Turns out there’s an etiquette in this small act of negotiating space during a blink of urban time. A social compact. Consideration for a stranger. Of course, I quickly got the hang of it, but one day, as I was pushing my way through a door, some guy came up behind me and aggressively shoved the door faster. Instantly mad at being pushed, mad at this breach of common courtesy, I instinctively let my right foot stay in place long enough to block the glass leaf in back of me. The door suddenly stopped.
Maybe the guy hit his head on the glass.
New Yorkers, like urban dwellers everywhere, have to admit perfect strangers into their personal bubbles of space in tiny, unthinking micro-accommodations, whether it’s moving over in an elevator to make room for another rider or adjusting yourself in the daily mosh pit in subway cars, especially during rush hour, when bodies touch while eyes avoid locking. Everyone knows the unwritten social rules.
I’ve never lived in the wide-open spaces of the prairie, under a Big Marlboro Sky, or on a farm, but I have occasionally thrilled to the freedom of the roads — on assignment in Texas, or on vacation in California’s deserts — flooring the pedal and rampaging down highways when no one was around. I didn’t have to share the straightaway, and I felt completely free. Momentarily triumphant. Space in America’s nonindustrial, rural states, especially in areas far from coastal cities, does not require the daily, even hourly micro-adjustments of accommodating other people. Nobody steps into your personal bubble. You’re as big as you imagine you are.
So-called “red states” encourage a particular kind of individualism because, among many other reasons, people speeding down a highway in less densely populated regions can avoid making the adjustments that a strap-hanger makes as a matter of daily habit. People cruising in a 70-mph bubble on open roads enjoy a special sense of freedom that molds expectations. In a time of COVID-19, it’s easy to understand why many people, those normally unencumbered by rules of social proximity, resist wearing a mask: just being asked infringes on the sense of freedom baked into big space. Don’t tread on me. I didn’t like being pushed through a revolving door either.
These are also the states in which local cultures, some old and established, don’t intersect with others because of the isolation the big sky affords. The miles of fields in Midwest farming states, for example, allow communities of different faiths and backgrounds to exist in cultural bubbles that don’t intersect others. Sioux Center, Iowa — where Trump declared, at a religious college, that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it — is an isolated community of devout Christians (pop. 7,000) in the middle of vast cornfields, a monoculture without even any Sioux. Space is the invisible fortress that defends a way of life.
At the other extreme, the borough of Queens in New York City collects people from 150 different countries. If you get on the 7 train, you’re sitting among people speaking half a dozen different languages. There is no dominant culture for which another culture can be “other.”
Different kinds of space socialize people and cultures differently, arguably with consequences at the ballot box. Urban space tends to collect people while agrarian or pastoral space separates them. People who share space 20 times a day just by moving over a couple of inches or feet tend to develop a sense of moving within, and belonging to, the community, within a culture of subtle daily agreements. Compromises. Living physically in overlapping personal and cultural bubbles makes folks more communitarian.
Living expansively in big bubbles that don’t intersect turns us into individualists who prize our independence. We don’t like feeling crowded. We’re not used to negotiating every little turn. The day is not a sequence of tiny deals. We can be more generous, enjoying a sense of entitlement as big country inflates our bubble.
Not surprisingly, the American political map of red and blue states correlates to a map of population density: high-density industrial states with large urban concentrations lean blue, while lower density states in the South, Midwest, and West — the farm, cowboy, and oil states — trend red. (There are exceptions to the politics of big-space states, such as blue-ish New Mexico and Colorado.)
Of course, there is the suburban territory outside cities, the blended purple middle ground between city and country. But even the demographics of suburban space support the thesis of space’s impact on political coloration. According to a data-based study — conducted by the American Communities Project based at George Washington University — the more densely populated near suburbs trend blue while the less densely populated exurbs trend red.
There is no one to blame for the psychodynamics of space. Spatial habits acquired just by walking out the door of a house to a car, as opposed to leaving an apartment for a bus or subway, drill fundamental social expectations into one’s body and psyche. Cruising along at 70 in a four-wheel bruiser differs from taking a position on a subway platform, jockeying for the door, staying safely back from the platform edge. The fact that space quietly impacts our days incrementally over time, conditioning us to think and feel differently, eventually bears on the attitudes we bring into the voting booth. Space socializes our politics in different ways. The pro-Trump posse driving pickups through downtown Portland to disrupt pedestrian demonstrators on August 29 was driving one form of political space through another (with results that ended in murder).
Of course, the dichotomy between sparsely and densely occupied space, between red and blue, isn’t quite so simple, and involves a vast matrix of social, geographical, and historical issues. And now, like everything else in American life, congestion versus openness has become more complicated because of COVID-19. The viral load in the air now infects even the least congested spaces, connecting Arizona, Georgia, and rural California to New York City and San Francisco. In August, infections in sparsely populated states like Utah, Nebraska, Montana, and North Dakota rose to the numbers in densely occupied states like New York and New Jersey, where by August people had agreed to follow the new rules. Numbers in the upper Midwestern states and all the Southern states exceeded New York’s and New Jersey’s by far.
Even with wide spatial separation, COVID-19 brings us together because we’re swimming in the viral soup together. The same air pops and permeates our bubbles, and we’re all breathing it.
COVID-19 became dangerous the moment it entered and spread in the community and began to spread. As a result, the people who already have strong communitarian instincts, people who forge community through their daily habits, people accustomed to negotiating pesky little strategies in space, are better positioned to defend themselves than those who prize their individualism over the common good. The defense of the community — and the individuals comprising it — is the community.
Just as the air we breathe carries COVID-19, so the sky delivers the weather, and the increasing extremes — fire hurricanes, normal hurricanes, tornadoes, heat domes, the polar vortex — also bring us together in ways that burst personal and cultural bubbles. When a hurricane cycles up the East Coast from red to blue states, we’re all on the same bus. There may still be lots of climate-change deniers everywhere, but there is no doubt that the tornadoes in the Midwest, hurricanes and storm surges in the South and on the Gulf, impact the red states heavily, forming a shared problem across borders. Personal and cultural bubbles don’t survive 110-mph winds.
Herbert Hoover rode into the presidency after delivering his 1928 speech “Rugged Individualism,” a term he coined to advocate individual entrepreneurship and volunteerism, along with limited government and unchecked capitalism. Speaking at a time when socialism was a strong and growing force in American politics, Hoover — a self-made multimillionaire — argued that rugged individualism was, in the end, more broadly profitable than socialism: hard work and self-reliance raised all boats. Rugged individualists weren’t socialists — they didn’t want to live in a society that shared wealth.
The message resonated. He was elected. It still resonates.
But when the Depression struck, the crashing economy required a response more direct and sweeping than the volunteerism, charity, and personal austerity Hoover advocated. The sheer size of the problem necessitated systemic reform on a scale that his economic acupuncture couldn’t handle. The defenseless country, every family fending for itself, lacked the capacity to deal with the scale of the problem. FDR responded to Hoover’s rugged individualism with the New Deal, based on direct, coordinated government response and concerted, collective intervention — and solidarity. Unions were good.
The parallels between the crisis then and the crisis now are all the clearer since COVID-19 has brought us to levels of distress that recall the Depression. Today, individualism isn’t going to solve the pandemic or alleviate our economic trials. Space may still apparently separate us in states where we can floor it, but the air and the weather deliver lessons about the common good found in a common cause. A map of regions now hardest hit by the pandemic includes the big-space states populated with many proudly rugged individualists. But meeting the crisis requires balancing individual liberties and collective action, and that starts with a different attitude — and a mask. We are all in this mosh pit together.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.