Where you live and what you believe

I went off on a rant about exurbanites in class a couple weeks ago and most of my students had no idea that exurbs were a thing.  As you may know, exurbs are politically conservative.  Part of my pet theory for this is that exurbs are specifically chosen by person who value material things (most prominently, the size of the house) over non-material things, i.e., community and livability (short commutes), actually shown to improve happiness.  Anyway, the very next day, the Upshot had a nice piece on the relationship between people’s “ideal community” and political views.  Here’s a few of the very telling charts:



And here’s the official theories:

Thomas Ogorzalek, a political scientist at Northwestern, argues that liberalism has its roots in big-city governments trying to solve the kinds of local problems that arise when diverse populations cram together. Compared with the suburbs or rural America, cities are more complex. They’re harder to govern, which means in many ways that they demand bigger government: a large transit agency to move people around, intricate parking rules to govern scarce spaces, a garbage truck armada to keep the streets clean.

“Externalities accumulate faster in dense places, and you need to do something about them,” Mr. Ogorzalek said. In other words, the trash piles up.

New York City, with its 24,000 restaurants and bars, needs a system of publicly posted health grades. A town with two restaurants may not. New York needs some colossal bridges connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. A smaller community doesn’t need public-works projects on that scale. New York requires a large police force. A rural resident may need self-reliance when the closest officer is 10 miles away.

It’s conceivable that people who live in cities come to value more active government. Or they’re more receptive to investing in welfare because they pass the homeless every day. Or they appreciate immigration because their cab rides and lunch depend on immigrants. This argument is partly about the people we’re exposed to in cities (the poor, foreigners), and partly about the logistics of living there.

“As someone who’s lived in cities for almost all of my adult life, it’s impossible to conceive of a well-functioning city without a strong public works and a strong governmental infrastructure,” said Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University. Government has actively shaped suburbia, too, for example engineering the mortgage tax breaks that make owning large homes more affordable. But those government interventions are often less visible. “They’re not invisible,” Mr. Sugrue said, “when you’re going down Eighth Street as it’s being repaved and the sewer lines underneath it are being replaced.”

The political analyst William Schneider articulated a similarly plausible idea about the politics of suburbia in a classic 1992 article for The Atlantic. As cities require reliance on the commons, Mr. Schneider argued, “to move to the suburbs is to express a preference for the private over the public.” The suburbs entail private yards over public parks, private cars over public transit, private malls over public squares. Suburban living even buys a kind of private government, Mr. Schneider wrote, with the promise of local control of neighborhood schools and social services that benefit only the people who can afford to live there.

His theory supports self-selection; people who want that environment move to it. But Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced, believes that people who move to the suburbs, apolitically, can also become part of a political ideology that they find benefits them and their pocketbooks.



About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Where you live and what you believe

  1. ohwilleke says:

    I’m inclined to side with those who see population density as a cause of liberal or conservative outlooks, rather than a selection effect. In part, this is because job markets and housing markets often give people surprisingly little freedom about where they will live – lots of rural people migrate to cities not because they desire to do so, but because they must, yet the political leaning of urban people and rural people respectively are surprisingly homogeneous.

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