Why Republicans and Democrats Live Where They Do

Author Bill Bishop explains why we like to live near people who agree with us.

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The "red state, blue state" phenomenon isn't just about political maps. Americans are increasingly congregating in ideologically similar communities. U.S. News asked Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, why this is happening and what it means for the nation. Excerpts:

Why do people want to live in communities with other people who have similar political views?

It's not policy that is forming these alliances. It's not about single-payer healthcare and Iran. It's cultural and lifestyle. It's people who have the same kind of way of life, people who think alike. Do you want a city type of lifestyle, or do you want to be spread out? What sort of ringtone do you have on your phone? Do you watch morning or evening TV? When did Americans start self-segregating into red and blue communities?

People have always formed their own neighborhoods, and race is still a much stronger predictor than politics. We could see movement beginning in the 1970s and especially during close presidential elections. Two thirds of the counties in the United States have gotten increasingly either Republican or Democratic. In 2004 you have half of all voters living in counties where either Kerry or Bush won by 20 percentage points or more. In 1976, it was about a quarter of the people. Do people really become more extreme in their thinking when exclusively around people who share the same viewpoint?

Americans love to talk about politics, but we hate to talk politics with people who disagree with us. People who are educated are the least likely to talk to someone who has different views from them. People with the most education move to places where they don't ever have to talk to someone who disagrees with them. Like-minded people who talk to each other become more extreme in the way that they are divided. It increases people's assuredness in what they believe. In my neighborhood it's not good enough to say that you don't like Bush. It's Bush who should be impeached. What is it like to be in the political minority in a community?

You're less likely to vote if you're a minority, and you're less likely to join clubs and volunteer for projects. People really feel cut off because they don't want to have to defend who they are voting for. If you truly are in a mixed neighborhood and get to know people on a personal basis as well as a political one, you become more tolerant of the other side. Why do certain places become Republican and certain ones Democratic?

It's where people want to live. It's where people stake a claim. It is not necessarily beach or snow. There are Democratic ski places and Republican ski places. It's a human creation. Now you can find people who share your views by picking the TV channels you watch, radio you listen to, and websites you visit. Is it still important to live in a specific place with like-minded people?

If you're in that consciousness, you can find people like you. They are there. And there's a marketing reason to move. If you are around people who are like you, then the movies and books you like come to your bookstore. The author you like comes to city hall. If you're a comic book artist, you move to Portland, and that way the stuff that you want is all around you. You are going to be around the stuff that accumulates around the people who are like yourself. If you're trying to pick out a place to retire where you will fit in, what should you look for when visiting the place?

There's a certain level of cultural literacy that everyone has already. And you just know. It's like picking a kind of music or a sports team. You scope it out, and you see what people are wearing and how they're eating and how they align with what you're doing. And then you walk into the party and pick the people who are most like you. You can go to a place and see if you fit, what the bookstores look like, how close the houses are to one another. I think we all know what those lifestyle preferences are and what fits our own lifestyle.