The Politics of Place and Polarization
Americans are at an unprecedented level of polarization. Cable news networks such as Fox News and MSNBC heighten tensions between parties by reinforcing the prejudices of their viewers. American citizens are increasingly clustering themselves into communities of like-minded thinkers to avoid unpleasant discussions with those who have opposing viewpoints.
This homogenization of communities has a major impact on electoral outcomes by creating “landslide counties;” counties in which one party or another either wins or loses by 20 percentage points or more. Dubbed “The Big Sort” by author Bill Bishop, Americans have segregated themselves into enclaves of Republicans and Democrats with no room for dissenting opinions in their respective counties, neighborhoods and clubs.
In one of America’s most polarized metropolitan areas, Milwaukee, this extreme political segregation is easily seen. Among America’s 50 metropolitan areas, in the 2012 presidential election Milwaukee had the second largest voting gap between its urban and suburban areas in the country.
Using data from studies conducted by many political scientists, we can analyze the trends and relationships between place and political affiliation.
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that one major cause of political segregation is the fact that Democrats and Republicans look for different things in the communities they choose to live in.
The political demographics of this map as well as research from the Pew center show that while Democratic and liberal voters prefer to live in urban areas, most Republican and conservative voters opt to live in a rural area or small town.
Where liberals and conservatives choose to live is a strong indicator of the type of community they prefer, with liberals two times as likely as conservatives to live in urban areas, while conservatives are more concentrated in rural areas.
Democrats and Republicans also have different preferences in the type of housing they choose as well. A Pew Research study found that 75% of conservatives prefer to live in communities where the houses were larger and farther apart, while 77% of liberals prefer to live in a community where the houses are smaller and closer together. This manifests into a populous of liberals who prefer to live in cities and conservatives who prefer to live in suburbs.
Overall it has been found that areas with a larger population tend to trend Democratic, while those with smaller populations trend Republican. Marquette Law Schools’ Charles Franklin’s analysis of presidential elections found that there are nearly four times as many red-trending counties as blue-trending counties, but the blue trending counties contain almost 52 million more people. The concentration of Democrats in high density areas makes it increasingly easy for the Democratic party to reach and mobilize voters.
Overall this political geography research shows that trends in voting patterns correlate with place. A high concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas and Republican voters in suburban areas leads to enclaves of politically homogenous thinkers. This has a dramatic effect on electoral outcomes, leading to voters electing increasingly radical and polarized policymakers who are unable to reach consensus.
The Big Sort; Political Segregation.” Economist (US) 21 June 2008: n. pag. Web.
Bishop, Bill, and Robert G. Cushing. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.
Gilbert, C. (2014, May 3). Dividing Lines: Special Report; Democratic, Republican voters worlds apart in divided Wisconsin. The Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/democratic-republican-voters-worlds-apart-in-divided-wisconsin-b99249564z1-255883361.html#!page=9&pageSize=10&sort=newestfirst
Pew Research Center. (2014, June 12). [Supplemental material]. Political Polarization in the American Public. Retrieved from www.people-press.org