Democrats and Republicans are less likely to live near each other than they were a generation ago.
This political segregation is a phenomenon journalist Bill Bishop wrote about in his book “The Big Sort,” which suggested that Americans are increasingly moving to places where neighbors share their political views.
But are they doing that on purpose?
“It may well be that some of them are doing that, but I think from the data, that’s not entirely what they’re doing. … It looks like when people are moving, they’re mostly looking for communities that have certain features, like say, art walks or gun stores, big box stores or small indie coffee shops, that kind of thing,” says JP Prims, a visiting lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It could just be that they are finding places that have things that they like, and they tend to like things other liberals like, or they like things other conservatives like.”
Prims co-authored a report on political segregation that found distinct differences that are not inherently political in the sorts of communities that appeal to liberals and conservatives.
Liberals who participated in the survey identified political liberalism, ethnic diversity, public transportation and a vibrant arts scene as important characteristics of their ideal community. Meanwhile, conservatives value political conservatism, patriotism, many churches and rural areas when considering ideal places to live.
“We’ve known for a while that liberals tend to prefer more urban places,” Prims says. “Conservatives want it to feel like a small town and be a bit more rural.”
Political sorting myth?
Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics and social sciences at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, does not buy into the concept of political self-sorting.
He points to the large numbers of people from liberal states like California, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey who are moving to more conservative states like Florida and Texas.
“They’re going because taxes are lower, restrictions are lower. For half-a-million dollars, instead of a one-bedroom closet like we have here in New York, you can have a sprawling house most likely with a pool, basketball court and a fire pit,” Abrams says.
Significant numbers of Californians are moving to Texas at a time when the Lone Star state is making political moves that outrage liberals.
“Look at the restrictive abortion laws that the state has imposed. … Let’s look at their recent work on abortion or gun control or even redistricting,” Abrams says. “Those positions that the state has taken run directly against all these progressive liberals that are suddenly moving there at the same time. So, I don’t think the geography is what’s really driving a lot of this.”
A report from Texas A&M University found that the largest share of people moving to Texas came from California and that most settled in liberal-leaning Texas counties.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says it’s likely that the COVID-19 pandemic is driving increased political sorting.
“We’ve heard a lot about that during COVID. In New York and California, a lot of people who are center-right are leaving because they just can’t stand the social policies and the COVID policies,” says Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “So, there certainly is a movement from New York and California to Texas and Florida driven not just by the weather, but by the politics, by wanting to be in a place that’s not so woke.”
The real estate brokerage firm Redfin predicts more people will move to places that align with their political beliefs in 2022. A survey conducted by the firm shows that a substantial share of homebuyers won’t move to a place where the laws conflict with their political beliefs.
Haidt expects to see more political sorting now that more Americans than ever before have the option to work virtually.
“Lots of people are questioning what they did before. Lots of people now have the freedom to work remotely, to live wherever they want. So, my prediction would be that (journalist) Bill Bishop’s thesis about ‘The Big Sort’ is even more true in the wake of COVID,” Haidt says. “Given how much things have intensified in the last few years, even before COVID, under (former president Donald) Trump, and now, with COVID, affecting our life far more than political arguments used to affect them, I would predict that political sorting has increased.”
Bishop pointed out in his book that while America is more diverse than ever, the places many Americans live are actually becoming less diverse, as people move to communities made up of people who think and vote like they do.
That segregation could lead to increased rancor between conservatives and liberals.
“Because liberals don’t see conservatives as much, and conservatives don’t see liberals as much in person and aren’t encountering them as often, both online and in person, that is certainly, I would say, contributing to political polarization, because we’re seeing these people as less human. We understand how they think less, or hearing their arguments less,” Prims says. “We do know that putting people in communities where everybody thinks the same thing leads to these echo chambers where people do tend to become more extreme.”