Homogeneity Threatens Democracy

I spent the July 4th weekend in my own Americana cliche: I relaxed in the humid heartland, drank one too many alcoholic beverages (screwdrivers), ate at a chain restaurant (Noodles & Company), played with my dog (a golden retriever mix), and attended Hollywood's latest paean to mediocrity (Will Smith's Hancock). I was in the bucolic suburbs of Lafayette, Ind., but really, I could have been anywhere or everywhere in America -- which is both satisfying and troubling.

In the lead up to my Independence Day respite, I have been through the montage of diners, rental car counters and air mattresses commonly known as a book tour. The nationwide journey has been a blur -- and not because I've been under-rested and over-caffeinated, but because America's newly homogenized culture has made everything seem the same.

As I discovered, the contemporary road trip tells the tale of hegemony better than even shared holiday experiences. Turn on your car radio and your listening experience is standardized. No matter where you are, you find yourself unable to find much other than either Rush Limbaugh rants or Bad Company songs on a dial now owned by a tiny group of conglomerates. The off-ramp pit stop -- once the spicy outpost of local flavor -- today seems mass produced from a Chinese factory, a bustling harbor of franchise commerce astride Jack Kerouac's endless road. Towering signs for Applebee's, Wendy's and Bob Evans are the boat masts on a sea of corporate food below.

Sure, when you drive north to south, the Arbys turn to Shoneys, and when you drive east to west, the Wawas become Circle Ks. And yeah, you'll find differing street sign fonts, varied twangs, and the occasional idiosyncratic landmark. But with the chain store-ification of culture, that's about it -- and today, even our politics is a victim.

At bookstore events in every corner of the country, the discussion is almost completely national focused. Who will be the vice presidential nominees? What will the latest scandal mean for the presidential candidates? How can Democrats or Republicans win the congressional election?

The queries, of course, reflect homogenized news from a consolidated media industry that increasingly provides cheap-to-produce, cheaper-to-replicate federal-level horse-race speculation instead of detailed local coverage. The result is that Americans obsess over distant political soap operas and palace dramas while neglecting pressing issues in their backyards.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm no troglodyte pining for a heterogeneous golden age that never was, nor am I a New Ager opposing all mass culture on a hyper-localist fantasy that never will be. There's a good side to this. It's great that we can, for example, widely distribute medicine (believe me, without stomach analgesics at every convenience store, my trip would have been unbearable). It's also terrific that we can have truly national conversations about presidential campaigns and difficult issues like race.

Then again, it's not great that our best-known commodities in this culture are fast foods, gas-guzzling SUVs, and sub-par Will Smith movies. It's also bad that we more often end up having national conversations about celebrity breakups -- and that when we do talk politics, Washington, D.C., is considered more important than what happens in our own state capitols and city councils. Indeed, in making anywhere into everywhere, homogenization has swallowed up not only our downtowns, restaurants and radio stations, but even our understanding of American democracy.

This is the most significant -- and scariest -- downside.

Facing health, energy and environmental emergencies that demand customized answers, homogenization has taken us from "think global, act local" to "obsess federal, ignore local" -- right when imminent crises mean we need to act more locally than ever. Because of this, America may yet become a casualty of its own cultural conquest.



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