All Commentary
Monday, November 23, 2015

Townies, Gownies, and the Crapshoot of Politics

Who are the true friends of liberty?


If you live in a college town, you know the way this works.

The Townies are the people who live there: the workers, the merchants, the long-term residents, and the descendants of town fathers and mothers. They say that they have the biggest stake in the wellbeing of the community. “This is our town,” they are heard to say.

The Gownies are the academics. They are professors and administrators, plus the graduate students and visiting fellows. They are more transient. They are highly educated. They live and breathe the academic milieu. And they often regret what they consider to be the parochialism of town life.

The Townies and Gownies occupy the same political space, but their politics are predictably different, even worlds apart.

There is an ongoing cold war between the two groups. The Gownies are forever groaning about the unsophisticated leanings of the Townies, while the Townies are repulsed by the highfalutin’ intellectual snobbery of the Gownies.

This division reveals itself on a daily basis, as you can discover this by attending public forums held by the city council.

The Gownies want a new building or dormitory. The Townies resent the influx of more pretentious riffraff and the continued gobbling up of scarce property.

The Gownies want to restrict big-box stores from opening in college areas. The Townies want more opportunities for work and commerce.

Their biases are pitted against each other, and many are traceable to fundamental ideological differences.

Gownies Love Taxes

Tax debates are a perfect case. The Gownies are not typically the highest-earning bracket in a college town, so they are always on for an old-fashioned class war. They want taxes raised, particular on businesses, to support their untaxed schools. The Townies say no way, because businesses are already overtaxed and the school bureaucracy is already wasteful.

The Townies are all for moments of silence or even prayer in schools. The Gownies think such things break down the wall between church and state. It’s the same with the evolution debate, and you can guess how the sides divide.

They battle it out at the polls. Which side wins depends on turnout.

It’s also common for their interests to diverge on national politics. In general, the Gownies support the Democrats. The Townies support the Republicans.

I once thought that the Townies are were all that stood between us and wacky socialist impositions dreamed of by the crazy academic class. If you follow tax disputes, you would definitely conclude this.

The Townies make the sound arguments, while the Gownies seem to believe that the only role of enterprise is to generate wealth to be pillaged for the administrative state. In short, the Gownies take wealth for granted while the Townies know different: wealth takes hard work and risk, and that means security of private property.

In normal times, then, it would seem that the Townies are the reliable ones — the real people of the real community, uncorrupted by egghead theories and uninterested in grasping bureaucratic power grabs.

But all times are not normal times. And this is where matters get complicated.

Townies Love Police and War 

In the midst of a crime wave, the Townies are not so harmless. They favor more police, more arrests, more surveillance. There can never be enough. They want them to crack down on everything, not just robberies and muggings but also pot, alcohol, and every other vice. To say that their politics has a low regard for civil liberties and personal choice is an understatement.

The Gownies, on the other hand, have a much more thoughtful perspective. They see that too much policing can lead to the violation of rights, the invasion of privacy, and the exercise of arbitrary power that can unnecessarily harm the lives of the least powerful among us. To assemble, associate, and protest, to live with an expectation of being left alone, are hard-won rights that shouldn’t be so easily surrendered.

But when you really see the Gownies shine is when war breaks out, especially under a Republican president. These are the times when the Townies break out into fever, whooping it up against the foreign foe, flying flags as never before, urging their sons and daughters to enlist, and trying to ferret out traitors to the cause.

The Gownies, in contrast, urge peace, diplomacy, cuts in military, and civil liberties. They are allergic to nationalism and the emotional outbursts engendered by wartime.

My personal enlightenment about what the Gownies have to offer came when the first Iraq war broke out under the first George Bush. While the Townies were frothing, the Gownies wrote articles against the war. They urged caution, restraint, skepticism. They participated in campus protests. They even gathered outside city hall to make their voices heard. They stood courageously against militarism and defended rationality, making all the right noises about the threat that war presents to liberty.

What the Gownies Get Right

It was a strange experience to suddenly feel a great connection with a group from whom I had previously felt politically alienated. Suddenly it was the Gownies who seemed rational and even heroic — for their willingness to stand against the tide of populist frenzy and actually try to make some sense in the midst of near hysteria.

And it was the same after 9/11. It was the Gownies, not the Townies, who were willing to consider the broader context of the attacks, namely that such hatred does not appear in a vacuum, that our policies might well have stirred up and even created enemies. Regardless, what matters here was the unusual display of independence of mind.

So, who is better? Whose values should prevail? The Townies or the Gownies? It depends on the issue. If human liberty is the standard, they both have their upsides and their downsides, just as it is with the Left and the Right, the Reds and the Blues, and so on.

As long as a consistent ethic of liberty does not animate our political discussions, the cause of human flourishing will have to depend on the hope that each side will triumph only when it is correct.