Lost among all the election gloom for us Democrats was this story in the Washington Post. The county I live in, Fairfax County voted 53% to 46% for John Kerry. Fairfax County is a bedroom community in Northern Virginia largely outside the Washington beltway going about as far west as Washington Dulles International Airport.
What’s the big deal you ask? Simply that the last time a Democratic candidate won the presidential election in Fairfax County was 1964. Yes, it’s been forty years since my county voted yes to a Democrat in the Oval Office.
Why is this happening now in 2004? It is because this bedroom community is becoming more and more urbanized and cosmopolitan. In 1964 most of the county consisted of woods and farmlands. The only farms left in Fairfax County are run now run to show visitors what the agrarian life once looked like in the county. There is Kidwell Farm in Frying Pan Park just down the street from me run by the Fairfax County Park Authority. We also have the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean that is run by a nonprofit organization.
Today in 2004 Fairfax County is a mixture of bedroom communities and high tech businesses. Pseudo cities like Tysons Corner and Reston draw huge numbers of skilled workers, most of who are in the technology business. There are still lots of single-family homes in my county. But what land is still available for development is more likely to be multifamily dwellings like condos, apartments and townhouses. If a single-family community is developed in my county it is likely populated with overpriced McMansions set eight feet apart. While not as expensive a place to live as San Francisco, housing is pretty pricey around here. My modest single-family house with three bedrooms would likely fetch $350,000 if I put it on the market.
But mostly the county is drawing the well paid, well-educated, highly literate and culturally sophisticated knowledge worker. You can see them all over the place in Reston. Surrounding Reston’s “Town Center” (an oxymoron, since there is no incorporated town of Reston) are increasing numbers of tall apartment buildings and condos. People are shelling out $300,000 or more for a condo within walking distance to the Reston Town Center.
And for what? For the buzz of the city I think. Yes, in many ways Reston is very much a city now. It feels like a city. The tall buildings are everywhere. We have Oracle. We have Microsoft. We have large international consulting firms. We have hundreds of national and international organizations and institutions headquartered here. Twenty years ago when I moved to Reston it was hard to get to, only half developed yet a cool place with lots of trees and walking paths in the woods. Thankfully many of the trees and trails are still there. But now there is also this significant urban presence centered around its downtown. Within easy walking distance of the Reston Town Center are all the essentials for the modern, upwardly mobile urban professional. The Starbucks are ubiquitous. In the Town Center there are trendy places to eat and drink, a first class mega-cinema, a Barnes & Noble, Best Buy as well as upscale stores and restaurants.
Fairfax County has also become a very diverse place. Forty years ago it was overwhelmingly white and largely agrarian. Today you have every hue in the human rainbow living here. Our population recently topped one million people. While we have our share of poor people they are increasingly hard to find. You have to go hunt them down along the depressed corridors of Route 1. In addition to a high contingent of WASPs we also have large numbers of Orientals, Indians, Muslims and Hispanics. I was surprised to find out that in my own community of Oak Hill nearly 10% of the residents are of Oriental ancestry.
Our increasing diversity and growing population density matters. We’ve gotten used to each other. As I mentioned some time ago I’ve become color expectant. It now feels odd for me to be in a crowd of WASPs. It is so peculiar that when it happens I feel like the odd man out, like I don’t belong, even though I grew up in a Wonder Bread community in upstate New York.
Over the course of my twenty years of living here in Fairfax County I have been forced through the course of ordinary life to encounter a plethora of different kinds of people. In the process I have gotten to know them and their various cultures. Because I live in an increasingly diverse county I am no longer shocked or surprised to find out a coworker is gay. In fact as I get to know people of different cultures, outlooks and sexual orientations I see them all as just folks. They seem entirely ordinary to me. And when I make friends with openly gay people issues like gay marriage suddenly take on new meaning. I can see with my own eyes and judge through my own daily interactions that they are no different from me in any way that matters at all. So the whole fuss about gay marriage seems increasingly bizarre to me. I don’t understand what motivates people to be upset about it. If they knew my gay friend Wilson for example like I know him they’d realize that all their fears are entirely specious. The world would not come to an end if he were allowed to marry. My marriage and no one in my community would be threatened in the least.
And I am not alone. My county is now full of people like me whose values have changed through exposure to a diverse culture. So really it is no surprise that in 2004 the demographics finally changed and we voted for a Democrat for president. I suspect it will be a long time before a Republican presidential candidate wins the vote in my county. Why? Because I live in a progressive county that is ten years ahead of much of the rest of the country.
And knowing this I feel better. I can see the trends and while certainly areas like the South will continue to grow, opportunities and excitement can often be found at or around major metropolitan areas like Washington D.C. Liberalism, which has its base in major cities is spreading out to suburban areas. Increasingly the red counties surrounding major cities are becoming purple, then blue. Fairfax County has joined nearby (and closer to DC) Arlington County in becoming a blue county. Much of the rest of Virginia will stay red but over time the demographics favor the Democrats. People move to places where there is energy, jobs and money. The more people in an area the more connections happen and the easier it becomes to move from job to job. This energy builds on itself. As people move in they begin to adopt many of the values of their community. The long-term prospects for us progressives are positive, and certainly not as bleak as the pundits would suggest. Come live in Fairfax County and find out for yourself.