June 13, 2014

How the most ideologically polarized Americans live different lives

polarization_whereliveFor America’s most ardent liberals and conservatives, polarization begins at home.

In what may seem like stereotypes come to life, a new Pew Research Center study on political polarization finds that conservatives would rather live in large houses in small towns and rural areas — ideally among people of the same religious faith — while liberals opt for smaller houses and walkable communities in cities, preferably with a mix of different races and ethnicities. And sizable minorities of both groups say they’d be dismayed if someone from the “other side” were to marry into their family.

Those findings, and others in the Pew Research report, illustrate how ideological and partisan loyalties can both reflect and reshape Americans’ everyday lives.

According to the report, people with consistently conservative views overwhelmingly favor small towns and rural areas as places to live: 41% say they’d live in a rural area if they could live anywhere in the U.S., while 35% pick a small town. Conversely, 46% of people with consistently liberal views say they prefer to live in cities. (About two-in-ten of those in every category choose the suburbs.)

And when given the choice, three-quarters of consistent conservatives say they’d prefer to live in a community of larger houses with more space between them, even if that means having to drive to shops, restaurants and other amenities. Consistent liberals were almost exactly the opposite: 77% said they prefer denser communities where amenities were in walking distance, even if that meant living in smaller houses. (Speaking of amenities, 73% of consistent liberals said being near art museums and theaters was important, versus just 23% of consistent conservatives.)

polarization_neighborsWhat about neighbors? 76% of consistent liberals said racial and ethnic diversity was an important factor in deciding where to live, compared with just 20% of consistent conservatives. The latter put much more value on where many people in a place share their religion: 57% called that important, versus just 17% of consistent liberals.

Fully half of consistent conservatives, and 35% of consistent liberals, say it’s important to live in a place where most people share their political views. And some researchers have, in fact, found evidence that such preferences factor into where Americans decide to move.

A 2013 paper published in the “Annals of the Association of American Geographers,” for instance, analyzed millions of voter files from 2004, 2006 and 2008 from seven states, identifying people who relocated within that time span. The researchers concluded that, while jobs and family concerns are the most important factors in deciding where and whether to move, “Republican migrants show a preference for moving to areas that are even more Republican,” and “Democrats display a similar preference for their own, though the tendency is not as strong.” The researchers concluded that “[w]hether the role of partisanship is central or ancillary, if it is part of the decision process, it has the potential to recast the political landscape of the United States.”

Most — but not all — Americans are comfortable with political diversity in their households, the Pew Research report found: Just 9% say they’d be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Republican, about the same percentage (8%) as those who say that about marrying a Democrat. Even among partisans discomfort levels are fairly low: About as many Republicans (17%) and Democrats (15%) say they’d be unhappy if a family member married someone from the other party.

But discomfort rises among the most ideological segments of the population. 23% of consistent liberals say they’d be unhappy about a Republican marrying into their family; 30% of consistent conservatives say that about the prospect of a Democratic in-law.

How about you? Do you find yourself gritting your teeth when listening to your in-laws’ political views? Do you feel like a conservative island in a deep blue sea, or vice versa? Do neighborhood barbecues devolve into partisan condiment-flinging? Tell us how political polarization — yours or others’ — affects the way you live.

Topics: Political Attitudes and Values, Political Polarization

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

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30 Comments

  1. Martha Madrid1 week ago

    I moved from Colorado (more liberal state) 15 years ago (short stint in Bozeman, Montana) to a small town in Montana outside of Billings. I was newly divorced and had moved to Laurel as it was close to Billings and I thought would be a great place to raise my kids given it being a small town and near my work. I worked part time while my children were young so Montana was an affordable place for an RN to balance work and family. There were good and bad parts of living in conservative, eastern Montana. The cost of living and wages for RNs were a definite plus. Safety and feeling protected from larger city problems were also a good thing for me and my children. However, when we first moved here, kids in grade school told both my children that they would not be invited to birthday parties and they had been told not to play with them because they came from a “bad family.” The parents weren’t too nice to me and being someone who had always tried to make new people feel welcome and a pretty friendly person, I was shocked that no one had any empathy for what it must be like moving to a new area, let alone with two children. My daughter’s eighth grade class was instructed to stand up if their parents were divorced and the teacher proceeded to tell her and the one other boy that “their parents didn’t try hard enough and divorce was a sin”. She did apologize after I called the school but I couldn’t believe someone would even do that! How did I wind up here? The move to Montana was supposed to be a new start for my now ex husband and this is where he was from. Changing location didn’t fix things (big surprise, right?). The pastor at the Bozeman church told parishoners to ostracize me…and they did..after I filed for divorce. I moved to Laurel and I thought it might have just been that church in Bozeman so tried another church in Billings (largest town of 100,000 in Montana) and it was the same view: You are bad because you are divorced and the only way to be “good” is to get remarried. The churches in Laurel were no better and the pastor in this community also told parishoners my children were from a bad family. I just want to reiterate…no felony history on my part, no felony boyfriend or any alcohol, drug or otherwise issues. I had no idea when I moved to Montana how it was having never lived here and trust me…I wanted to leave right away and I’m guessing Laurel wanted this awful divorced woman out of their midst. The attorney I spoke with said if I tried to move, I would lose custody of my children as this was the precedent in Montana and my well to do ex husband would most certainly pursue it and would win. So here I am 15 years later. There is tons of married parental involvement in Laurel and I will say this community supports their children in a way that I really do admire and respect so if you are a married, Christian, couple and from Montana…Laurel wants you! Most divorced people move to Billings for the reasons I’ve specified but from acquaintances who’ve done so, it isn’t that much better. I didn’t move for various reasons and we dealt with the challenges; both my children are now doing well. I stayed a single parent for 8 years and I did remarry 7 years ago (he is also a transplant) and am happy to be moving forward in life. Back then, I was a college educated professional woman who was a good mom trying to make a new life post divorce in an affordable area. I was judged from day one by people who purported themselves to be Christian conservatives. But yikes…even I know about “he who is without sin casting the first stone.” Divorced and not from Montana was a bad combo in this conservative area!! I will never live in a small town again and will wholehearedly state that we are all happier when we are in communities where we feel we “fit.” I made it with the help of my husband, my sister who listened and supported me and some other not from Montana people. My kids have graduated and now it’s time to move on. Thanks for the opportunity to share my experience and for this research. Obviously, it rang true for me.

    Reply
  2. Eugene Debs1 month ago

    I don’t talk with relatives, friends and neighbours who are right-wing when it comes to politics. Their views are so alien and offensive to me in that realm that there is zero common ground to start a conversation with. With those people, I talk about the weather or music or other neutral topics.
    I don’t recognize the country anymore, it has become a place where people vote against themselves and for plutocracy. I’d like to live in a ‘blue’ state rather than Colorado where I live now. The cities are ok but the country folk are totally brainwashed by Fox media. I rarely venture out to rural areas and when I do I take my gun for self-protection.

    Reply
  3. Brigit2 months ago

    I grew up in north central Indiana with one parent that was a Democrat (my mom) and the other a staunch Republican. Arguments about politics were common dinnertime fare. As an adult, I got a degree in Natural Resources, joined Earth First! and in general became very liberal (though I still own a gun). After living in Indiana for 32 years and feeling like a fish out of water, I could stand it no more and moved here to the Bay Area of California. I love it. I would never, ever move back to a conservative area of the country. At least here I can talk about my political views without feeling like I was viewed as a dangerous freak.

    Reply
  4. Mike in Wisconsin3 months ago

    Hello from one of the most racially and politically polarized places in America, Wisconsin. I live in Milwaukee County (left-leaning) but work and primarily do business next door in Waukesha County (right-leaning). My own politician orientation is libertarian, so I don’t know how helpful this will be.

    HOUSE SIZE? I am single without children, so a larger home strikes me as more to clean and higher heating and cooling bills for areas that I won’t use. Perhaps that preference would change if I got married and had kids. But big or small just to have big or small is silly. Go with what works for you.

    LOT SIZE? Larger. I don’t like being on top of people as with what is common in urban areas. My job is stressful enough without having an escape from people. I get how other folks have needs for small- keeping up acreage can be tough.

    URBAN/SUBURBAN/RURAL? I’ve lived in all three. I value being able to go places without having to drive everywhere, and I know what it’s like to have a 2+ hour commute. (I believe the term is “super commuter.” There’s nothing super about it!) At the same time, I don’t want to be some place without a car and completely dependent on public transit or walking all over creation. And art museums – museums of all kinds, really – are great assets! My trouble is dealing with town boards. I’m one of those crazy people who wants to put up an insulated and climate-controlled pole barn to work on projects, to be able target shoot on my property if I decide to do so, or to simply wander about without being bothered. I’ve yet to find that, and it frustrates me to no end. As for others, go with what works for them.

    Marrying someone from “the other side?” I’m a libertarian! They’re both “the other side!” Half the time they make sense and the other half the time I’m shaking my head and looking for a way to escape and refill my drink! (And in my single state in my mid-30s, I’m pretty open myself!)

    Religion and race? Don’t care much about religion; it ought to be and remain a private matter that remains outside of government. Race? Not a concern so long as I’m not around rioting or protests over racial matters– or ANY matters, when it comes to strife.

    I guess this is a long way of saying that living in Boston/San Fran/NYC makes me tremble just as much as the thought of rural Nebraska/Missouri/Appalachia.

    Reply
  5. Ed9 months ago

    The political developments in the USA seem to be moving in the direction that existed in the Netherlands for decades with its vertical networks, zuilen. The secularization of the Netherlands has changed the system. I guess you can tell I have earned degrees in political science even though my day job is in research.

    As for me, developments in the USA have made me much more “blue” than I might be given that I have many traditional beliefs and have worked long hours to be where I am on the economic ladder. I was born and grew up in eastern Pennsylvania in a blue collar environment. I’ve lived in Appalachia for decades and the area has become increasingly more “red.” I don’t see where the area is benefiting from what is taking place. I have conversations with some conservatives who don’t react to my positions as though I’m crazy or a fool and on some things our views converge, but for the most part I discuss my politics with my brother on the phone [he wonders why I’m a liberal since most of his friends who have been as successful as I am have become conservatives] and in letters to friends with beliefs similar to my own.

    Reply
  6. Melissa9 months ago

    I’ve spent the better part of two decades in a small conservative rural county that only elects Republicans. City-bred and liberal to my core, I am a fish out of water, but I used to be able to overlook the politics and focus on the commonalities. Recently a group of long-time friends and my husband and I went out to dinner and what started out as a joke turned into three of them fervently talking about how much they wished Ted Nugent would run for president. At that point I realized there was no common ground any more. If the decision were mine alone, I would already be moved.

    Reply
    1. Betsy5 months ago

      You have no idea how much I appreciate your comment. I am in exactly the same situation.

      Reply
  7. Mary9 months ago

    This research mirrors my own experience closely. I grew up in Kansas City. Both my parents were Republicans who moved to the suburbs in the early 70’s (but not to a bigger house) when our old neighborhood within the city limits began to be more diverse. But for some reason, even at a very young age, I always had a more left leaning take on the world than my family did. ( It might have been because I was raised in the Episcopal church (thank you, Mom!) which is generally an open and inclusive institution –.) After graduating from college, I discovered I no longer fit in with the majority of people I knew in KC. I ended up moving to Minnesota to be in an environment that was a little more politically and socially in tune with my own thinking. Within a year or two I knew I wanted to live inside the city limits of the Twin Cities and now, almost 40 years later, continue to live within the city of St. Paul in a small two story house. I wanted to live in a neighborhood where I could be close to all the many cultural offerings of this amazing urban area, and I wanted to be able to walk to the store or a neighborhood movie (we still have those in St. Paul!) and where we had sidewalks that encouraged neighbors to be outdoors getting to know each other. I live in a fairly diverse diverse neighborhood–where there are about equal numbers of political reds and blues, & where there’s quite a bit of racial, religious, and AGE diversity. (We have young families with newborns, singles sharing apartments or houses, same sex couples, middle aged families with teens and college kids, and retired people who are empty nesters.) We all get along and some of us do things together socially. (There is probably a bit more socializing together of the different groups, though, among those who are “blues” than among those who are more conservative. )
    So, yes, in my life, I find that your research rings true with my experience, and I guess I fulfill to some extent the stereotype of a “mostly liberal” person .

    Reply
  8. Marie9 months ago

    I live in a small town in Southwest Missouri. This may go without saying but it is VERY Christian and VERY Conservative Republican. Our county never has any Democrats running for office, except Coroner a few times. We are VERY Liberal, so it is NOT our ideal place at all. It is interesting though because everyone in town is close together in smallish houses within walking distance to stores and schools, though they are trying to move all the schools to the suburbs. Also, our town is now 25% Hispanic and we have a fairly large Vietnamese population. Everyone gets along fairly well. But people are rabidly against anything Democratic or Liberal and it is a very big pro-gun area. My neighbor carries a gun on his belt in his front yard!

    Reply
    1. Leslie Bennett9 months ago

      I’d be afraid to go outside when your neighbor is around. He sound dangerous. (from a liberal living on a large lot who drives to everything.)

      Reply
      1. Erik1 week ago

        Why would that be? Assuming he has a license to carry he’s already passed a background check. Have you?

        Reply
  9. Toni9 months ago

    I live in the outskirts of a Midwestern city, part suburb, part rural. Farmland is my neighbor on one side. It is a very Republican area. However, I am very liberal. I like being within a half hour of the city, so that I can partake of the theater, museums, and the city life in general. I, unlike some of my friends, do not find the city dangerous. I enjoy diversity. I have thought of this often: I would hate to live in one of those “gated communities” in Florida or Arizona where everyone is the same. I am a senior, thank you, and I have lived in this same house for over 40 years. I like the quiet and the space, but I do not share the ideas of many of my neighbors.

    Reply
  10. Frances9 months ago

    does my country have a future? in a dense beach community where there is no room for more housing…or minorities. changing slowly from Republican to Democratic county but the average price for a home was 1.2 million last year. Steep hills make walking everywhere difficult except downtown. Excellent library, community facilities for seniors.
    6th grade world history includes story of ancient Jews and Christians told in neutral way. Also relates Roman civilization to current American government. neither liberal or conservative, so pleased with local education except that some high school classes reported to be boring by former students.

    Reply
  11. John McGrath9 months ago

    I live in a dense city neighborhood where everything is within easy walking distance or a short public bus hop. Yep, close to a number of live theaters, a top university with great theater and many free lectures, and a concert venue featuring local bands – folk, folk rock, traditional rock and roll (not just rock) but other things as well. Plus three independent coffee houses. So far there are NO national chains of anything in the neighborhood. I’m on a modest retirement income but I can afford to frequent cultural events (only because I don’t have a car).

    Yep, a progressive liberal. Very few church goers in the neighborhood.

    Reply
  12. Leigh9 months ago

    This research is not surprising, but hits a cord with me. I live in a traditionally liberal county that exhibits all the characteristics of a community which would fit the extreme conservative profile. As this community is becoming an enclave of wealth, privilege and homogeneity; peoples views of tolerance and inclusiveness are diminishing. There is still a disconnect between voting democratic and personal actions. Maybe soon we’ll see this county of “liberals” vote Republican.

    Reply
    1. marly9 months ago

      I have to wonder if you are in Hall County, Ga. If so, at least your demographics are progressing in the better direction, basically because of continuous departure from the nearby Megalopolis. The people with reasonably good sense know what they have to do!

      Reply
  13. uzy1739 months ago

    Born in an extremely liberal household I would be okay with a sibling marrying into a conservative household

    Reply
  14. Mary Ann9 months ago

    I like the last comment – that we really are two Americas. That is not the dream I grew up believing to be true and I don’t believe it has to be that way. We as a people need to be able to see things from different points of view, but that “diversity” of thought is strangled in the news, in our schools – especially college, and in our neighborhoods. We need leaders who are interested in understanding the issues not just getting their own way. And we the American people need to quit voting for career politicians who simply have the latest technology to wow us. Rather we need to become more discerning so we can calm the anger and accept real compromise, in which everyone wins and loses.

    Reply
  15. Paul9 months ago

    No surprise here. I am a conservative in Blue State Connecticut. After 38 of the last 40 years of Democrat domination in the state legislature, and the last four years with an extreme left Democrat Party “Master Plan” soldier as Governor, the people of CT have endured economic and political oppression, having once been a highly desirable state, CT now ranks in the bottom in all measurements due to “progressive” policies. The environment for conservatives has gotten so oppressive that they are leaving the state in droves to environments where they aren’t being mugged by excessive taxation, where the unions don’t control the legislatures, to right-to-work states where the legislatures aren’t controlled by left-wing activists that have imposed such things as mandatory paid sick leave, or requiring public restrooms be open to the gender-confused. I choose to live in a small town because I experienced the so-called “diversity” that rose from the experimentation of the idealistic 1960s. The bused-in students were disruptive, not willing to participate, listening to their loud music during class time, stealing my wood shop project and claiming it as their own; and often times bullying and beating white people simply because they were white – and the leadership did nothing out of fear of lawsuits or rioting. I didn’t want my children enduring what I endured, so I found an affordable place where I knew it wasn’t inundated with that sort of “diversity”.

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    1. John Stephens9 months ago

      I’m crying.

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    2. PKCox9 months ago

      Sounds like Connecticut is my kind of place. I have to endure the heavy weight of very conservative Nebraska, where the governor, both senators and all three congressmen are Republican, and none are moderate Republicans – meaning , they haven’t backed anything I believe in. I think you’d be happy here, and I would be happy there.

      Reply
    3. John McGrath9 months ago

      Yep all those hedge fund managers are fleeing CT for the clean and well managed state of Florida or Texas. Yep.

      Reply
    4. NobodobodoN9 months ago

      Paul writes: CT now ranks in the bottom in all measurements due to “progressive” policies.

      That sounded like nonsense to me, so I did some googling. Took me about 5 minutes to come up with this list:

      CT ranks 35th highest in per capita welfare recipients.
      CT ranks 4th highest in income.
      CT ranks 37th highest in violent crime rate.
      CT ranks 7th in overall health and 36th in obesity rate.
      CT ranks 12th in high school graduation rate.
      CT ranks 30th in SAT scores.
      CT ranks 3rd highest in college completion rates.
      CT ranks 38th highest in divorce rate.

      An hour ago, I would say I never want to move to Connecticut, but now I’m wondering if it might not be so bad after all.

      Reply
  16. M Thom B9 months ago

    It might be interesting to see this analysis cross-referenced to age.
    Needs, desires, political beliefs and wealth itself vary widely for Americans (female and male, black and white, immigrant and entrenched) who are 20 years old and just gaining economic traction and those who are 50 years old and have completed most of their economic cycle. For PEW to conduct a poll that tracks these types of ‘Identity and Class’ distinctions throughout one generation’s lifetime could be very illuminating to these discussions.

    Reply
  17. Justin S10 months ago

    Huh, big surprise? It’s easier to have hateful politics when you don’t have to mingle with the people you’re looking down on, disenfranchising, etc,.

    Reply
  18. Pilgrim 162010 months ago

    Having retired 12 years ago, we bought a motor home so that we could see the country at a grass roots level. Having lived in the suburbs of Boston, Chicago and LA we wanted to see more of rural America. As a former liberal who saw the light, I was uncomfortable with urban and suburban living and “progressive” politics.
    As we traveled, the differences in political attitude between urban and rural living became far more prominent. Your method of using house size and diversity normalizes the the separation far better than an urban/rural definition. As the son of a blue collar worker and the first in my family to even go to college, never mind to graduate, I have a deep appreciation for what used to be our work ethic, opportunity and social mobility.
    When we decided to settle down, we found a community in southern Arizona where the access to health care was very good but with a rural heritage. People here are 1 standard deviation to the right of center, close to my own political orientation.

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  19. Packard Day10 months ago

    Are you better off now than you were six years ago?

    If you travel among the top 10%, the chances are very high that you will answer this question in the affirmative. Yes, it has been very good to be a “Washington DC/Wall Street Patriot” these past few years. God bless America. If, on the other hand, you live and work around the next 40%, you may answer, maybe not so much. Your quest was to just stay above water during this time.

    If you are in the bottom 50%, however,…well…you are probably not reading PEW right now, so don’t worry about either the question or your answer. Aside from your always reliable vote, you and yours do not count for all that much in the greater scheme of things. Needless to say, we feel your pain.

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  20. Diane D’Angelo10 months ago

    There really are two Americas now.

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    1. marly9 months ago

      Yes, and swiftly heading toward one where it won’t be worth living in about three generations from now!

      Reply
    2. Erik1 week ago

      ……..and I’m all for that.

      Reply