As Plano Goes…

… so goes the nation? Commentators around the country have been debating that for months. If only they understood what the booming Dallas suburb is really like.

LAST DECEMBER, AS PUNDITS turned Brokeback Mountain into the culture wars’ latest ammunition depot (It’s an attack on marriage! It’s a landmark event! It’s just a movie!), New York Times columnist Frank Rich momentarily called a cease-fire. Brokeback Mountain was a heartland hit, he told anxious liberals. It represented “a rebuke and antidote” to President George W. Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The movie, which he acknowledged has “no overt politics,” was “not leading a revolution but ratifying one.” After all, it was even doing well in Plano, Texas.

Nonsense, replied Los Angeles-based blogger Mickey Kaus, of Slate. Plano is no indicator. It’s not the land of pickups and gun racks; it’s just a bunch of yuppies. Kaus, an iconoclastic Democrat, quoted a reader who wrote, “Plano, TX is NOT the heartland. It’s a ritzy, upscale, SUV-choked, conspicuous-consumption-driven Dallas exurb populated by more east-coast ‘expatriates’ than native Texans.” In other words, this suburb isn’t Middle America. It’s an affluent island of educated blue in a sea of ignorant red. It’s a bunch of people who think more or less like Kaus and Rich. This summer, Kaus revived his argument again to puncture claims that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was winning converts in Republican territory. One supposed indicator was the movie’s success at the Angelika Film Center in Plano. Again, Kaus quoted a reader: “Plano is no more conservative than Sunnyvale or Palo Alto; it’s a typical American metropolitan suburban mongrel (10% Asian, 10% Hispanic) that comprises newcomers from a wide variety of backgrounds and income groups.”

What is Plano really like?” suddenly became a hotly debated question in the political blogosphere. The answer matters not because online pundits are considering relocating but because Plano has come to symbolize the fast-growing territories of Red America. As Plano goes, perhaps, so goes the nation. It’s the quintessential “boomburg” and the new Peoria: the touchstone Middle American town, a bellwether for retailers and culture watchers alike.

Regarding the movies, Kaus came to the right conclusion for the wrong reason. So did Rich when he temporarily abandoned his demonization of conservatives to suggest an emerging truce in the culture wars. Kaus was right that you can’t tell much about Red America in general by looking at art-house ticket sales in Plano—not because Plano is just like Silicon Valley but because it’s big and diverse enough that a tiny percentage of residents can fill a theater. Rich was right that the town’s Middle American conservatives aren’t, for the most part, the sodomy-obsessed, hate-fueled religious zealots he usually assumes. Both, however, misunderstood Plano and the vast and influential swath of American life it represents.

For starters, Plano really is politically conservative (despite what Kaus’s readers might believe). In 2004 the Third Congressional District, which includes Plano, went 66.8 percent for George W. Bush, and longtime Republican congressman Sam Johnson didn’t even face a Democratic challenger. Mary Price, a Plano resident for about fifteen years, sums up the area’s politics this way: “The Democratic party car always goes at the very end of the Fourth of July parade, and the Republican party car is always at the very beginning of the Fourth of July parade.” Conservative politics are as normal in Plano as liberal politics are on the Westside of Los Angeles or the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The real question is, What does “conservative” mean in Plano and the other boomtowns of Red America?

Conservative, it turns out, is not the opposite of “yuppie” (or “former yuppie”). Someone with a six-figure income, an advanced degree, a fancy car, a taste for aged balsamic vinegar, and some openly gay colleagues or neighbors is not necessarily a liberal or even the work-centered bourgeois bohemian of David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise. What confuses coastal elites is that Plano is simultaneously cosmopolitan and traditional. Its residents travel widely, work with colleagues from all over the world, and keep up with books and movies. But they also go to church, vote for candidates who keep taxes low, and structure their lives around what’s good for the kids. (The hot-button political issue in Plano is not gay marriage but school schedules dictated by Austin.)

Unlike the proverbial Peoria, today’s heartland, the home of reborn Main Street Republicanism and consensus social mores, is neither rural nor parochial. It is a sophisticated, complicated mix of tradition and innovation: postindustrial but not postmodern (witness the BMW with the unironic “ MOTIV8” bumper sticker), ethnically diverse but culturally conformist. Its residents value tolerance but avoid eccentricity. Plano is indeed a typical twenty-first-century American “metropolitan suburban mongrel,” but compared with those Silicon Valley burgs of Sunnyvale and Palo Alto, it’s more politically conservative, more religious, more economically diverse, more family centered, and, well, more normal, just as Peoria was.

Plano does represent the New Economy, built on skilled, creative people. But it fits neither Brooks’s emphasis on bohemianism among the professional classes nor Richard Florida’s new industrial policy prescribing groovy uptowns with lots of gays. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser wrote in a review of Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class: “I’ve studied a lot of creative people. Most of them like what most well-off people like—big suburban lots with easy commutes by automobile and safe streets and good schools and low taxes… . Plano, Texas was the most successful skilled city in the 1990s (measured by population growth)—it’s not exactly a Bohemian paradise.”

Nor is Plano as uniformly affluent as its image suggests. With a median household income of $71,560 in 2005, it is indeed statistically tied with San Jose, California, as the country’s most affluent community of more than 250,000 people, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Unlike San Jose, however, it’s economically diverse, with affordable houses for just about every income. “Volunteering in Junior League was a real eye-opener for me, because I found out there were pockets of need all over Plano—not just on the east side, not just old Plano,” says Kelly Hunter, a media-relations specialist who

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