Last year, an Axios survey revealed that two-thirds of both Democrats and Republicans “considered moving to a state that’s a closer match with their cultural and social values”—a finding that reflects an existing “geographic segregation” identified by researchers.
“Such high levels of partisan isolation can be found across a range of places and densities and are distinct from racial and ethnic segregation,” Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos, the paper’s authors. “Moreover, Democrats and Republicans living in the same city, or even the same neighborhood, are segregated by party.”
While many analyses, including those by NYU faculty, have pointed to potential means to reduce this kind of division, it has become a fixture of American life in ways that perhaps warrants examination in innovative ways.
For his part, Ted Conover, a professor at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, recognized in 2016 that there were large swaths of his own country that he simply no longer knew—isolated, perhaps, by his own urban existence.
“Right before Donald Trump was elected, I was interviewed by a French radio station about how I thought the election would go, and I remember saying I didn’t think Trump had a chance,” he recalls. “I had lots of company in this delusion—showing that it’s possible to occupy a silo even in arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. The election really made me think I needed to get out of the city and reconnect with an America I used to know better.”
So, in 2017, Conover began making frequent visits to Colorado’s San Luis Valley—about a four hour drive south of Denver, where he grew up—with the aim of learning about people in parts of the United States that no longer felt familiar to him. In particular, he was interested in a rarefield sort of bare bones off-grid living—a newish, slowly-growing community of people who, encouraged by low prices for solar panels and Colorado’s decriminalization of marijuana, bought land on wide-open prairie that had been subdivided in the 1970s and sold in what the government said were land scams.
At first volunteering for a local social service organization, La Puente, that aims to keep off-gridders from becoming homeless when the weather gets cold, Conover ended up buying his own five-acre plot and renovating a mobile home that had been left there. This immersive research technique, which Conover says borrows from ethnography, had also driven his earlier work.
For Coyotes, a 1987 book about undocumented immigrants, he lived with Mexicans on both sides of the border. In writing Newjack, a work on New York State's prisons, he served as a corrections officer at Sing Sing.
His time in the San Luis Valley—about the size of New Jersey, but with fewer than 50,000 residents, compared to the Garden State’s more than nine million—is captured in Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge.
NYU News spoke with Conover about his extended rural visit—and why his experiences reporting for this book left him “hopeful.”
Recalling the 2016 presidential election, you write that the “American firmament was shifting in ways I needed to understand.” How did this experience help you make sense of that shift? Or did it?
I’d say to some large degree my experience explained this shift. To be clear, it’s not all Trump voters in the San Luis Valley. There’s a Democratic stronghold, especially among the longtime Hispanic residents of the valley. But the people out on the prairie tend to skew conservative. And there are a lot of Trump supporters there—and among them are also a number of Hillary Clinton haters. I had never really spent time talking to people who were part of her, quote, “basket of deplorables.” But it didn’t take long to understand why they felt neglected by politicians in Washington and Democrats in particular. They really feel ignored and forgotten, not to mention disdained. And that was an important thing for me to see.
Where does that sense of being forgotten come from?
I think it centers on a perception that as a white American with a high school education or less, you feel unseen and unimportant and off the radar of politicians who are thinking very much about the rights of immigrants and other people of color who you see as maybe “less American” than you because your family’s been in this country for some time.
There’s lots of people out there who’ve been through many cycles of unemployment and who have suffered in periods when jobs were scarce, have lost their houses, and have in some cases lost people close to them due to economic problems. There’s also a lot of addiction, which I think is a symptom of a country that’s not looking after those in need. So there’s a grievance, but when you talk to my neighbors, you sense some reality behind the grievance.
You observe that La Puente, a local social services organization, is a “demonstration of what we needed on a national level to heal the American divide.” How do you see this kind of work functioning more broadly?
It is a local organization and started as a rural homeless shelter co-founded by nuns who were worried about people freezing at night. It’s grown into an organization that has other services as well—food banks, programs for kids from troubled families, thrift stores, and many, many other things.
La Puente, to me, models a way forward by foregrounding the idea of service and of helping without judging. They don’t want to talk politics. They know it’s hard to understand why some people are in the situation they’re in. When you're comfortable, it can be hard to empathize and to cross that divide. But I connect with their idea that there are a lot of people in this country who have more than they need and, maybe even more than that, people who don’t have enough. And so La Puente models a posture of giving and caring that I think is easy to scale, actually, without getting too complicated or political about it.
One of the San Luis Valley residents you got to know explains the thinking of those who live there: “Sometimes the attitude is, I’d rather live a rough life out there than live in town and be looked down on.” Do you think that there are people living places like New York City who also choose the “rough life” in other, perhaps symbolic, ways to avoid being looked down on?
That’s such an interesting question. Out there in the valley, space and distance are connected to what’s essentially a question of class. And yes, people out on the prairie living off-grid who can't always stay as clean as people with running water or may have lost some of their teeth really feel a stigma—and when they’re in town is when they feel it.
But yes, in cities like New York, there are many parallels to this idea of class discomfort. Not feeling comfortable in a fancy museum, for example, or on the campus of an expensive university—that could be another place where a person who is the first in their family to go to college might feel like an imposter.
I think we’re in a moment in American culture when we’ve grown more accepting of certain important differences among us, such as nonbinary gender expression, which is very much accepted out there. There are all kinds of people in the San Luis Valley who don’t fit the stereotypical version of what a man or woman should look like. But I do think in our country, we’ve been really slow to reckon with tensions caused by class. And I think the class differences in the US are in some ways as great as they’ve ever been.
You conclude by noting that many of the San Luis Valley residents live there by choice—and that this agency amounts to “something hopeful to the whole equation.” What do you mean by that?
The poverty I found out there is not the sort of poverty of people in a poor neighborhood of a city who might live there generation after generation. Most of the prairie people arrived recently, and as the result of a conscious choice. They, like early settlers, have chosen this place despite its hardships, and that act of choosing is what I think is hopeful. They see this as an affirmative move and a lot of it, again, goes back to being able to own land. They’re poor, but they can own the land they live on. And that’s what's hopeful—it’s people with a sense of agency about their lives and how they want to live. And to me, there’s optimism when you make a choice like that.