CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Where is the line between "us" and "them"? Between "our community" and "you people"?
In much of our political talk, the groupings often seem clear: red state, blue state; black or white, left or right. But in people's minds it's another matter, says Cara Wong, a political scientist at the University of Illinois.
How we picture our communities is subjective, not always following lines on a map, or racial boundaries, or legal definitions of who is a citizen, said Wong, the author of a new book on the subject.
Those pictures affect our politics and who we think should benefit from government help, often above and beyond our interests, ideology and values, she said.
"We often think of politics as only about self-interest or group interest. I do things for people in my group and not your group," Wong said. We also often think of those groups as "monolithic and homogeneous," she said.
"But the fact of the matter is that people don't define who they think is important just along those seemingly objective lines," she said. "What matters for my politics is who I picture as an American or as my community member more generally."
A small-government conservative, for instance, who feels a sense of community in her neighborhood, is more likely to support higher taxes for local matters like parks, libraries and public transportation, Wong said.
Likewise, someone living in a neighborhood with those from another ethnic group, who sees those neighbors as part of his community, is more likely to support policies benefiting them, even to the potential detriment of his own ethnic group.
And someone more restrictive in her definition of who counts as a "true American" is more likely to desire stronger barriers against foreign goods or individuals crossing perceived community boundaries, she said.
Wong's examples come from research for her book, "Boundaries of Obligation in American Politics: Geographic, National, and Racial Communities" (Cambridge University Press), for which she analyzed a collection of surveys from the last three decades.
Among her surprising findings was that factors such as owning a home, having children and years in a community were not strong predictors of a person's involvement in the community or in local politics. "Americans move a lot and even people who are moving or planning to move still feel ties to their community," she said. "People can pull up roots quickly and also set them down quickly."
Also surprising, Wong said, were the constraints many people put on the definition of "true American," given the nation's reputation as a land of immigrants. Very large percentages did say citizenship and speaking English were "very important," she said. But more than half of respondents also said being born in the United States or living there most of one's life were "very important," and more than a third said one needed to be a Christian.
Part of Wong's argument for the importance of understanding how people imagine their communities is that almost no one has a "values without borders" lifestyle or beliefs. Even the least-altruistic person may choose to help a neighbor in need, for instance, and even the most-altruistic is unlikely to alter their lifestyle to aid strangers halfway around the world, she said.
One thing Wong doesn't want to suggest is that having a more-expansive or more-restrictive view of one's communities is always either good or bad. The key for Wong is just knowing that how each of us defines our communities is subjective and has important political effects.
She opens her book with the story of New Orleans residents, largely poor and black, fleeing to various cities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the state's capital, Baton Rouge, only 80 miles away, the black mayor warned of "New Orleans thugs," and gun sales there rose sharply, Wong writes. In Houston, 280 miles away in another state, the white spokesman for a white- and Latino-led school district welcomed the evacuees' children and called them "ours."
Trying to understand those different, hard-to-understand reactions was a central point of the book, Wong said.
When looking at a community, or one's picture of a community, she said, "I'm always thinking about the dividing lines. My book explores where people draw those particular lines, and also what political consequences such boundary lines may have."