The Least Politically Prejudiced Place in America
As American towns become more politically segregated and judgmental, what can we learn from one that hasn’t?
WATERTOWN, N.Y.—Watertown, in a remote stretch of upstate New York known as the North Country, is an unforgiving place. In winter, the snow careens off Lake Ontario and entombs the town in installments of feet, not inches. The crows arrive around the same time, in whirling flocks, to roost along the Black River. There are so many of them that city contractors have to scare them off with fireworks and lasers, a confusing spectacle of cawing and light. By January, when the temperatures can drop below –10 degrees and the wind whips up, your eyelashes can freeze together before you reach your car.
When Watertown gets national attention, it is usually because of Fort Drum, the home of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The nearby base employs every third worker in Jefferson County and provides a welcome infusion of federal money and new families into town. President Donald Trump came here in August to sign a military-spending bill before a tableau of soldiers and weaponry.
But Watertown is notable for another reason, officially unrecognized until now. It is located in one of the most politically tolerant counties in America, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis conducted for The Atlantic by PredictWise. Using an original national poll, voter-registration files, and other large data sets, PredictWise determined that Jefferson County and several nearby counties in the North Country are distinct from other parts of America. (See the accompanying story for more details about this analysis.) These are places where people can disagree on politics but still, it appears, give one another the benefit of the doubt.
Watertown is the seat of Jefferson County, a generally conservative place, which Trump won by 20 percentage points in 2016. But people here tend to be less likely than Americans elsewhere to say they’d be upset if a family member married someone from the other party, according to PredictWise. They are more likely to describe their political opponents as “patriotic” and less likely to describe them as “selfish.” (Click here to see how your own county does in the ranking of political comity.)
This makes Watertown exceptional. In the rest of America, half of Democrats and Republicans see members of the opposing party as not just ill-informed but actually frightening, according to the Pew Research Center. According to a 2018 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, 45 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans say they’d be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposite party (up from about 5 percent for both groups in 1960).
This matters because political disdain has begun to distort our perception of reality. Democrats now think Republicans are richer, older, crueler, and more unreasonable than they are in real life, according to multiple studies, including one by Douglas Ahler and Gaurav Sood published in The Journal of Politics in April. Republicans, meanwhile, think Democrats are more godless, gay, and radical than they actually are. The more righteous we get, the more mistakes we make.
As is the case anywhere else in the world, demonization eventually bends toward violence. Already, nearly 20 percent of Democrats and Republicans say that many members of the other side “lack the traits to be considered fully human,” according to a 2017 survey by the political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason. Even more chilling: About 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats agree that the country would be “better off if large numbers of opposing partisans in the public today ‘just died.’”
The most politically prejudiced people in America right now don’t seem to be the most vulnerable ones. The PredictWise analysis showed that the most judgmental partisans tend to be white, urban, older, highly educated, politically engaged, and politically segregated. And the inverse is also true, which explains why the Watertown area stands out. It’s a very white place, but it’s also fairly young, largely suburban and rural, and not particularly highly educated.
Most remarkably, it’s politically diverse. You are more likely to interact with someone in Jefferson County with different political views—in your neighborhood and even in your own home—than you are in other places. And these interactions can make life uncomfortable. But they also seem to inoculate people against the worst tendencies of our time. Instead of provoking rage, these encounters seem to provoke something like complexity.
I live in Washington, D.C., which is basically the opposite of Watertown. In the PredictWise analysis of political comity, it ranked at the bottom of the country: 567th out of all 597 sizable counties nationwide. This is partly because D.C. is urban and highly educated. D.C. is also politically homogeneous, at least when it comes to national elections. In 2016, only 4 percent of D.C. voters chose Donald Trump. On Election Day, you were almost as likely to run into someone from Ethiopia as you were to encounter a Trump supporter.
I’ve lived here under other Republican administrations, none of which won over D.C.’s voters. But this feels different. Other presidents did not casually denigrate journalists, federal workers, and minorities the way this one does. It’s like living in an arena where things are generally operating normally, but every few hours, the guy with the biggest megaphone starts screaming about how worthless you are.
The situation has been tense. At the bilingual public elementary school my son attended during the 2016 election, there were kids with undocumented family members. For them, Trump’s victory was not just political. It threatened their family and their future.
Meanwhile, everyone knew about the one kid at the school whose parents had voted for Trump. And that child knew they knew. Despite all the talk about tolerance and inclusion in my neighborhood, no one was in the mood to learn from this family. A few months after the election, the family packed up and moved to Florida.
That’s one of the diabolical things about political prejudice. It is contagious.
The other day, I left my office in Dupont Circle to get a sandwich, and I noticed, spray-painted neatly in white every few yards on the sidewalk, the words Ivanka is a cunt, over and over again. It occurred to me that my son, who had learned the word pussy from our president in his infamous Access Hollywood recording, might now get to learn the word cunt from the sidewalk.
For all these reasons, I was curious to experience something different. What would Watertown feel like? Would everyone act polite and wear beige? Would it be boring or refreshing? I had no idea whether the difference would even be visible. But whatever has been lost in this age of outrage, the data suggests that it might be found again north of Syracuse, between I-81 and the Adirondack Mountains.
The oldest house of worship in Watertown is the First Presbyterian Church, up the hill from the library. On the outside, it’s a right and proper church, with red bricks and crisp white trim. Its slender gray steeple has stood watch over downtown for 144 years. The situation inside is somewhat less tidy.
The pastor for the past 15 years has been a big bear of a man named Fred Garry. He has a wide, open face, soft eyes, and a thatch of dark-gray hair that is clearly not one of his priorities. Politically speaking, Garry is on the left—or, as he puts it, “one click above a communist.” His sermons are homespun but then intellectual all of a sudden. He’s as likely to quote Bono as he is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi German theologian. His wife Kathy, meanwhile, has voted for Republicans more often than not. “We cancel each other out,” he says—something I would hear again and again in Watertown.
In 2003, when Garry moved to Watertown from outside Seattle, there weren’t any big-box stores in town. Facebook and Twitter had yet to be invented. He and Kathy had five children, and Watertown felt, right away, like a good place to raise them. There was no need for helicopter parenting, because everyone knew everyone, and everyone was watching. When Garry’s 2-year-old son would strip naked and streak out of the house, as he enjoyed doing back then, the neighbors would help round him up, without judgment. Garry felt at home with the lack of pretense: “In Watertown, there’s no posturing,” he says. “You are who you are.”
By then, Fort Drum had expanded significantly, and Watertown had a healthy civic culture. There was a daily, family-owned newspaper, a busy YMCA, and two different Rotary Clubs. Garry eventually joined one Rotary Club and the boards of the hospital and the YMCA.
For the past five years, he has run a men’s breakfast group at the church every Monday morning. A dozen regulars attend, including a couple of conservatives whom he considers to the right of Rush Limbaugh, as well as one or two men who reside to the left of Garry. The group recently read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, about the way mass incarceration has systematically oppressed black Americans, and Dreamland, Sam Quinones’s book about the opiate crisis.
The first secret to making these conversations work is to meet face-to-face, Garry says, ideally over food. He starts cooking around 6 a.m., in the church kitchen, preparing the same spread every time: eggs with cheese and vegetables, bacon, potatoes, yogurt, and coffee. “Once you’re fed, and you’re with friends, you’re a better person,” he says. The second secret is to talk for a long time. “We talk about it long enough until we realize how much we don’t know,” he explains. “Once you realize how much you don’t know, the honest conversation comes out.” The men’s breakfast is slow and personal, the opposite of social media.
Like most people I asked, including half a dozen local politicians, several Watertown reporters, a soldier, and multiple bartenders, Garry correctly guessed that the county performed well in a ranking of political comity. “We’re more likely to know each other,” he says. “We can’t just look past people.”
In October, Garry wrote an op-ed for the Watertown Daily Times calling out Trump’s lack of shame. One of the conservative members of his breakfast club gave him some feedback: “I thought that article you wrote was crap,” he said. “Just total crap.” And then: “But I still like you because you’re my friend.” Garry considers this a small victory. “I mean,” he says, “there are times I’m full of crap.”
This sense of being known isn’t just pleasant; it has practical benefits. There have been labor strikes that almost happened but didn’t—someone called Garry, who wrote a letter to someone who knew someone else. Then there were the juvenile prosecutions that got shelved after a chain of phone calls, parent to counselor to prosecutor. People here have relationships that go back generations, which is how things get done, Garry says. Risks get taken, promises get kept—not always, but sometimes.
But Watertown is still part of America. And in recent years, Garry and his congregation have had to work harder to maintain this generosity of spirit. People have unfriended neighbors on Facebook because of politics, just as people have all over the country. Others have stopped going to church because they disagree with the pastor or the congregation on Trump. Most have stopped talking about politics altogether, which is not necessarily a good thing.
Five days after Trump’s victory, Garry gave a sermon about how he’d struggled all week to find the words to comfort his daughters. “For so many women I love,” he said at the time, “it was not a lost election but a loss of dignity.” The sermon did not go over well. Angry congregants lined up to complain afterward. “I’ve listened to more than 200 of your sermons,” one man told Garry, “and only one has made me really mad.” Garry was surprised and contrite. Something had changed, without him realizing it. He concluded that he could no longer talk about politics from the pulpit.
In time, he’d find that he could not talk about politics on Facebook either. Not even indirectly. The permissible public square was slowly shrinking for him, while it grew vast and borderless on the internet for everyone else.
Watertown is a nine-square-mile town, population 26,000. In general, the most politically open-minded places tend to be rural or suburban, not big cities. In smaller communities, people cannot easily avoid one another based on politics—or anything else, really.
“Everybody’s kids go to the same schools and play sports and act in community theater together,” says Bob Gorman, who heads the United Way of Northern New York. “You’re not going to go to the Olive Garden to film yourself yelling ‘Shame’ at neighbors while they’re ordering shrimp scampi.” Snark and rage hold no currency. In fact, they lower the odds that your neighbor will loan you an ice scraper when yours breaks—or bring you soup when your husband is sick.
But there’s more to Watertown’s comity than its size. Plenty of small places did not do well on the PredictWise ranking of political tolerance. Perry White, a columnist in the North Country for the past 42 years, has worked at newspapers in other small towns, and he sees a difference here. “There are obviously people on the lunatic fringe in both parties,” says White, who grew up in the Catskills. “But I’ve lived in a lot of rural New York counties, and this is the least biased I’ve ever been in. It tends to not be as virulent as other places.”
White and I met for beers at the Best Western hotel bar, located about a hundred yards from his office at the Watertown Daily Times. He was preparing to retire as the managing editor, which explained the purple Hawaiian shirt he was wearing. As he walked into the bar, a few members of the evening Rotary Club called him over to share their thoughts on his latest column. They liked it, which isn’t always the case.
White describes his politics as “slightly fiscally conservative but otherwise wild-man liberal.” But he says he’s never felt reflexively dismissed by his readers. “I have a lot of people who actually tell me, ‘You know, the way you put things makes me think.’ We’ve got a lot of people who are thinking here.”
Pulling up a bar stool, he swept his white hair across his forehead and tried to describe what was different about Jefferson County. The Watertown city council has been nonpartisan for the past century—ever since the town’s residents wisely voted to kick the political parties out of their local affairs. The sheriff is a Democrat, but the state senator is a Republican. On the county board of legislators, Democrats and Republicans always meet together, which is unusual. The presence of the military base is also important. Among other things, Fort Drum lowers the average age of residents, and in general, youth correlates with political open-mindedness.
The politics reporter at the Watertown Daily Times is a young man named Abraham Kenmore. He’s been on the beat for about a year, covering some hard-fought races. But he’s never been called any names, he told me. I was stunned to hear this. Reporter friends of mine who cover politics elsewhere have received death threats.
“The politics of the North Country have always worked differently—and better—than in the rest of the country,” says George Washington University’s David Fontana, who grew up in Plattsburgh, New York, and is working on a book about the area. That’s partly, he believes, because the national party elites and their wealthiest donors have historically had less influence here. “Politics—like many other things—works better when it is conducted among friends and neighbors, rather than among strangers.”
Scott A. Gray owns a local flower business, and he has served on the Jefferson County Board of Legislators for 17 years. When he started out in politics, he was, by his own description, hyper-partisan. He campaigned as a pro-business Republican, running for state assembly in 2002 and again in 2004. For a while, he wrote an anonymous political blog and ran attack ads, including a mailer that accused his opponent of being “the biggest tax-raiser in North Country history.” By the end of the 2004 campaign, he was in the hospital with a heart condition.
After losing both of his assembly races, he told the Watertown Daily Times that he regretted the mailer. He’d let party officials have too much sway over his campaign, he said. Partisan politics do not serve the community’s interest, he has come to believe. Today, as the chair of the board, Gray operates very differently. “I tell people now that I serve at the pleasure of everyone,” he says. “It is my job to make things better for the entire county, not just the Republicans or the Democrats.”
When newly elected members arrive, hyped up from their victories, he asks them to take a few deep breaths. “I sit ’em down and say, ‘I understand what you just went through, but a political campaign is different from governing. Good governing is good politics, not the other way around.’”
Political tolerance is not the same as other forms of tolerance. One openly gay man, who did not feel comfortable including his name in this story, told me that he faces more discrimination and intimidation in Jefferson County than he has in other, more urban places he’s lived. “Here, I am a freak show,” he said. “It is noteworthy, and I am treated differently.”
Last year, when Olivia Kassoum-Amadou’s husband told her the Army was sending them to Fort Drum, she Googled Watertown and learned that it was only 7 percent African American. As a black woman whose husband might be deployed, leaving her alone, she was wary. “Oh my goodness,” she remembers thinking to herself, “where are we going?”
Eight months after her arrival, she knows the community and its problems much better. For her work advocating for the blind, she conducts home visits in rural parts of Jefferson County. One elderly white man with a Confederate flag flying outside his home would not shake her hand, she says. Other people just ignore her, as if she is not in the same room with them. But similar things happened in North Carolina, where she came here from. And most people, she tells me repeatedly, have welcomed her in Watertown.
A month after Kassoum-Amadou arrived, a respected local leader invited her to join the Noon Rotary Club, and she now has lunch with the group every Wednesday at the Italian American Civic Association. She’s had rapid success expanding her nonprofit, and she’s been interviewed about it on local TV, in the newspaper, and on the radio. Maybe because so few women of color live here, people sometimes recognize her on the street, like she’s a celebrity.
As for the everyday political discourse, Kassoum-Amadou says she does sense a positive difference. “Where I come from in North Carolina, it’s Democrat or Republican, and that’s it. People are highly opinionated and very sensitive,” she says. “It’s brutal.”
In Watertown, the debate is less binary. In her office this fall, she got into an argument about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She and her co-worker disagreed totally, but there was no lingering animosity. They went back to work, in close quarters, somehow able to tolerate the discomfort of each other’s opinions.
That kind of discomfort is much harder to contain online, even in Watertown. Comments and emails to the local newspaper have gotten gradually nastier, and the viciousness intensified after Trump normalized trolling from the White House. “The tribalism Trump has inspired is dangerous to the North Country,” says White, the outgoing Watertown Daily Times editor. “We haven’t succumbed, but it’s difficult.”
In the six months leading up to the midterm elections in November, Amy Durant, the digital editor of the Watertown Daily Times, banned 81 commentators. Most were banned for personal attacks; others for racist, sexist, or homophobic comments. Maybe because Durant sees the community through an internet lens, she was one of the few people I spoke with who was surprised to hear that Jefferson County ranked low in partisan animosity. “I guess, if it IS low, I’m so glad this is where I work, and not elsewhere,” she wrote me in an email, “because the anger I encounter is more than enough for me.”
Most Sundays, when Reverend Garry looked out at the pews of the First Presbyterian Church in Watertown, he saw two women named Ann. They met at that same church, 45 years ago, and they have been friends ever since.
Both Anns are known in Watertown, though for different reasons. Ann Sudduth started the town’s chapter of Liferight, an anti-abortion education organization with the motto “All life is precious or none is.” For more than 20 years, she has written letters to local newspapers, handed out literature, and given talks about the perils of abortion. Each January, she helps organize a candlelight vigil in the town square to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Ann Van Slyke, meanwhile, helped her husband start the local Planned Parenthood—just three blocks from Liferight. He worked as the medical director there for many years, determined to give women more control over their lives. Van Slyke, a trained nurse, supported his efforts from home while raising their three sons.
I sat down with both the Anns for tea and chocolate-chip cookies at Sudduth’s house in November. Their affection for each other was obvious. And they readily acknowledged that they disagree totally about abortion. To them, this was not a remarkable duality: “It’s never been contentious,” Van Slyke said. Then she leaned in and added, as if this would explain everything, “You know, we know each other.”
In Jefferson County, people are more likely to live near people who disagree with them politically, according to PredictWise’s analysis of political leanings at the census-block level. People are also more likely to be married to the enemy than in other places: About one in every four couples is politically mixed, according to PredictWise. By contrast, in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston and ranked as the most politically intolerant county in the analysis, only one in every 10 couples is politically mixed.
The United States has gotten much more sorted, geographically and socially. People are less likely to date and marry across political lines. Since 1973, the rate of politically mixed marriages in America has declined by 50 percent. Neighbors are more likely to agree on politics than they were 15 years ago. This sorting leads to prejudice, as racial or religious segregation does. “Separation triggers a series of interlocking processes that inflame group conflict,” the social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew has written. “Negative stereotypes are magnified; distrust cumulates; and awkwardness typifies the limited intergroup interaction that does take place.”
When people know members of the other political tribe intimately, as neighbors, friends, or spouses, they correct for these distortions. It’s not that they suddenly agree on everything. The divide still exists, but it is smaller—because it is reality-based. People don’t suffer from what researchers call “false polarization.”
In a 2017 working paper, the Stanford political-science professor Shanto Iyengar, working with PredictWise’s Tobias Konitzer, found that much of the increase in political animosity over the past 20 years is due to the rising intolerance of politically homogeneous families. Couples are much more likely to agree on politics, and when they do, they tend to be far harsher on the other party and its presidential candidate. People in politically mixed marriages have more moderate views of the other party and its candidate. The difference was large and consistent. Living with people who think differently about politics deradicalizes us. We can disagree without despising one another. “It’s a monster effect,” Iyengar told me. “You never see that sort of thing.”
The same is true with children: Politically aligned parents tend to have politically aligned kids—now more than ever. So the prejudice metastasizes over time, as new generations become less and less likely to include friends like the two Anns.
Mary Anne Hanley is a Democrat, and she’s happy to tell you so. She raised three children in Watertown with her husband, Tom, a Republican banker. They held many raucous dinner parties in the 1980s, debating Ronald Reagan, welfare mothers, and deficit spending. “There’d be hollering and then there would be laughing,” she says. “It would get heated, but there was an understanding.”
At times it might have been easier if she and her husband had agreed on politics. Occasionally she resented that Tom’s vote would cancel out hers. But the back-and-forth challenged her, intellectually and spiritually. “I was all for helping everybody, and he always would say, ‘But who is going to pay for that? How is it going to be done?’”
Six years ago, they moved to a retirement community near Tampa Bay, Florida, which ranks above average in political prejudice. No one talks about politics. But the legacy of their marriage lives on in their children, who are grown. One is a Republican, one a Democrat, and one an independent.
When Ann Van Slyke says she “knows” Ann Sudduth, here is what she means: She knows that Sudduth has been deaf since childhood, but she reads lips so expertly that most people (including me) cannot tell. She knows Sudduth’s kids, whom she’s watched grow up and have children of their own. She is aware that Sudduth is quick to laugh and to apologize, even when she hasn’t done anything wrong. She also knows Sudduth’s husband, who was the high-school guidance counselor for her own children.
Sudduth, meanwhile, knows that Planned Parenthood does more than provide abortions. She rattles off a list of other services, including mammograms, HIV tests, and education to prevent unwanted pregnancies. “I think you can recognize some good things about an organization,” she says, “without throwing the whole thing out.”
She sees the other Ann as a complicated person, and she is able to hold that idea in her mind, even as they disagree. “You know, we can’t just go around bopping people, either physically or conversationally, because they disagree. There is more to life, don’t you think?”
Finally, and this is my favorite part: She knows she might be wrong. “It’s not like my opinions are the only ones anybody can ever have,” Sudduth, says, shrugging.
This is a woman who has been worrying, reading, and speaking about abortion for as long as I’ve been alive. “Abortion is about killing a human being to solve a problem,” she told the Watertown Daily Times in 1992, and she still believes that today. Yet she doesn’t assume she knows everything.
“I have opinions,” she says, “but somebody else might also. I could learn from that person, and that person could learn from me.” She smiles as she says this and then waits for the next question. Her statement sounds so reasonable that I start to feel self-conscious for having asked her to explain herself. Why couldn’t an anti-abortion activist be lifelong friends with an abortion-rights supporter? Who was the weirdo here, anyway?
Reverend Garry is the one who first told me about the two Anns. After I met them, I went back to Garry and asked whether they were, in his mind, representative of Watertown. I was thinking too small, it turned out. “They’re the kingdom of God,” he said, matter-of-factly.
His response seemed a touch hyperbolic, even for a minister. I asked him to say more. “People think the kingdom of God is somehow utopia or heaven,” he said. “That’s not what Jesus meant. It’s about living eternity in a moment—when you treat other people with compassion and decency.”
The Anns are an example of a kind of lived grace, in his mind. That grace, which is more than simple tolerance, has become rare in our culture. Politics has become about truth and justice, leaving out the beauty. We need all three, Garry said. Otherwise, politics is like a town meeting without a blessing; a courtroom without an oath. For him, the two Anns represent the beauty, and it is endangered everywhere, including in Watertown.
Three years ago, around the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Garry gave a sermon on forgiveness. “9/11 will always be a day of heartache and heartbreak,” he said. He quoted an Indigo Girls song and told the story of Jesus forgiving a prostitute. “We may not want to forgive, but we need to. Forgiveness is healing. To offer it and receive it saves us from darkness.”
Afterward, Mabel Walker, who had attended the church for the past 64 years, approached Garry in a rage. “That was out of order,” she told him. “Why would you forgive these people that killed all these people?”
As Garry remembers it, Walker pointed her finger at him when she said this. She had done this before, and he had developed a go-to response: “I would kind of absorb her and listen and say, ‘We’re going to stand on different sides of this.’”
This time, though, he stuck his finger back at her. “I said, ‘You don’t really care about this. You just don’t like forgiveness.’” He reacted in anger—in defense of forgiveness, which didn’t make it right, he knew, even as he was doing it. Later, he called her and apologized. Eventually, Walker came back to church. But she had not forgiven him.
In 1975, a young Baptist preacher named Danny Lovely drove into Watertown in an old school bus. He and his wife quickly went to work starting a new church on Black River Road, one that would be very different from Garry’s church.
On the sign out front, Lovely started posting messages attacking people: Catholics, Mormons, Jews, gay people, local reporters, doctors, and even disco dancers. To wit: God said: Death to Homos. It was a Twitter account, before Twitter.
One day, Lovely hung a baby doll by a noose outside the church, to illustrate his disgust with abortion. When Sudduth drove by the doll, swaying in the wind, something in her shifted. She came home and wrote a letter to the Watertown Daily Times, explaining that she opposed abortion too, but could not abide this kind of extremism. It was counterproductive. “There was a better way to talk about this,” she told me.
That’s when Sudduth started Liferight, along with other women in town—as a rebuttal to other voices that she found repellent. “We wanted to get out the pro-life message,” she says, “but not from hanging dolls and from yelling and screaming.”
Around the same time, other people began to respond to Lovely too. Local officials challenged the legality of his sign, citing zoning laws. Then someone took the matter into their own hands and burned the sign down.
In his last sermon, in the summer of 1981, Lovely attacked the town for its closed-mindedness: “New ideas are not allowed around here.” Not long after that, he packed up and left, accusing the community of “hard-heartedness” but vowing to come back one day. Years later, he resurfaced in the news, after he showed up to celebrate at the funeral of a murdered abortion doctor in Florida. He died eight years ago, never having returned to Watertown.
On one level, this story shows that political tolerance has its limits, even in Watertown, and rightly so. On a deeper level, the story of Danny Lovely feels prophetic. He was ahead of his time. These days, all of us have a blank sign out front, including the president. We are encouraged by social media to act like Lovely. The more vicious our messages, the more attention we get.
A few years ago, Maureen Cean, a Watertown native and a member of the Rotary Club, logged on to Facebook and discovered that one of her fellow Rotarians had posted a startling message. People who support abortion don’t deserve to live, the person wrote.
The post landed like a gut punch. She felt personally attacked, and while she blames the person who wrote the message, she also blames the platform. “I definitely believe that if Facebook did not provide us with the opportunities to throw our opinions out onto the internet, I would probably have gotten through life without ever knowing that piece of information,” she told me. She unfriended the person, and they haven’t spoken since.
During the Kavanaugh hearings, Garry went on Facebook and reposted something about being careful about the message kids might get when adults excuse boys’ youthful misbehavior. Mabel Walker, the woman who had confronted him after his sermon on forgiveness, rang him up to call him an idiot.
When I spoke with Walker, now 91, she remembered the incident well. “I said to him, ‘I am not going to church and having you preach to me what’s right and wrong,’” she told me. “‘You are going so far to the left, and I’ll tell you right now you’re going to be paying it off until the day you die.’” She was deeply worried that the country—and Garry—were becoming socialistic. She had stopped reading the Watertown Daily Times and other newspapers, which had moved too far to the left in her view, and relied entirely on Fox News.
When Garry got this call, he listened, trying to understand what had upset her so much. But then, something else occurred to him: “I was thinking, How in the hell did you get a Facebook post? That was what really bothered me.”
Walker does not use Facebook. She and her husband have no interest in social media. Someone had emailed the Facebook post to her, knowing how much she disliked the pastor’s politics. This detail disturbed Garry more than Walker’s words. After all, he’d known Walker for 15 years as a three-dimensional person. He knew that she’d helped start the county’s hospice program, for example, and that her husband was a beloved former mayor of Watertown. Once, years before, she’d nominated Garry for a citizen-of-the-year award, which he’d won. He also understood that she had experienced more loss than most people, including burying two of her children. She was now battling cancer for the second time. She was angry in more ways than one.
What he could not understand was the person who had incited her to this fresh bout of rage. Who would do such a thing, and why?
And yet. It’s not really that unusual these days to stoke a friend’s rage, is it? How many of us act as accomplices, amplifying outrage on social media or in person—or even in the stories we write in this magazine? We don’t see ourselves as complicit; we see ourselves as messengers, dutifully warning our tribe of the evil afoot, just like Walker’s informant. We spread fear and loathing as if it’s a community service, partly because we don’t know what else to do, and partly because everyone else is doing it.
We’re being manipulated by politicians, by media demagogues, by platforms designed to profit off our attention. But it doesn’t feel that way; it feels like truth and justice. Without beauty. “Political commentary is an art,” as Garry likes to say. “And we’re not artful yet.”
For her part, Walker says she’s glad her friend sent her the post. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t know,” she told me. “It just reinforced my own feelings.”
On one of my visits to Watertown, I went for a run in Thompson Park, which includes a zoo that proudly features only animals indigenous to New York State. I do a similar run back in D.C., through the National Zoo. When the federal government shut down this winter, the National Zoo closed. For that month, whenever I ran past the zoo, I’d see a family or two outside the gates, looking in.
The parents in these scenes usually looked dejected, bordering on desperate. They’d mustered snacks and mittens, found a parking spot, promised adventure and animals, and now … what? The children looked like they’d been robbed. Some cried. Others grabbed the wrought-iron gates and pushed their foreheads through the spaces, disbelieving.
A foiled trip to the zoo is a trivial inconvenience in the scheme of things. But seeing those families there, locked out of their own civic institution, reminded me of the way intractable conflicts work like a parasite. They grow larger and larger, until they start to destroy the very thing that gave them life.
On Election Day this past November, Garry moved to another church in New Jersey. The move had been long planned and was unrelated to his conflict with Walker. Still, he has vowed to stop discussing politics on Facebook. “From now on, it’s only puppies and strange cat videos,” he says, laughing. But he has already started up a men’s breakfast in his new church, and he will definitely talk politics there, face-to-face over scrambled eggs, the way politics should be discussed.
In this moment of political division, Garry sees a spiritual test. The temptation to discard others has always been strong, and in some ways it is stronger than ever. But this is an old problem, maybe the oldest, he says. The Bible is all about overcoming the temptation to discard, to dismiss, to unfriend. If it were always easy to love your neighbor as you love yourself, it wouldn’t be a commandment.
“We trust anger. We believe anger gets things done,” Garry says. Resisting this outrage is very hard, particularly if everyone around you is giving in to it, and it’s just one click away. But there is another, humbler way, and it is the path to salvation, he believes: “To me, a good marriage, a good neighbor, is when that false confidence gets set aside.”
Watertown has ways of helping people set aside false confidence, but other communities do too. “Maybe the question is not ‘Is this the recipe?,’” Garry says about Watertown, “but rather, ‘What is the recipe where you are?’” The key is to know one another and to disagree with grace, and there is more than one way to do that.
At its best, this kind of comity allows people to solve problems, even if they never come to agree. The zoo stays open. But such comity also leads to a richer, fuller life. After spending time in Watertown, I concluded that I’d rather have three-dimensional opponents than online foes, as frustrating as they may be. For one thing, I’d have a small shot at changing their mind, maybe, one day—because I’d know them and understand how they think, even when they’re dead wrong. Who better understands how to capture the imagination of one Ann if not the other Ann? And even if we never change one another’s minds, which is the most likely outcome by far, then I’d still rather know real people than believe in cartoon villains.
In one of his last sermons in Watertown, Garry delivered a kind of love letter to the town, which he was already starting to miss. “I believe this place is different,” he said, standing in front of the American flag and the choir, all in blue, as the morning light streamed through the windows. “We’re not defined by the anonymous critic,” he said. “We are more civil because we hear each other, because we know each other, because we listen, and this listening gives us power to live better lives.”
Mabel Walker did not attend church that day. She has not been back since the Kavanaugh incident. She now watches a nationally syndicated sermon on TV, and her husband goes to church without her. They make it work.