Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Politics Of Place


Are we as divided as we think?
Photograph by Randall Hill/Reuters
Hello Everyone:

Day two of the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Judge Neil Gorsuch and no bombshells.  Blogger supposes that is a good thing.  A by-the-book confirmation hearing might just be the antidote to the daily barrage White House tweet.

Is the United States a divided country?  You would think that this is the case after the November election: a red state conservative and a liberal blue state and cities.  We are half way into President Donald Trump's first hundred days, now would be a good time to step back and take a look if the United States is really divided into red states, blue states.  Our guide for today is Richard Florida's CityLab article "Putting Politics in Place."  Mr. Florida writes, "While [Hillary] Clinton won the popular vote, conservatives out number liberals in four out of five states."  This schism is less about class and culture; "place is increasingly the critical fault line of American politics."

2016 Electoral Map
A new study, The political reference point: How geography shapes political identity (http://www.journal.plos.org; date accessed Mar. 21, 2017) adds a fascinating perspective to this narrative.  The study is co-authored by Mr. Florida's colleague at the University of Toronto Rotman School, Matthew Feinberg, concludes "that our political identification is not only shaped by where we live, it is relative to it."  The words "liberal" and "conservative are relative to the place.

Moderate in the middle
 We know this: "Someone who identifies as a moderate in a deep-blue Ithaca, New York could easily be to the left of someone who calls themselves liberal in small-town Texas, just as a self-identified conservative in Berkeley may be more liberal than a moderated Utah."

Confused?  Allow Blogger to explain matters.  Humans instinctively assign each other to neat judgement packages, including political affiliation.  Thus, people often feel pressured to conform to the political character of the place they live.  However, the key component at work is what the study calls political reference point-"a locally shaped gauge that people use to identify their own political leanings."  Essentially if you live in a red state or city, you can call yourself a moderate or liberal because your views lean left of the prevail conservative outlook surrounding you.  The opposite is also true: if you live in a blue state or city, you can call yourself moderate or conservative because your political outlook leans to the right of your peers.

Issue Position relative to State Business
Matthew Feinberg et al,/PLoS ONE

Richard Florida writes, "The study examines this relative effect of place on politics at the state level and county level, looking at the relationship between our self-reported political identity and position on different policy issues in light of the political tenor of the places we live."

Matthew Feinberg and his co-authors used data from the American National Election Survey, which aligns political identity on a seven-point scale from extremely liberal to extremely conservative.  The chart at the above left presents the results of their analysis for the 2012 presidential election.

Red state vs. blue state

If political identity was homogenous across state line, the graph lines would be flat.  However, the sloped lines present variations within same political identity across state lines.  Mr. Florida points out the obvious: "The bluer the state, the more liberal the policy positions; the redder the state, the more conservative those positions are."

To put it this way, saying you are extremely conservative means different things in Utah and Hawai'i.  For example, let us look at the white hot subject of abortion.  Extremely conservative Utahans oppose abortion in all cases, including cases of rape; an extremely conservative Hawaiian are willing to consider legalizing the procedure.  Mr. Florida writes, "As the study points out, conservative and moderates in blue states indicated more support of liberal policy policy position than conservatives and moderates in red states, and the bluer the state was, the stronger their support was for liberal position."

Liberal and conservative position on military and ACA
Matthew Feinberg et al,/PLoS ONE
The study then focused on the variation in political identity across counties.  To understand this, the study authors assembled their own survey data on political identity culled on a seven-point scale (strong conservative to strong liberal) and then across a ten-point scale (strongly oppose to strongly in favor) on ten major issues.  The authors polled individuals across seven political identities in red and blue counties to find out how affiliation squared with issue positions, based on a sample of 1,269 people.

The above left graph resents a a sample of how political affiliations correspond with position stance in different states.  (Richard Florida adds, "Be warned: the graphic is flipped from the traditional 'left-right' continuum.").  The Texas icon signifies people in the 100 reddest counties and New York icon stands for the 100 bluest counties.

Once again we see that identifiers such as "strong conservative" and "strong liberal" are formed by the political predilections of the places people live.  Mr. Florida reports, "A strong conservative in a blue county registered less support for a strong military than a strong conservative in a red county, while a strong liberal in a red county had more conservative on the military than a strong liberal in a blue county."  Moderates in blue counties aligned themselves with the same position of strong liberal in the reddest counties.

John F. Kennedy quote
The conclusions of The political reference point: How geography shapes political identity support a more optimistic view about the American political landscape.  The study found,

[T]he animosity and disgust so commonly felt toward those on the other side of the political ideology spectrum may often be misplaced...[I]f a person feels hatred toward others simply based on the how they identify on the political ideology spectrum, then in some circumstances, that hatred is actually aimed at some with the exact same policy stances.

Matthew Feinberg and his co-authors conclude that frequently,

It is not the policy preference or the values that differ between people, but simply the labels they give themselves-labels that shift depending on the their political reference point.

The social media has so greatly enhanced our difference that, to the rest of the world, it seems that Americans live in two separate countries.  We do not.  The things that separate are not as great as we think they are and that is a reason for hope, even in this fraught moment in history.  Hope is powerful thing.  It gives us a reason to work for a better future.

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