Is Geography the Key to Understanding Our Political Adversaries?

When your full-time job is civil engineering, your work doesn’t tend to make for lively conversation at parties. This fact is only made that much more evident when you happen to be married to a nurse with years of emergency room and ambulance stories. You might be surprised to realize stories about infrastructure can’t hold a candle to the best ER stories. But it’s true, and it’s the reality I’ve learned to live with. I’ll accept your pity.

My days in the office are fairly routine. And a bad day for me pales in comparison to a bad day for my wife or many others who find themselves in a variety of other careers. It’s a relatively safe career, minus the staple I put through my finger a couple years ago. “The Staple Incident of 2019.” It doesn’t get too much more exciting than that.

I think you would understand then why my job has never been the topic of these posts. I love what I do, but it’s often difficult to explain what, in fact, I do for a living. Or to even make it remotely engaging enough for others to read.

I’ve probably been asked a hundred times, “So, if you’re a civil engineer, does that mean you design bridges?” While, yes, some civil engineers do in fact design bridges, I chose to go a different direction. I work within a different subfield of civil engineering. It’s what is often termed “Land Development” and many don’t know what that is. I’ll try to explain.

When you arrive at a Chick-fil-A or a McDonald’s to grab some grub what do you take notice of? Maybe you look at the number of cars waiting in the drive-thru. You search for an available parking spot. You take notice of the façade of the building or the landscaping around it. And maybe you catch a sniff of some fresh waffle or shoestring fries in the process.

As a civil engineer, my experience is quite different. I notice the queue length for the drive-thru and how much room is available before it causes traffic concerns. The number of parking spaces required by municipality ordinances. The orientation and design of driveways and their spacing from adjacent driveways and intersections. The location of shade trees, trash enclosures, and even the positioning of the building for visibility from major travel corridors. Handicapped spaces, striping, ramps, and walkways for ADA accessibility. The grading of drive aisles, swales, and landscaped areas. Stormwater management design and utility locations. And even building setbacks from roadways and adjacent properties. I also can’t help but notice the scent of those delectable fries…

Since getting into this field, my understanding of how commercial and residential properties are laid out and organized within a community has fundamentally changed. I’ve designed several of these lots and worked with many municipalities and developers over the past several years. Enough to gain an appreciation for what all goes into community planning. There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes before that new Taco Bell or residential subdivision goes in. A lot of time, money, energy, conversations, and design. Trust me it’s a lot!

One of the unexpected insights that my job has afforded me, is a glimpse into how geography or location dictates how municipalities set regulations. Zoning is in essence, exactly that. As one local municipality puts it, the purpose of their zoning ordinance “is to promote the public health, safety, morals and general welfare by encouraging the most appropriate use of land.”

“The most appropriate use of land…” The more I’ve thought about geography and politics the more I think zoning can give us a fundamental understanding of how influential geography and population density is to public policy and how much they inform our political leanings. At a time when so many are looking for ways to differentiate the left from the right via categories like race, class, religion, gender, education level and age, I think many of us are overlooking one of the biggest determinants in political affiliation: locale.

If I haven’t lost you yet, I’m impressed and thankful. I hope you’ll continue to engage me in this thought experiment, that may actually help, dare I say, humanize your political adversaries. Certainly there are inarticulate, unwise, and sometimes dangerous or downright evil ideas that can be found on both ends of the spectrum. This post isn’t intended to excuse those.

But maybe we can see that there are reasonable positions to be found by the moderates of both sides, and that these may be informed by our experiences that result from something largely out of our control – where we happen to be born and raised.

how does population density relate to party affiliation?

One quick look at an election results map of Pennsylvania from the 2016 presidential election should reveal something that’s incredibly obvious from the get-go. Urban areas voted for Clinton. Rural areas voted for Trump.

This isn’t just a Pennsylvania trend. This occurs in practically every single state.

Dave Troy, a blogger, entrepreneur, and CEO of 410 Labs wrote in his own article following the 2012 election that he was similarly interested in these trends. What did he find after crunching the data? 49 of the 50 most dense counties voted for Obama and that 49 of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney. Not only that, but he charted population density and voting results for both candidates and found an interesting inflection point that occurred around a population density of 800 people per square mile. If you lived in an area with a population density greater than 800 people per square mile, the likelihood of voting for Obama was 66%. In areas with a density below 800 people per square mile, the likelihood of voting for Romney was also 66%. And these trends help up regardless of the state with minor fluctuations. Fascinating!

For years I thought that this trend, which seems to occur every election cycle (at least that I can remember), was an indication that the other side simply had bad ideas and that those with bad ideas happened to share a similar geographic location. That they were voting against their own interest, or at least against our collective interest as a nation. Or that maybe, these political differences that are often attributed to those aforementioned identity categories were largely responsible for urban areas voting heavily for Democrats and rural areas aligning with Republicans.

Geographical differences were secondary. Identity and ideological differences were primary.

However, voting results, which were evaluated by professors at Washington University of St. Louis and the University of Maryland and detailed in a formal paper (and summarized here) indicated that if one holds all other individual characteristics constant, an individual’s probability of identifying as a strong Democrat drops by 12 percentage points if they live in a far rural area. Likewise, their analysis suggests that a person with the same individual characteristics living in a densely packed community is about 11 points more likely to identify as a strong Democrat compared with that same person living in a sparsely populated area. Also, absolutely fascinating!

Location seems to play a role in our political leanings and this pattern is seen consistently across this urban and rural divide.

Now I’m sure some people move in and out of cities or rural areas for political reasons. There’s certainly a chicken and egg factor to this in some degree. But we cannot overlook the influence geography has. But why, and how does one’s location intersect with politics?

the prudence of different regulations

As I started doing more work in land development I began to notice some trends in how zoning regulations differed depending on the zoning district within question and that these trends seemed to map onto these political differences that were manifesting themselves in national elections. Look up your own municipality’s zoning ordinance and map and you’ll likely find a similar pattern. Very quickly you will see there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that municipalities employ.

Often, a Township, Borough, or City will identify commercial, village center, and high-density residential areas in close proximity to major travel corridors. Then as you move out of this central hub, you start getting into industrial and middle-density residential districts. And then beyond that, agricultural and low-density residential districts are often found. In many ways, each municipality is a microcosm of how our states and nation lays themselves out, with designated areas of low- and high-density development.

Each district then has it’s own set of criteria that determines how big and tall your buildings can be, what types of building uses are allowable, how far back from the roadway and adjacent properties they must be set, and even the size and shape that proposed lots can take. These regulations prevent an amusement park from being built in the middle of a residential district or an adult business from going right in the center of town. They are meant to protect the character of the neighborhood, and ensure an appropriate use of land.

But maybe what is most telling about these differences is how nuisance concerns are dealt with. Inevitably, in zoning districts like your commercial, village center, and high-density residential areas there are greater opportunities for dissimilar uses to be located adjacent to one another. A restaurant might abut a single-family home. A car dealer next to an apartment complex. A commercial garage next to a library.

What you will often find is that the zoning ordinance requires a line of dense vegetation be planted along these property lines to provide visual screening between these dissimilar uses. Usually the commercial or industrial uses are required to plant these as part of their development to prevent any light spillover from overhead lights, reduce sound and glare, and just protect the adjacent property from any excessive nuisance. There are also restrictions on the hours that lights can remain on, and limitations on how loud a businesses operations can be. When properties are more densely packed together, there is more opportunity for conflict. and the process of zoning places (hopefully) appropriate requirements in place to avoid conflict.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to see how appeals to greater government involvement would therefore occur within densely packed areas. That when hundreds and thousands of people live within a single square mile, they cannot all know one another and establish trusting relationships with all of them. Stricter enforcement and policies are required to ensure everyone stays in line to maintain the character of the neighborhood. That is if there isn’t some shared set of morals that could guide all their actions without such enforcement, which in an increasingly pluralistic society is incredibly hard to agree upon.

Conversely, in low-density areas there are less neighbors with which to have conflict. The types of uses vary far less and there’s much less turnover and change in character for the area over time. Zoning therefore is much more laxed in the prescriptions it gives for these areas. And therefore there’s no sense in undue burden placed in these districts.

I think one could therefore understand how in low-density areas, a robust and highly involved governing body is wasteful, overly redundant, or encroaching on rights. When residents only have a handful of neighbors, who they live next to for decades and have developed deep trust with, there’s less need for an external entity to regulate their behaviors. The set of morals is largely shared and the community is smaller and at less risk of nuisance from strangers.

In essence, more regulation is required in higher density areas than lower density areas to protect the social fabric. And I think this can serve as a distillation of much of the perceived competition between the two political camps.

a competition between two ideals

Every now and then, you read something that completely alters the entire framework for how you understand an issue. This passage from Daniel Moynihan, a former Democratic Senator from New York did exactly that for me.

“Liberty and Equality are the twin ideals of American democracy. But they are not the same thing. Nor, most importantly, are they equally attractive to all groups at any given time nor yet are they always compatible, one with the other.

Many persons who would gladly die for liberty are appalled by equality. Many who are devoted to equality are puzzled and even troubled by liberty. Much of the political history of the American nation can be seen as a competition between these two ideals, as for example, the unending troubles between capital and labor.”

Daniel Moynihan in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action

Liberty, the freedom to do what one pleases. Equality, the state of having equal rights and opportunities (and most recently used interchangeably with “equity” often meaning equal outcomes). Both, as Moynihan points out are ideals of American Democracy and yet so often they seem juxtaposed to one another. When does your freedom encroach on my rights? And when does my desire for equality curb another’s liberty? It’s this very dynamic that is so often at play within political discord.

Both can appeal to very basic longings we all have. And both have an essential role to play in maintaining a functioning democracy.

Quite possibly to our own detriment, our habits of increasingly appealing to the federal government to champion and impose our desired ideal, be it liberty or equality, nationally, we might be forcing values onto other communities that really aren’t in their best interest. This could be by placing undue regulatory burdens on communities that have alternative mechanisms for self-regulating. Or by resisting even small encroachments in our freedoms when more regulations may be prudent to minimize the destabilizing effects of a community left unchecked.

Politics, like zoning, probably shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, which unfortunately in our current political discord is exactly the way many of us frame it. Liberty and equality. Rural and urban. Geography and population density shapes us whether we know it or not.

Maybe we can give our political adversaries (at least the reasonable ones) an ear. We may find there’s more substance to their positions than we are prone to give them credit. This doesn’t mean we need to adopt all their views or switch political affiliation. But maybe, just maybe, it will help us broaden our understanding of the issues, to be better listeners, and to know how to best communicate our values to someone who lives in a completely different setting.

Twin ideals in competition. Lower and higher density populations that may need different approaches to regulation. At a time when everything is divided over race, class, sex, religion, and a multitude of other identity characteristics, we miss just how influential our geographical location is. How important the location we call “home” is to our political framework.

We need to learn how to communicate across these lines. There’s a lot riding on it.

Why Today’s Politics Cannot Create Good Conversation

Well if you’re a Phillies fan, you’ve probably found the past few months pretty frustrating. It seemed like we were set up for a competitive season with off-season acquisitions and early season success, but the wheels have since fallen off and we sit in a position of hoping to land a wild card spot unless some unlikely and fortuitous changes occur. On top of that we may lose our beloved Phillie Phanatic. Not the outcome many of us Philadelphia sports fans had hoped for or envisioned for the season.

The trading deadline is in the rear-view mirror and some fans were left scratching their heads. Why didn’t the team make more significant moves to acquire greater talent with the hopes of making a bigger push into the playoffs? They could have sold some of their minor league prospects to acquire major league talent to try and win now. But they didn’t. Why not?

In some paradoxical way, these professional sports teams are competing for this season and for future seasons as well. There aren’t awards for major league teams who have continuous success over several seasons, except for the number of championships won. However, there could be an argument made for the value of the teams that win consistently over long stretches of time. Teams that aren’t just peaking for one championship season and then diminishing into the position of the lowliest of teams like the Miami Marlins, who are dreadful yet still seem to find a way to best our Phillies this year.

Mortgaging the future for one season is not always the wise decision even though this season is the one the fanbase is most preoccupied with. Somehow the Sixers got fans to look forward somewhat patiently for success years in advance. But most often, especially in Philadelphia, there is a push from the fans to win now. But the front office for the Phillies made the decision that going all in this season, even if it aligned with the wishes and desires of a fanbase to win as soon as possible, would likely compromise any opportunity in the near future to bring home the World Series Trophy. In a sense they are playing two different games at the same time. There’s a competition to win this year’s championship, as remote as those chances are, but also remain competitive in the long term.

We don’t just see this in sports though. In some way, this is an application of delayed gratification similar to the habits of saving, investing, working out, and eating healthy. We try to establish these habits, that require effort and often sacrifice in the short term to provide health, prosperity, and success in the long run.

It’s a principle that seems lost in how our politics work today especially on difficult topics like social justice. Our political system is currently constructed to offer and profit off of immediate gratification and is capable of trading away the long term health of the nation in an expedient effort to obtain something in the now. Essentially, playing for this season and mortgaging our country’s future in the process.

And the general public is adopting a similar temperament to those of the Philadelphia sports fanbase: that brotherly love and patience we are so beloved for. Hopefully we don’t all wind up throwing snowballs at Santa. Feels like we’re really close to that happening.

ProgressivE POLITICS and the narrative it proposes

Progressivism implies a particular perspective or narrative. The inclusion of the word “progress” in it’s name indicates a direction. Change. Fluidity. Flux. The opposite of staying put. It insinuates that where we currently stand is insufficient and that we need to move towards a new place – arguably a better place.

This idea in and of itself is not a bad one, right? There are plenty of issues we can identify around us. No shortage of problems to be solved. Why wouldn’t a progressive mindset be a good, even necessary one? We should try to change to fix issues where possible. To be content with where we currently are would seemingly be to cast a vote in support of the very problems we are observing. and to be accepting of the way things are.

Progressivism, as a political and social platform however, is different. Although they are the side advocating for social justice and reform, I think they are undermining their ability to create the desired change in the process. While both the left and the right have a significant role in the political tension and mudslinging we all see and experience today, I believe it is progressive politics that have elevated the discord to another level.

Before you click away, please give me a chance to explain. I did not vote for Trump. I’m no alt-right white supremacist. I hope everyone reading this who knows me could attest to that. Yes, the right has been blocking all of this necessary social reform with great fervor and they have many problems of their own, that I may write about in the future. The bigger problem with our ability to have conversation on these specific topics of social reform, as I see it, is the resulting attitudes towards one another largely as a result of the progressive platform gaining prominence and I have data to support that conclusion.

Take a look at these statistics from the American National Election Studies (ANES) from 2018 on racial bias.

As you can see from the graph above the more liberal white people consider themselves, the more negatively they feel about white people. The more conservative, the more positively. Also, consider that the moderates also lean towards favoring their in-group. Yeah, yeah, yeah… people on the right are white supremacist, and people on the left see white people accurately as perpetuating the systemic sins they have committed… Let’s look a little deeper.

The real game changer is this next graph.

White liberals are the only group surveyed that views there own race less favorably than other races. Every other subgroup views their own race more preferably than other races. And it’s not a small difference. You could make the argument everyone else is racist… or I think you could draw a more likely to be accurate interpretation that there is something incredibly unnatural occurring within the left wing of our politics today, especially among white people. If you can do the math as well, you will see that there isn’t a drastic difference in how positively white conservatives and white liberals feel about out-group people, which I think is important to note.

Yes, both political parties have a role in the lack of productive conversation we are having today, and these stats don’t mean every white liberal hates white people, but I think these point to a stark trend. I think the progressive platform especially it’s white proponents, for all of it’s own self-proclaimed compassion, are sowing a lot of negative feelings towards others. And it’s these negative feelings that will make the platform unsustainable over the long run, and maybe in the very short term, undermining their own goals in the process.

So what is it specifically about progressive politics that creates these attitudes? The platform, which still emphasizes the need for change and flux within society to move to a better place, focuses on the preeminence of social reform to carry this out. It takes this idea that problems exist and says that through the political realm, almost all issues can be resolved or must be resolved. That change to society must come largely through legislation. That our laws dictate the ethics and direction of our nation, and that without these in place, we cannot make progress. We cannot take steps towards the ideal, towards the utopia we envision, in any other way.

As Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in one of the recent Democratic Presidential Debates in response to Maryland Representative John Delaney regarding his statements that her platform was “impossible” to implement:

“I don’t understand why someone would go through all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to tell us what we can’t do and what you won’t fight for.”

Elizabeth Warren at Recent Democratic Party Debate

It was a quote that was largely applauded and celebrated. Several media outlets were praising Elizabeth Warren for standing up for what the party was for and this quote was considered a death blow to John Delaney and his more moderate stance on these issues.

Right now, especially within the Democratic Party presidential nomination race, there is a fight to show how willing you are to advocate for causes without needing to really address the plausibility or methods of pursuing such ends. The more kind and compassionate you sound towards the most lowly members of society, the higher you are in the status hierarchy. It sounds good. It sounds compassionate. It makes for good sound bites. And it is completely understandable why this would sound worthy of support to a lot of people. I probably would have aligned with some of these ideas myself about four years ago, if you read that snippet from my previous post. I bought into this mindset as well.

Progressive politicians advocate for change at the highest levels of government and in the most powerful institutions. That if we can just get the right people in place and the right policies, everything will fall into place. And it isn’t just in politics. I listened to two keynote speeches at colleges this spring advocating that the young adult graduates advocate for these social reforms to be brought about. With the time they were allotted before the young audience, the most important message the speakers wanted to convey was encouraging students to fight for these causes with expedience to make the world a better place. To take on these large systemic issues. Quite a lofty task to entrust to these young adults as they enter a new chapter of life.

The problem is not that these topics or policies are being raised or considered. We should discuss reparations. We should discuss gender equality and if there are barriers for certain minority types from being involved in society. There is merit to discussing these types of policies. The problem, in my opinion, occurs when this political platform serves as a meta-narrative of sorts because then the policies become elevated to ultimate importance to resolving the woes of society.

If the story of our nation can be boiled down to power struggles, how quickly power can be obtained, the institution of new policies at the highest level of government, and that policies are the key to the improvement of well-being and the ushering in of the utopia, who’s to say we shouldn’t rush the process as quickly as possible?

Right, why shouldn’t we fix everything now? That’s what they are promising to do if they are elected. Why shouldn’t we demand it? We see what’s wrong. The problems are self-evident (or so we say). Just throw some legislation at it and we can all go on our merry way. If the wealth of our nation could be more evenly distributed. If the top positions within companies were evenly split between all races, genders, sexual orientations, then we could achieve the equity of outcome that everyone deserves. That only through this approach can we finally right the wrongs of the past and get to that utopia we so desire.

And what about the local community. The family unit. The individual. These smaller and seemingly less powerful entities are of little to no consequence in light of the most powerful institutions. They have no role or responsibility in progressive policies. The individual is reduced to their identity. Gender, sexual orientation, race, age, etc. and are merely a statistic. You are a byproduct of everything that’s been handed you, both the good and bad. Some are privileged and some are oppressed. The individual, the family, the neighborhood are just along for the ride with the social tides and at the mercy of whoever happens to be at the helm of the most powerful institutions in society. Better hope the right person is in charge or your group is screwed.

At that point don’t the ends justify the means? At the end of the day it’s about “progress.” We know what the utopia should look like (or at least we tell ourselves we do). We can create policies to get there, and there’s no reason to wait. These ideas are laced within political discourse. It’s why we have lost patience with the other side. They are standing in the way of progress. (Cue the anger and resentment.)

Yes, there are problems in our society. Yes, some can be fixed with laws. But do we really want to buy into the narrative progressivism provides though? Do we want to put all our eggs in the basket of legislation oscillating in the 4-year tide of presidential elections for solving our problems?

By believing these problems, which progressives usually consider to be significant, can be resolved within any one- or two-term presidency is in an ironic way diminishing the breadth and depth of these very problems. Politicians are playing checkers when we should be playing chess. They have different goals than society at large and have to craft their platforms to appeal to the most voters and motivate them to get out and vote, or as Hillary Clinton would say, Pokemon Go to the polls.

And most politicians seem willing, like an unwise professional sports team, to mortgage the future for the sake of votes now. They are willing to let the sentiment of the nation and our ability to have discussions and community across party lines get destroyed to capitalize on the next election. This isn’t an issue with one party. It’s a real problem with politics, and becomes much bigger when we let politics host all the conversations we are having and become the governing meta-narrative of our society.