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.