Friday, April 21, 2006

Myths and Realities of American Political Geography

A paper forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Ed Glaeser and, well, me outlines the vast differences in beliefs across the U.S. (as part of a discussion of the popular Red State-Blue State framework). Below, I provide some of the relevant facts from the paper. Here is the abstract (and a link to an earlier version):

The division of America into red states and blue states misleadingly suggests that states are split into two camps, but along most dimensions, like political orientation, states are on a continuum. By historical standards, the number of swing states is not particularly low, and America’s cultural divisions are not increasing. But despite the flaws of the red state/blue state framework, it does contain two profound truths. First, the heterogeneity of beliefs and attitudes across the United States is enormous and has always been so. Second, political divisions are becoming increasingly religious and cultural. The rise of religious politics is not without precedent, but rather returns us to the pre-New Deal norm. Religious political divisions are so common because religious groups provide politicians the opportunity to send targeted messages that excite their base.

Some of the findings (numbers represent the fraction of the state's respondents agreeing with the statement in the combines PEW Values Survey 1987-2003):

1. StateNSchools should have the right to fire homosexual teachers.
District of Columbia740.26
New Jersey5880.29

West Virginia2300.54

2. StateNIt is okay for blacks and whites to date.
West Virginia2300.40
South Carolina3220.43

District of Columbia740.88

4. StateNThe best way to ensure peace is through military strength.
District of Columbia770.36

South Carolina3300.73

5. StateNWhen something is run by the government, it is usuall inefficient and wasteful.
District of Columbia770.45
South Carolina3390.58

South Dakota710.77

And a brief discussion:

The country doesn’t just display remarkable difference in beliefs about religious things like the devil; beliefs about foreign policy related facts also differ significantly across space. For example, a CBS/New York Times poll of April 2004 asked respondents, “Do you think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center?” Of the South Central region respondents (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico), 45 percent said yes to this question, but only 25 percent of the Pacific Southwest respondents (California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii) shared this belief. In the same poll, 60 percent of the South Central region respondents and 62 percent of the Mountains and Plains respondents (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota) said that they think that “Iraq probably does have weapons of mass destruction that the United States has not found yet?” Only 43 percent of the Pacific Southwest and 40 percent of the Pacific Northwest respondents (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) shared this view.

These differences in beliefs within the United States drive home a central point about how politically relevant beliefs are formed. People in different states have been exposed to quite similar evidence through national media outlets, but they have come to radically different conclusions, and continue to hold these conclusions despite being aware that others disagree. This disagreement requires either different prior beliefs or some other deviation from Bayesian reasoning. One natural alternative model is that people base opinions mostly on the views of those around them. As such, local interactions are critical, and these provide plenty of possibility for wide geographic variation (as in Glaeser, Sacerdote and Scheinkman, 1996; Murphy and Shleifer, 2004).

Update -- a longer excerpt and many of the figures from the paper can be found at Economist's Voice -- the blog run by Mark Thoma (who was my freshman year Honors College macro prof at UO).

Keep up the great work!
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