NEW YORK — After living in New York City for a few weeks, I’ve reached a few conclusions about the great political divide in America.

As Barack Obama told us at the Democratic convention in 2004, we are not a red and blue nation, etc., etc., etc. True enough, but we are a high-density/low-density nation.

As a smallish-town girl come to the humongous city, I am all too aware of the appeal and horror of centralized government. Simply put, the more people cram themselves into small spaces, the more government will be involved in their lives.

This isn’t the stuff of revelation, of course, but it’s a useful metaphor for the two prevailing worldviews now in conflict.

If you live in a large urban area, chances are you are accustomed to lots of rules and regs. But to the newcomer, fresh from living largely independently by her own wits, the oppression of bureaucratic order is a fresh sort of hell.

Not only did I move from a small town in South Carolina via a relatively quiet neighborhood in Washington, D.C., I also left the solo operation of a freelance writer to join CNN, an international organization with layers upon layers of human management. Not that I’m complaining. Just sayin’.

But between rules for potted plants on an apartment terrace and a building ban on lighting birthday candles, I’ve uttered more than once, “Now I know what it’s like to live in communist China.” Without, of course, the conveniences.

Nothing is simple when you have 8.4 million people living in the space of 303 square miles. This seems obvious, but the daily impact of those statistics can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve experienced it. For every individual action, there are four typed, single-spaced pages of restrictions.

So it must be, one could argue, or else there would be anarchy. You can’t have 8 million people acting out their individual impulses. What if half the city’s residents decided to fire up the Weber for some burgers on a given Saturday? On the other hand, when staffers threw me a birthday party a few days ago, rules prohibited lighting the single candle on my pink-frosted cupcake.

You may have heard about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against trans fats, which are now banned from restaurant fare in the city. OK, fine, trans fats are bad for you and I voluntarily eschew them. Not so the fellow who installed my wireless.

“You can’t get a good doughnut in the city anymore,” he railed. “I have to drive to Jersey to get a decent doughnut.”

But Bloomberg cares about my cable guy’s arteries. He figures citizens will be better for these rules, which is the thinking behind all decisions that ultimately remove the decision-making (i.e. freedom) from our lives. It is one thing to create laws that protect us from another’s stupidity, but shouldn’t the cable guy have the right to be stupid? Even just now and then? I haven’t eaten a doughnut in 20 years, but suddenly I have an uncontrollable urge to hit Krispy Kreme.

These are tiny little things, not so terribly important, but so are raindrops. Individually, they’re not much. In combination, they become something else less pleasant. Inevitably, the mind wanders to health care and other government programs that aim to do nice things for good people but in the process eliminate the options of being self-directing individuals.

This is fundamentally where Democrats and Republicans face off. At what point is the common good bad for people?

Many so-called Everyday Americans who live in the oft-maligned red states essentially are people who live in more-open spaces and, therefore, see little need or benefit for government management of their lives. The frontier may be nearly gone, but the person who prefers wider horizons will have little use for bureaucrats bearing the latest government how-to (or how-not-to) document.

Those who have opted to live in densely populated blue areas need third-party authorities to maintain order and figure they’ll trade a little freedom for the convenience and cultural riches of city life.

These are completely different orientations toward life in general and the role of government specifically, and I’m not sure the two can be reconciled. City dwellers will never understand the folks who prefer the company of trees, and country folk will always resent the imperious presumptions of urbanites who think they know best.

But when the lights go out, I’m gonna light that dadgum candle.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker at kathleenparker@washpost.com.