A Nation of Strangers (1972)
Knowing, in a deep-down sense, where you are from
contributes not only to your sense of identity
If you've been paying even the least bit of attention to Al Gore's attempted electoral coup the past few weeks, you'll be familiar with this map :
Much ink has been spilled and hot air blown explaining just what this voting pattern means. But one consistent theme of the commentary has been a sense of surprise, even shock, at how divided it seems to indicate the country has become. But it really just represents the culmination of trends which Vance Packard sagely identified thirty years ago in his book A Nation of Strangers.
The 2000 Presidential campaign was actually a vindication on a couple of fronts for Mr. Packard. Little respected in his own day, he is best remembered today, if at all, for his book The Hidden Persuaders, which cautioned against subliminal messages and other techniques of the advertising industry. George W. Bush's infamous Rats ad sent folks scurrying for the book as they attempted to portray the use of the word fragment "crats" as evidence that W was trying to appeal the nether regions of the human psyche.
That was essentially a bum rap, but the map shows Mr. Packard to have been prescient in other ways. In Nation of Strangers, he argued that the increasing mobility of the American workforce was destined to have unforeseen and deleterious effects on society. To begin with he stated the fundamental problem :
Personal isolation is becoming a major social fact
of our time. A great many people are disturbed
He then identified several major traffic flows of the nation's populace :
1. The movement of people from interior states to seacoast states or to states bordering the Great Lakes.
2. The flow of people to the West and Southwest.
4. And, most momentous, there has been the vast movement from rural areas to metropolitan areas.
He discussed the reasons for these phenomena, mostly employment related, and acknowledged the benefits that such mobility might arguably provide, but then he listed the negative effects of what he called the "Curious Life Styles of Loosely Rooted People" :
(1) They tend to "do things they
wouldn't normally do back home" due to a "lessened concern
(2) They tend to be less well socialized,
becoming either isolated or instantly and artificially
(3) The likelihood that they will
be moving on leads them to take a "peculiar approach to
(4) They manifest an "indifference to local happenings and to social life.
(5) They develop an "uncertain sense of self." (see his quote above.)
(6) Their values are loosed from any moorings, just as they themselves have been.
Without putting too partisan a spin on all this, what Packard described was a sizable portion of the population which was losing contact with traditional values and institutions, an enormous cohort who have so little regular contact with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, social institutions, etc., that they are no longer really affected by societal norms and mores. Such people are naturally indifferent or even hostile to the conservative values of the more stable communities that they left behind--set free from the watchful eye and ready judgment of those who know them, they can engage in virtually any behavior without fear of personal consequences in a city of strangers. You are simply more likely to be restrained by a sense of shame if you know that your behavior will be observed by folks who know you. Morality is after all a social construct; in the abstract, or in isolation, there's really no reason to behave in a moral fashion. In addition, these loosely rooted people are so atomized, so disconnected, that it is almost inevitable that they support a broader Social Welfare State, since they have no one else to fall back on when things get rough.
Taken together, this departure from traditional values and reliance on government basically describe a likely Democratic voter. Now look at the map again and observe where the Democratic candidate did best : the great metropolitan areas of the two coasts, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Meanwhile, the Republican carried the great swaths of territory which the Nation of Strangers abandoned, what the intellectuals of both coasts condescendingly refer to as "fly over country." In this case, that nomer is apt--a Democratic President could very nearly fly from Washington, DC to Los Angeles without ever passing over a county that he carried except for the ones he departs from and arrives at. Admittedly, as a conservative, I am more disconcerted by the impact of the Nation of Strangers than others are likely to be; but it's hard to see how anyone can be quiescent about the continuing disintegration of our society. Despite the obvious political benefits that it has rendered to the Democratic Party, even they must, in their secret souls, have some concern about the eventual fate of a nation where half the citizens are virtual vagrants, devoid of value systems and dependent on government.
Surprisingly, for it's age, even some of the book's remedies are still germane. Packard called for : greater corporate responsibility to limit compulsory relocation of employees; people to work closer to their homes in order to be able to spend more time with their families and in their neighborhoods; people to acquire fixed second homes, vacation homes that the family would all return to regardless of where individual members were located; improvement of four year community colleges to encourage the young to stay closer to home during their college years; strengthening family ties, most controversial among the methods would be steps to salvage marriage and to reduce the growth of "one layer communities," the types of massive retirement communities whose location you can see on the map in Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere--as he puts it, the self-segregation of older Americans represents a neglect of the responsibility to nurture and share wisdom, "independence at the expense of generational interdependence." The electoral evidence offers us a probable additional remedy that would help, removing the Social Welfare Net that makes such isolation feasible.
In these proposals, as in most of the book, Packard demonstrates a really canny understanding of problems that other people of the time had not even yet recognized. It is well worth reading now, but one wishes it had been read and understood better then. Had it been, that map might look a lot different and be a little less frightening.
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "vance packard"
-EXCERPTS : from Vance Packard The Status Seekers
-ARCHIVES : "vance packard" (NY Review of Books)
-OBIT : Vance Packard, 82, Challenger of Consumerism, Dies (RICHARD SEVERO, December 13, 1996, NY Times)
-ESSAY : The Hidden Persuader : Vance Packard never got much respect during his lifetime. But his best-selling critiques of consumer capitalism and the machinations of advertising may be more relevant than ever. (David Futrelle, Salon)
-ESSAY : Vance Packard-Pop Sociologist of Marketing Scams and Much More
-REVIEW : of OUR ENDANGERED CHILDREN Growing Up in a Changing World. By Vance Packard (1983) (Ellen Chesler, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE ULTRA RICH: How Much Is Too Much? By Vance Packard (1989) (MARIA GALLAGHER , NY Times Book Review)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd