Shoveling Partisanship

We don’t know our neighbors the way we did a generation ago. A hardy winter could give us clues that no other season promises to provide.

We used to shop in our neighborhoods, borrow stuff from one another, and worry ourselves sick about what mischief our children might be into together. Now we buy what we need from Amazon, search eBay for stuff we might have borrowed, and sign our children up for non-stop structured activities.

Nothing new to those complaints, but it gets worse. More and more, we don’t even know about our neighbors. We might see a TV glow in their picture window, but what channels are they watching? We might notice their cars disappearing into their garage at night, but without bumper stickers, what does that really tell us? How much can you learn from an occasional polite passerby wave?

Portland tried mandating front porches for all new house construction. Many cities have moved to curtail front-yard fences. New Zealand wonderfully allows any receptacle to be designated for residential mail, allowing plenty of self-expression.

Even the sorts of trash cans set out for curbside pickup could tell you something, but no more. They have been standardized and otherwise “improved.”

As we begin our quadrennial peak political season, and we might wish we knew the leanings of our neighbors. Alas, campaign lawn signs aren’t allowed in Eugene until 60 days before an election. By April, the presidential candidates may be selected, or we may have stopped caring about them.

But we may have an opportunity sooner than that to try to discern our neighbors’ political persuasions. If we’re lucky enough to get a good snowstorm this winter, we can begin to intuit their politics based on how they shovel.

A primer:

Democrats usually will shovel the sidewalk in front of their house first, because they believe that’s what good people should do. Neighbors need safe passage and they outnumber the occupants of any individual building. The commons must be protected and promoted. A quick path from the front door to the sidewalk might be necessary, but only to be sure the mail and newspaper delivery people can find the front door.

Republicans start at the other end, shoveling first their driveway and related private spaces. If they give priority to any public space, it’s likely to be limited to the area where the public and private intersect. As long as everyone can safely reach their car, the rest of the details should work themselves out on their own. Eventually they care for the shared space, but “family first” is central to being a good provider.

Economist Adam Smith could have testified about the power of enlightened self interest, based only on snow removal patterns. Too bad his fabled hand is so invisible — otherwise he could lend it to our shoveling efforts.

Libertarians and socialists don’t shovel at all, but for different reasons.

The libertarian believes that anything we do to help others will only enfeeble them, so we’re all better off just trudging through knee-deep drifts. Dependency is the enemy of evolution, so refusing to shovel lets all your neighbors know that you believe in science. The natural order of things must be affirmed. Spring follows winter. As they used to say in the Midwest, “The good Lord brought the stuff. Let the good Lord take it away.”

Socialists sit inside and hope somebody in the neighborhood buys a snowblower, which will make things easier for everyone. If everyone chips in to buy the snowblower’s gas, the problem solves itself. Have you ever seen a Scandinavian with a snow shovel? No, of course you haven’t. They probably heat the sidewalks there. That would be a good idea too. Somebody should look into that.

In 2008, a prominent liquor company surveyed 100 bartenders around Washington, DC to find out whether Republicans or Democrats were better tippers. Unlike tipping, sidewalk shoveling is a public act. The evidence can’t be hidden or erased, except by more weather.

Bartenders reported that Democrats tip better — probably because they believe that’s what good people should do.