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The return of the red state blue state fallacy

Back in the early days of this blog, we had frequent posts about the differences between Republican or Democratic voters and Republican or Democratic areas.

This was something that confused lots of political journalists, most notably Michael Barone (see, for example, here) and Tucker Carlson (here), also academics such as psychologist Jonathan Haidt (here) and political scientist David Runciman (here) and various others over the years.

I’ve attributed some of this conclusion to a second-order availability bias.

Anyway, I haven’t thought much about this red-state blue-state thing recently (indeed, I’m on record as saying that “red state blue state is over”; see item 16 of this article).

But then I came across this amusing story from Jordan Ellenberg:

Binyamin Appelbaum wrote an article in the New York Times about my native county, Montgomery County, Maryland, and this is what he tweeted about it:

A lot of affluent liberals in Montgomery County, outside Washington, D.C., fiercely opposed a plan to build a little more affordable housing. “Affordable is not what people move here for,” one of them told me.

The plan in question was approved unanimously by the County Council, all nine of whom were Democrats, but, as Appelbaum reported, not everyone in progressive Montgomery County was happy about it. He quoted several residents making remarks that made them look like, well, uptight snobs:

Ellen Paul, 59, said in-law suites were bad enough: “It’s changing suburbia to allow two homes on each lot. You’ll have strangers walking by your house all the time now.”

“That’s where the backyard trailers are going to go,” said Dale Barnhard, one of the more than 1,500 people who signed a petition opposing the “dramatic” change in rules.

or worse:

One county resident, Katherine C. Gugulis, wrote a protest letter in The Washington Post that concluded, “Just because others flee crime-ridden and poverty-stricken areas doesn’t mean Montgomery County has to be turned into a slum to accommodate them.”

I [Ellenberg] was interested in these affluent liberals and wanted to learn about them. A few minutes of Googling later, here’s what I found out. Katherine Gangulis is a Republican appointed official. Ellen Paul, according to her public LinkedIn profile, is a former staff assistant to a Republican member of the House of Representatives, and her most recent listed activity was public relations for a Republican candidate for Montgomery County Board of Education in 2014. Dale Barnhard doesn’t have any political career, as far as I know, but he wrote a letter to the Washington Post last year complaining about their biased coverage of Donald Trump. Hessie Harris, who worries aloud in Appelbaum’s piece about “flophouses” and literally utters the words “There goes the neighborhood,” is listed by the FEC as contributing thousands of dollars a year to Americans for Legal Immigration; that’s a PAC which describes its mission as “our fight AGAINST the costly and deadly illegal immigration & illegal immigrant invasion of America.”

These people aren’t liberals! . . .

Interesting. I guess it makes sense that the sort of people who would show up at such a meeting are middle-aged and elderly “get off my lawn” types. I wonder how the NYT reporter picked these particular people to interview. It makes you realize how many reportorial degrees of freedom are involved in writing a story. By choosing who to interview, you can create whatever impression you want. That’s what’s funny about the discrepancy that Ellenberg noted. The reporter up and chose a bunch of conservative Republicans to interview, but still didn’t notice what he was doing! Blinders. Maybe next time he can have his wife contact people to get a good random sample—I’ve heard that’s how they do this sort of thing at Stanford.

The uncontrolled nature of person-on-the-street interviews is one reason that we like to conduct opinion polls. I did some googling and couldn’t find any national opinion polls about nimby or development, but I did find this story from California regarding a poll taken earlier this year on a state senate bill favoring denser development:

Responses were based off of the following summary of the legislation: “Senate Bill 50 would change state law to allow more homes like apartments, townhouses, and triplexes, including affordable housing for lower—and middle—income families, near public transit lines like buses or trains, and in areas with a lot of jobs.”

Seventy-nine percent of renters said they support the proposal. Among homeowners polled, support came in at 56 percent.

As in previous polling, the law is more popular with Democrats than with Republicans, with 76 and 55 percent support respectively.

Ironically, I navigated to this article via a link from an op-ed entitled, “America’s Cities Are Unlivable. Blame Wealthy Liberals.” I think what’s going on here is that reporters are reacting to expectations. Dense development is opposed by conservatives—but that’s no surprise. Opposition by liberals—that’s a surprise, hence news. That makes sense but it can lead to confusion (as we’ve seen in the writings of Michael Barone etc). The residents of Montgomery County and San Francisco are, on average, wealthy and liberal. But not all the wealthy people in these counties are liberal.

28 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    “I wonder how the NYT reporter picked these particular people to interview. It makes you realize how many reportorial degrees of freedom are involved in writing a story. By choosing who to interview, you can create whatever impression you want. That’s what’s funny about the discrepancy that Ellenberg noted. The reporter up and chose a bunch of conservative Republicans to interview, but still didn’t notice what he was doing! Blinders.”

    “Ironically, I navigated to this article via a link from an op-ed entitled, ‘America’s Cities Are Unlivable. Blame Wealthy Liberals.’”

    Doesn’t seem to me these belong in the same post. Discovering that an article is written to support an editorial position doesn’t seem like irony, not in any sense I know of at least. That the article only seemingly supports the editorial only becomes apparent after reading Ellenberg’s information. As to whether the writer “knew” what he was doing, I’m not sure any telepathic judgment is required. The notion that the New York Times is liberal, therefore any such article casting liberals into disrepute must be errors, depends upon a fixed notion of what liberalism is. If there is any second-order availability bias operating here, perhaps it’s works most strongly at biasing ideas of what liberalism (and conservatism) are? In particular, confusing cultural images (for oneself or others) with actual political policies and parties would be, what’s the word? Problematic? I think.

    All the media exist to sell advertising, generally to corporations, many large, and many quite rich individuals. I’m not sure there’s any significant number of “poo” customers for NYT advertising at all. No political interventions of the NYT can be understood apart from this. This is why the massive coverage supposed poor people protests for liberating Wisconsin or deposing tyranny in Michigan are to be expected. By me at least.

    • steven t johnson says:

      Not really anonymous, my comment…

    • jim says:

      “All the media exist to sell advertising, generally to corporations, many large, and many quite rich individuals.”

      Here in Seattle the Seattle Times provides certain reporting that is supported by NGOs, including a regular pieces on homelessness, traffic and transportation, and education. The funding for the pieces is clearly identified but its obvious that the funding sources mandate a bias in coverage at the very least.

      Andrew Said:

      “I did find this story from California regarding a poll taken earlier this year on a state senate bill favoring denser development:”

      It may be that many of the NIMBYs are Republicans, but it’s also true that many of the developers who would benefit are Republicans. And it’s also true in Seattle and most of California that most of the legislators responsible for zoning laws that prevent higher density development are Democrats or liberals. Perhaps they’re funded by centrist Republican NIMBYs?

  2. Morey says:

    NIMBY is a very commonplace human attitude irrelevant to RedState/BlueState analysis.
    Establishment Republicans and Democrats are fundamentally the same anyway, in their views of government and politics.

    U.S. Zoning Laws were almost unknown before 1900, but quickly arose as a cynical tool to retain established political control of rapidly urbanized areas and masses of disfavored immigrant able to vote in previously “safe” districts. The federal government heavily pushed the imposition of Zoning Laws throughout the nation and succeeded we;; — it was revolutionary and fundamentally about political power.

    • (Other) Andrew says:

      I’m sorry, but this analysis is kind of a jumble.

      “U.S. Zoning Laws were almost unknown before 1900”–I’m not sure if you mean they weren’t given much attention, or they weren’t used much, but it’s absolutely the latter. They were only introduced in the 1880s, and took hold in the first decade of the 1900s.

      “quickly arose as a cynical tool to retain established political control of rapidly urbanized areas and masses of disfavored immigrant able to vote in previously “safe” districts”–This paints with too broad a brush, and ignores a lot of nuance in early US zoning laws. Some absolutely were racist (San Francisco in the 1880s), some were motivated by greed (ala the famous Hadacheck v. Sebastian decision and its associated restrictions on brickmakers), but some were grounded in a genuine need to deal with all the nuisance issues caused by urbanization (eg. the livery stable scam in Chicago).

      “The federal government heavily pushed the imposition of Zoning Laws throughout the nation”–The earliest zoning laws were pushed by states on municipalities, not by the federal government.

  3. Michael Nelson says:

    Andrew seems to characterize this misrepresentation as an artifact of man-on-the-street reporting, but it just looks like poor journalistic practice to me. If Appelbaum is going to report on this angle, he should check whether the facts support his claims. Or the editorial staff should. As scientists, we may be inclined to hold non-scientists to a lower standard. But we shouldn’t be afraid to hold them to their own standards. Journalism requires assumption-checking, even if it entails different kinds of evidence than science.

  4. Terry says:

    Or another explanation: both liberals and conservatives have basically the same attitudes when it comes to the neighborhoods they live in and the schools their children go to. Political and moral posturing drops away when it is *their* neigborhoods and *their* schools.

    For instance, Samantha Bee’s husband fought to keep NYC from increasing diversity at their neighborhood school. (Presumably Samantha Bee felt similarly.)

    https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/06/the-upper-west-side-is-new-york-s-latest-school-integration-battleground.html

    Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza ignited the first controversy of his tenure early Friday when he tweeted out a story with the headline “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

    • Andrew says:

      Terry:

      I don’t think your explanation quite works. It would work if everyone was a nimby, but the whole point is that many people are not nimbys. For example, the above article says that all nine members of the Montgomery county council supported the plan. It’s hard to believe that 9 out of 9 elected council members would support a plan if it was so unpopular. It sounds more like the nimby position is a minority position which has managed to get a lot of attention, in part because it fits into some journalists’ pre-existing narratives.

      It’s true that Samantha Bee’s husband in that news article said, “We are all united.” But I don’t think “we” (the parents in that area) were all united. I think that “we” (Samantha Bee’s husband and his friends) were all united. I bet that a lot of their neighbors were ok with the plan that Mr. Bee was opposing.

      • jim says:

        “It’s hard to believe that 9 out of 9 elected council members would support a plan if it was so unpopular. “

        The full council in Seattle supported the “Amazon tax” or “head tax” – until it became widely publicized. When it became publicized a substantial resistance movement emerged and killed it quickly.

        A politician’s support is often contingent on who knows what they’re supporting. If you’re getting pressure from activists to support something and no one else is awake, of course you support it. But as soon as there are people on both sides of the line with political weight, a more nuanced position is useful.

        • Andrew says:

          Jim:

          Sure, if the councilmembers switch their positions, that’s relevant information. But before they do that, I’d take 9 out of 9 as evidence that the plan is popular. I certainly wouldn’t take loud opposition as representing the majority. It might, or it might not. In any case, I agree with my correspondent that if a reporter is going to interview a bunch of Republicans and conservatives, that the reporter shouldn’t be labeling these people as liberals!

          • jim says:

            “I agree with my correspondent that if a reporter is going to interview a bunch of Republicans and conservatives, that the reporter shouldn’t be labeling these people as liberals!”

            Yes, absolutely.

            “I’d take 9 out of 9 as evidence that the plan is popular.”

            OK, you can :) I’m not referring to this case in particular, but things are often popular among legislators until the public finds out what they’re up to.

            • jim says:

              Most of the public has no idea what legislation is being passed most of the time. That makes it easy for legislators to support laws that the majority of the public might be against. This is especially true in the Age of Activism, where lobby groups work extremely hard to dominate the conversation.

  5. Mark Palko says:

    There is a vibrant genre of press critics like Sullivan and liberal commentators like Marshall, Chait, Pierce, digging into a NYT story (” Despite recent event[liberals/Democrats/Obama voters] Still Support [Trump/other conservative positions]) and discovering that the sources of most of the quotes were GOP office holder/activists/contributors.

    There are many factors at work here but I suspect the big one is lazy journalist writes man-bites-dog story.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “The issue of urban density has grown more complex while the debate has grown more simplistic and overheated.”

      Yes. As I see it, the issue is not just density, but the different possibilities for creating density, and the consequences of those possibilities.As just one of many possible examples, people may promote higher density to meet the needs of low-income people, but the methods they propose to create more density just create more high-end housing, and may even lessen the availability of affordable housing for low-income people (e.g., tearing down a low-rent house and replacing it by two or more high-priced houses.)

      • jim says:

        The best method I’ve heard of for improving density and meeting housing demand is to fire the city urban planners and let developers respond to market demand.

        • Andrew says:

          Jim:

          Does this really work? I know nothing about urban politics. My naive view was that the main thing stopping developers from responding to market demand was not urban planners but some mix of existing laws, politicians, and pressure groups. Also, new developments often come with new public services (roads, sewage, etc.) so there’s always politics involved about who pays for this, who gets a tax abatement, etc. I’m not saying that urban planners are the good guys (or the bad guys) here; I just thought of urban planners as employees who implement the decisions made by politicians. I didn’t think of them as making policy themselves.

          • Tom says:

            “My naive view was that the main thing stopping developers from responding to market demand was not urban planners but some mix of existing laws, politicians, and pressure groups.” And earlier, “It’s hard to believe that 9 out of 9 elected council members would support a plan if it was so unpopular. It sounds more like the nimby position is a minority position which has managed to get a lot of attention, in part because it fits into some journalists’ pre-existing narratives.”

            How does that explain San Francisco? All the board of supervisor members are Democrats and the mayor is a Democrat. If the affordable housing position is so popular, then why haven’t they changed the zoning laws to make affordable housing easier?

            • Andrew says:

              Terry:

              The 9 out of 9 thing was in Montgomery County, Maryland: I take the 9 out of 9 as some evidence that the affordable housing position is popular. San Francisco is a different place. If all the elected officials in the city oppose development, then I’d guess that the affordable housing position is not so popular there. Montgomery County and San Francisco are different places! Also the particular housing bills under debate could be different in the two places.

        • Mark Palko says:

          Should have included this one

          https://observationalepidemiology.blogspot.com/2018/03/urban-suburbs.html

          That neighborhood was, for me, functioning as a de facto suburb. I was trading a longer commute for more desirable living conditions. The fact that these more desirable conditions were found in an area of higher density, rather than lower, does not affect the underlying dynamic.

          One of the primary tenets of faith among utopian urbanists is that making it dense areas more dense will have a range of tremendously beneficial effects starting with great reductions in commuting and suburban sprawl. The existence of urban suburbs raises serious questions about that argument.

          How big a deal is this? A good urban researcher could probably provide us with fairly reliable numbers, but we can say with some confidence that it’s having a sizable effect in at least isolated cases. San Francisco has clearly become an urban suburb for Silicon Valley and, to a degree, Santa Monica and the rapidly gentrifying Venice Beach often fill the same role for much of Los Angeles.

          It is worth noting that San Francisco followed by Santa Monica are probably the two cities that density proponents are most passionate about. This raises a disturbing question (and one which, I suspect, researchers will find more difficult to answer): if you greatly increase the density of cities that are already largely functioning as urban suburbs, will you in effect simply be producing more suburban sprawl?

        • NF says:

          I feel like nobody knows how local government works. Planners are not the issue in most places. Planners would generally favor more construction than actually happens and almost every plan I’ve ever seen calls for more housing than actually ends up getting built in a given period.

          You can make a decent argument that regulation is the issue, but that is a mix of local, state, and federal legislators, not planners. NEPA causes lots of problems nationally and CEQA is even worse here in California. Also, speaking for my region, ultimately the problem is that we ran out of undeveloped unpreserved greenfield land within a reasonable commuting distance of where most people work in the 1990s, and so to build any non-trivial amount of housing, you either need to 1) convert parks and other preserved open space to housing (not popular and arguably not a good idea except maybe in occasional edge cases) 2) do infill/brownfield/re- development (expensive, subject to whims of NIMBYs). Meanwhile, the population continues to grow so you need more and more housing, but you aren’t getting it.

        • Bill Spight says:

          Not to get embroiled in a specialize discussion, I just want to make one point. There is no free market in housing development. The developers are not responsible for roads, sewers, fire and police department services, etc., or their maintenance. Without such services and infrastructure, it is not easy for developers to make a profit. Those who are responsible will have their say. The politics is unavoidable.

      • Mark Palko says:

        We see something related to this in LA. Small, low-rent apartment buildings are replaced by big, medium-to-high rent complexes. This can lower the mean price while raising the minimum.

        Lots of urban density arguments implicitly make strong distributional assumptions.

  6. Mark Palko says:

    I don’t like to make too much of one data point, but the only neighborhood on the westside of LA to go for Trump was in the NIMBY stronghold of Beverly Hills, which doesn’t support Manjoo’s thesis.

    https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-westside-trump-20161110-story.html

  7. Mike says:

    I’m from Montgomery County (Silver Spring to be exact) and this level of NIMBYism is certainly not foreign to me, but also I wouldn’t really characterize the majority of the county as “progressive dems” but rather “establishment” dems. Supporting Clinton and/or Biden above Bernie. But since so many of the residents are employed directly or indirectly by the Federal government, it makes sense they don’t want (or need) to have the establishment changed that much.

    The schools are consistently ranked as among the top districts in the county. However there are some interesting factors at play. Not everywhere in the county is wealthy, Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac are far more wealthy than Wheaton and Langley Park area. They also happen to be much whiter. We have so many schools per area that we have the choice of 3 (usually) of where we want to go. But even so, it’s not exactly as if someone from the poorer areas can just go to a school in Bethesda.

    I could go on and on about this subject, but suffice to say I don’t think the reporter just picked the most conservative people they could find.

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