Almost everyone I know over 60 discovered the BBC series Downton Abbey in the last year. Old people have time to burn at least in the short term. So a series about the trials and tribulations of the aristocratic Crawley family at the beginning of the 20th Century must have struck our collective fancy. Like a good Dickens novel there’s a lot to like. The lives and relationships among all walks of society are portrayed midst the twists and turns of an uncertain world.
At first impression it is hard to imagine a more different place than Downton Abbey in Yorkshire England compared to Oak Park, Illinois. In England before WWI ,women can’t vote. The landed gentry is fighting desperately to hold on to a rigid class structure that has been in place for hundreds of years. One dresses for dinner, shoots grouse and summers in the country. In today’s Oak Park there are no servants. Women not only vote, but serve as village manager and clerk. There are no grouse and not many guns to shoot them. Oak Park is a bastion of liberal orthodoxy. Some call us “The People’s Republic of Oak Park.” Everyone is equal. Sort of.
Yet in some ways Oak Park is as conservative as the British aristocracy a hundred years ago. For just as the English aristocracy supported the status quo and longed to keep things the same, so too do we in Oak Park . We honor our ancestors — Hemingway and Wright. We treasure our big old homes. Like the Crawleys , we fear change. We want to keep a way of life that has served us well for a number of years.
Like Victorian and Edwardian England, our history and geography powerfully influence us. We know our schools are the linchpin of our housing market so we vote in support of every school referendum. Our high taxes help pay for a large police force because of our proximity to high-crime Austin. We remember the heroes who “saved” the village in the 1960s. Our village government is dominated by the VMA that wins almost every contested election. This consensus for preserving what we have is the very definition of conservatism. Ask Edmund Burke. And that consensus is widely shared. Surveys and election results document a strong support for the status quo. Elections are over nuance, not substance. The big issues in yesterday’s election were the pace of getting a business permit and what to do with the high school’s big “rainy day” fund. Not exactly Bastille-storming provocations. Those that don’t share the consensus move to Westchester just like unhappy Brits moved to Plymouth Rock and Jamestown.
Now the setting for Downton Abbey is really at the very end of the 500 years of aristocratic hegemony, so my little comparison of the two societies is flawed. Significant change came to Britain, and the Crawleys soon will be selling land and giving tours. On the other hand Oak Park is not nearly as old. So the way I see it we’ve got at least 300 years to defend a way of life. And really what’s wrong with the status quo? Just ask the Crawleys