Two weeks ago I wrote a column about partisan prejudice in America. It was based on a map in The Atlantic that attempted to rank each county in the United States according to how strongly people disliked each other.
The study showed great polarization in urban and suburban areas, less pronounced effects in rural counties. An accompanying article looked into the lives and relationships in one of the less-polarized places in America.
I noted an anomaly in Texas. The counties of Llano and Gillespie are highly polarized, but Mason came in low, in the first percentile. As I wrote, either something was wrong with the data, or something remarkable was going on.
Curious, I headed out with a companion to see what I could learn. On our way we checked out the construction site where the low-water bridge over the Llano River was washed out in recent flooding.
After eating on the square in Llano and inspecting the courthouse and its Confederate veterans memorial statue, we arrived in Mason, population 2,114 according to the 2010 census.
Mason has an unusually large and busy town square. Highways 87 and 29 intersect there. It’s picturesque, and most of the buildings seem to be occupied and open for business. The town draws hunters during deer season and tourists year-round.
A tiny old jail on the south side of the square looked at first sight like a historical relic, but upon chatting with two women smoking cigarettes outside the front door, we learned that it is the oldest operational county jail in Texas. They were jailers; prisoners were upstairs.
I asked where the newspaper was, and was directed to the office of the Mason County News. I engaged in a leisurely and pleasant conversation with its editor, Gerry Gamel. He is a local boy who lived in Austin for 20 years and moved back. He loves his job and his town.
We started by discussing the Atlantic map, which he accessed from his office computer. He couldn’t imagine how Mason County, though smaller, was significantly different from neighboring counties. He said there must be something wrong with the algorithm.
He said that locals fight and spat online, which he’s taken to calling electronic rather than social media, because, as he said, “People who seem rational and sane will link to some of the craziest stuff.” People unfriend each other on Facebook.
I asked if this animosity spilled over into face-to-face relationships. He paused for two seconds, then replied, “No. People around here treat each other, for the most part, with kindness and consideration.”
Our conversation ranged to other topics. Though he had a paper to put to press, he was happy to talk. Drought has hurt hunting and tourism, but rains have come, and the town looks prettier now. There’s poverty in town, but just enough employment to give people incomes. No opioid epidemic, but trouble with meth.
All in all, I got the sense of a community where people disagree but get past that in dealing with each other. Other writers, like James and Deborah Fallows and David Brooks, have seen the same phenomenon at work outside the big cities. I hope it’s true, but maybe I’m too optimistic.
It was just a day trip, so I can’t make any confident statements about the town’s polarization. I did, however, talk to more actual people than the data analytics firm who made the map that triggered my visit.
Before leaving town I talked to a couple expanding their bed-and-breakfast on the square. Perhaps I’ll bring my wife someday.