The New Segregation: Political Polarization in Houston and the U.S.

Gerrymandering is always tossed around by lazy national media types as a reason for why our politics are so polarized. As I've noted before, this is not the case. Some of the alternative explanations are the urban/rural divide and people self-selecting to live (or move to) cities where they feel at home, ideologically thinking.

Now, there is some new research that helps flesh out this latter effect: Americans are increasingly living with like-minded folks. And if they feel they are not living in a place with like-minded compatriots (too many organic grocery stores, too many pick-up trucks, too many Nissan Leafs, too many gun stores), they are more likely to pick up and move to where they feel comfortable.

The researchers used four different studies -- internet surveys and studies using undergraduate students -- to arrive the following conclusions. First, conservatives were less likely to move than liberals, but, regardless of ideology (measured by voting for McCain or Obama in 2008), "we found correlational evidence in a large national sample suggesting that people who lived in communities where their ideological values were misfit were more likely to have migrated." That is, if a person did not feel as though she fit in with the people in her community, she would move to an area (measured by ZIP code) where she was more in tune ideologically.

The studies using the students drilled down further: when students at the University of Virginia were told -- erroneously -- that their university was projected to become one of the most conservative universities in the country. Students who were more liberal reported having "a decreased sense of belonging."

This research goes much further in helping explain our polarized politics than does gerrymandering, in addition to the fact that Americans have become increasingly partisan and less politically independent in the past few decades.

But does this mean much for Houston? Yes. Here's why:

Houston is considered to be a politically divided city whose balance of power often sways between Republicans and Democrats. The affluent western-central portions of Houston--such as River Oaks and the Memorial/Spring Branch area, as well as master planned communities of Kingwood and Clear Lake City--consistently vote Republican, while many of the inner city areas, Neartown, and Alief--are heavily Democratic. According to the 2005 Houston Area Survey, 68 percent of non-Hispanic whites in Harris County are declared or favor Republicans while 89 percent of non-Hispanic blacks in the area are declared or favor Democrats. About 62 percent Hispanics (of any race) in the area are declared or favor Democrats.

This is a picture-perfect example of what the researchers have shown. We have largely segregated ourselves into two different Houstons. Our diversity has only taken us so far.

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