Any research on why high-population-density areas are more liberal?
November 16, 2016 8:13 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to find serious, scholarly studies on why areas with high population density tend to be more politically liberal in the U.S. All I've found so far is just speculation. Have sociologists addressed this question, and I've just missed it?
posted by Sleeper to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Ira Katznelson is someone who has researched and published in depth on liberalism, inequality, social issues. I have heqard him a number of times and found him a very profound and deep thinker. He has published numerous books, articles etc.
posted by 15L06 at 9:18 AM on November 16, 2016

I think your question is too broad to be easily answered in a nutshell. If you want scholarly work you're either going to have to get an urbanization textbook or break it down into smaller components. (Though if someone has a good short overview I'd love to be proven wrong.)

Urban areas are concentrations of education, economic opportunity, political power, cultural capital, and diversity of all sorts. People move to the big city because they are for whatever reason are not satisfied with maintaining their personal status quo (which I'd say is 'conservatism' in the most dictionary-definition sense). Urban areas tend to be younger, better educated, wealthier, and diverse. I think your question will be better addressed looking into why these things correlate with liberal leanings.
posted by yeahlikethat at 9:22 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Nature of Political Ideology in the Contemporary Electorate by Shawn Treier and D. Sunshine Hillygus touches on this--more specifically one place where it breaks down.

Stability and change in political attitudes: Observed, recalled, and “explained” by Gregory B. Markus. This is one of my favorite bits of research in regard to political attitudes. It finds that people's political attitudes are actually quite flexible, but when people think back to their previous political attitudes, they very strongly project their current political attitudes backwards, obliterating all memory of their previous (very different) political attitudes. Thus a person tends to believe that their own political attitudes are very stable over time, when in actuality they are the opposite.

I am bringing this up because it is a good part of the explanation about how people warp and bend their political attitudes to match those of their current social group. So it explains (in part) why and how political attitudes tend to be sorted quite strongly by social group.

Those both touch on your question, but here is one that directly addresses it: Sprawl, Spatial Location, and Politics: How Ideological Identification Tracks the Built Environment, by Thad Williamson. Link to full text (PDF). I think his bibliography is going to be helpful in finding even more related articles and research. Abstract:
This study explores how spatial characteristics commonly associated with suburban sprawl (including density, reliance on the automobile, neighborhood age, and commuting patterns) help predict voting patterns and individual ideological orientation. I find that, at the county level, greater reliance on automobile commuting and younger housing stock were strong predictors of greater support for the Republican candidate in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, controlling for demographic factors. Using the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (SCCBS), I also find that greater automobile reliance and younger housing stock, measured at the census tract level, are strong predictors of more conservative ideological orientation among individuals, controlling for other individual and contextual factors. I go on to explore three possible mechanisms driving the relationship between sprawling spatial environments and conservative political outlooks: self-selection, shifting self-interest based on spatial location within the metropolitan area, and shifting social perceptions resulting from the character of the built environment.
posted by flug at 9:24 AM on November 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know if you are looking for research who's argument is based on population density alone... BUT if you are interested in factors like "white flight", a phenomenon that moves wealthier whites to the edges of a city and leaves poorer minorities in the city center. Great documentaries on this are "The Pruitt Igoe Myth" and "Spanish Lake". Both are about St Louis and last I checked, both are on Netflix.
posted by rubster at 10:14 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think there are some fairly simple demographic answers here. Many of the groups that are more likely to be liberal (or at least vote for Democrats) are also more likely to live in dense areas: people of color, unmarried people, immigrants, gay people.
posted by lunasol at 7:56 PM on November 16, 2016

Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and
Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates
utilizes previous Big Five Personality studies on Geographical Psychology to investigate why people migrate.
posted by Become A Silhouette at 8:30 PM on November 16, 2016

I can't find the article but I was reading something recently that seemed well-researched about how people in higher-density areas literally live closer to government institutions (and other financial/elite institutions), are more likely to interact with them (or work for them, or otherwise benefit from them), and therefore tend to have more faith in them.

Like, at a very fundamental level, if you live in a city with city trash pickup, you are trusting and interacting with the government in a way that someone who lives out in the country and burns/composts all their trash does not.

Also, though, according to polls, conservatives tend to prefer to live in rural areas and liberals tend prefer to live in denser areas, even independent of where they currently live.
posted by mskyle at 6:46 AM on November 17, 2016

I feel like living in a large city forces you to be tolerant in ways that rural or suburban life doesn't. Just look at NYC. Not everybody here is a paragon of warm, fuzzy acceptance. However, everybody at very least has to tolerate one other, simply because we're always in semi-close contact with a diverse selection of people.

Cities also benefit from centralization of resources. You put a lot of money into a shared resource (for example, a subway system), and lots of people share the benefit. Life isn't as "privatized" as it is out in the burbs or rural areas. It's a lot easier to see how your well-being depends on the well-being of those around you.

If you're going to look into this, I think it's worthwhile to examine how much your particular culture and geography have influenced your opinion. The urban/rural liberal/conservative dynamic does seem to be a fairly common theme around the globe, but is expressed differently depending on where you are. For example, not every country elects a Donald Trump; there could very well be aspects of that situation that are specific to the US in 2016. Likewise, living in NYC, I tend to think of big cities as super-diverse places, but when I visited Tokyo, I was surprised that such a big city could be so homogeneous.
posted by panama joe at 6:48 AM on November 19, 2016

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