Politics, Texas

Driving Through Flyover Country: Conservative Pluralism And Finding The Good Life

Recently, I moved from Washington, D.C. back to Houston, where I’ll be living and working this academic year. The trip involved me, two long-suffering parents (who undoubtedly wonder how they get roped into helping move their 34-year-old daughter cross-country again and again), one elderly greyhound, a minivan, and a 26-foot Penske truck filled within mere cubic inches of its maximum capacity. As you might guess, a veritable multi-day laugh riot of good times ensued. Also, my parents are awesome human beings.

The trek we took wound through Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and, of course, Texas. While making the trip, we drove through the Shenandoah Mountains and at the edge of the Great Smokies. We drove through the piney woods of the Deep South and the swamplands of the Gulf Coast. We heard many accents, none of which match mine, as a Yankee by breeding. I wondered about the logistics of truck stops with coin-operated showers, quietly praying I will never require spare change in order to bathe. I questioned the market for rhinestone-studded denim vests at a gas station. I saw many Waffle Houses. So many Waffle Houses.

Driving through stretches of “flyover country” presents you with people living very different lives than you live. You quickly realize that if you are from urban areas, especially on the coasts, there are massive swaths of America that feel like a foreign country….

Decidedly, I prefer cities. I prefer downtown areas in cities, when practicable. Street noise soothes me. I’m a chronic insomniac who wants to buy groceries at 3 a.m., eat ethnic foods prepared by actual members of those ethnic groups, go to readings at indie book shops, and drink craft beer. Not necessarily in that order. I’m the sucker who pays 50 percent more per square foot to rent an apartment with exposed ducts and brickwork. I’m a hipster who hates other hipsters for being hipsters, for Pete’s sake. And we all know that’s the worst kind.

Yet I believe in what sociologist Robert Nisbet called “conservative pluralism.” Nisbet, in his book The Quest for Community (affiliate link), recognizes the value of what he calls “intermediate society,” the level of social organization that lies between the individual and the state. He, building on Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, rejects a growing centralized government, while simultaneously refusing to place the individual at the center of it all. Small towns and rural communities often do better at living out Nisbet’s picture of small, diverse local centers of authority, cohesion, and order, situated between the autonomous individual and the government. Churches, clubs, sports leagues, school boards, and other community groups often play a much stronger role in the everyday lives of residents of rural towns than in the lives of city dwellers. So, there’ something about a lot of flyover country that makes my conservative predilections tingle.

I won’t fall here into the occasional conservative trap of fetishizing small-town middle America, though. Fran Lebowitz wrote in her humorous essay “Manners” in her book Metropolitan Life (affiliate link) that “the common good is usually not very and there is indeed such a thing as getting carried away with democracy. Oppression and/or repression are not without their charms nor freedom and/or license their drawbacks.” Fran’s got a bitter New York wit, but she’s also got a point.

Conservative pluralism does, however, point to the fact that there are many ways to lead a good life. Many of those ways don’t look like what we immediately recognize as good lives for ourselves. I find suburbs numbing and rural areas paralyzing. But people make good lives for themselves there, creating communities that meet the particular needs and desires of the people who inhabit them. It’s folly to think that lawmakers hundreds or thousands of miles away know much about how individual communities should govern themselves. It’s folly to think that we frequently know what is best for them.

It may be folly also to think that we always know what a good life looks like for ourselves. It takes imagination to visualize yourself in radically different circumstances and still forming meaningful relationships, doing fulfilling work each day, feeling satisfaction in the task at hand, being grateful for the kindness of those around you, finding something to laugh at. Nevertheless, all of those things are possible for each of us, though sometimes in forms that we ourselves do not expect.

This latter point should resonate with many of you out there in the legal world who currently find yourselves living something that does not much resemble your previous picture of the good life, particularly your picture of the good life as a lawyer. Unemployed, under-employed, miserable at a prestigious but soul-robbing job. I am personally acquainted with some curiously, radically different extremes of the legal profession, and I know how unfulfilling all of those extremes can sometimes be.

I am not suggesting that the solution to everyone’s woes, if they’ve got woes, is to move to rural Mississippi and hang a shingle. Currently unemployed? Hang a shingle where the cost of living is so low that you can actually afford a shingle! Currently overworked in Biglaw? Move to a place where there are so few financially solvent potential clients that you will be grateful for every hour you can bill! Failed the bar exam? Well, have you considered the pleasures of coal-mining as an alternative? No.

Rather, I am encouraging everyone to remember that there’s a great, big world out there beyond where you currently are. If you don’t like what you see around you, look elsewhere. Maybe “elsewhere” for you is, indeed a matter of geography. Maybe, though, “elsewhere” is a different line of work within the broader world of law. Maybe it’s outside of law altogether. Don’t let fear, social pressure, habit, or the sunk cost fallacy keep you from getting to your “elsewhere.” Even if you have to drive past a Waffle House — metaphorical or otherwise — to get there.

I aim to return to my customary conservative crankiness in my column next week. For now, though, I am thankful for the journey I just completed, humbled by what I’ve seen in my travels, and eager for new beginnings. I’d also like to unpack a box or two.

Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. After graduation, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She will be working at the Center for Legal Pedagogy at Texas Southern University during the 2013-2014 academic year. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at tabo.atl@gmail.com

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