I’ve often wondered what a hard-bitten Texas conservative — who had never ventured outside his home state — would think if suddenly dropped into my neighborhood for a few weeks.
According to this article in the Washington Post, this exact kind of political clustering is on the rise. Today, nearly half of all Americans live in “landslide counties,” where the 2008 election saw Obama or McCain take the county’s votes by a margin greater than 20%. When I was born (1976), only about 25% of Americans lived in landslide counties.
What does it mean? Well, for one thing, it means we’re full of shit when we say we want to live in diverse communities:
“Americans tell survey researchers they prefer to live in diverse communities, but this country’s residential patterns suggest otherwise,” said Paul Taylor, who directs the Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends Project. The question is why.
“Do some people gravitate toward communities so they can be among neighbors who share their political views?” Taylor and his colleague Richard Morin asked in a recent report. “Alternatively, does living in a politically homogeneous community diminish people’s appetite for diversity?”
The term for political/residential clustering is “homophily.” The article’s author suggests a number of possible reasons for it.
One possibility is that neighborhood residents adopt similar points of view to avoid upsetting the apple cart. Other researchers say the problem is closely tied to race, since the Democratic party decided to be the first to support civil rights and other wildly dangerous ideas — thereby thrusting most white southerners into the Republican party.
But I find the third explanation the most plausible. According to Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing, increasingly mobile people don’t select neighborhoods based explicitly on political sentiment (yard signs, bumper stickers, etc.). Instead they choose to live with people who shop like they do:
“These are the kinds of differences that are political in America today,” Bishop and Cushing said in an e-mail they composed together. “People don’t see themselves as members of demographic groups — a white working-class man, an educated woman. Like the woman in California who described herself to us as an ‘ocean-oriented person,’ Americans define themselves by their interests: the bands they listen to, the foods they eat, the sports they follow, the spiritual beliefs they adopt.”
Political polarization, according to this explanation, is a consumer phenomenon: You like Cheerios; I like Wheaties. Americans have lots of choices — you can live in a cul-de-sac surrounded by fellow Mormons, or in a gay enclave, or in a neighborhood where yoga studios outnumber fast-food outlets.
Lifestyle choices, in turn, determine political loyalties as voters search for candidates who feel like “one of us.”
This explains a lot. I, for one, think President Obama would be an excellent choice to write a blog about random cultural detritus and zombies and baseball.
Why the Ideological Melting Pot Is Getting So Lumpy [Washington Post]