Why not live in a city where people agree with you? Research group Livability asked this question earlier this week, when they released their 2016 rankings of “The Best Cities for Liberals, Conservatives, and Moderates.” As Livability Author Matt Carmichael writes, “Studies have shown our social feeds are often like living in a like-minded bubble. We get our so-called ‘news’ from partisan sources.”
But this political fracturing isn’t just happening online—the researchers at Livability have found that people “gerrymander themselves,” choosing towns and cities that complement their ideological preferences. “If you really want a political change, you’re better off moving than voting,” writes Carmichael.
Livability seeks to determine “what makes small to midsize cities great places to live.” Their lists include the Top 10 Small Towns, Best College Towns, Best Cities for African Americans, and Top 100 Places to Live. Some of these rankings derive their placements from data on schooling, career options, affordable housing, and civil engagement. Others look at “Walk Scores” and income inequality.
But the partisan lists Livability just released are different. They don’t look at the relative financial, economic, or scholastic merits of a place. Rather, they promise us happiness based on supposed ideological homogeneity. “In today’s polarized nation it’s easy to get sick of all the partisan bickering,” they write on the “Best Cities For Liberals” page. “You’re not likely to change many minds, so why not just live somewhere where folks agree with you already?”
In other words: why not just give up on political discourse and embrace tribalism?
Ideological Diversity For Thee, But Not For Me
Livability assumes two points in constructing these lists. The first is that our ideological disparities and polarization are too entrenched to change. Societal discord has passed the point of no return, and it’s best to just embrace the fracturing and live with it.
But this rejects the best arguments of our nation’s founding documents and theory. The Founding Fathers never questioned the fact that political disagreement or polarization might arise—it was real enough in their own time. Politicians used to duel regularly, after all.
But the Constitution sought to achieve a balance of powers in which interest could war against interest, power against power, ideology against ideology, thus sharpening the ideas of the public and honing the most thoughtful and judicious government possible.
This is exactly what Livability rejects in their opening premise: the idea that ideological disparities should come into contact with each other. Instead, they encourage us to live with those like us, or with those most likely to convert to our side.
But American society is about—has always been about—a diversity of ideas, not just of ethnicities. It’s about a co-mingling of philosophies and ideologies, and a marriage of disparate views. Without opposing views to sharpen our political and societal decisions, we’re likely to fall into excess. We develop blind spots, or fall prey to vices that we don’t have the discretion or vision to ascertain.
Political diversity matters more than ever before. But sadly, many have rejected it.
How We Embraced Digital And Scholastic Bubbles
Many Americans, regardless of their geographic situation, have already accepted political homogeneity in their online habits. Most social media users (whether consciously or not) tend to friend, follow, and like the people and ideas that fit their own worldview. Facebook and Google algorithms respond by giving us more of the same—treating us like consumers with appetites to be sated, rather than as thinkers with brains to be sharpened.
What’s the result? Our online lives devolve into an echo chamber, reverberating with the reassuring words of our peers. We easily fall prey to stereotype and misunderstanding, as we distance ourselves from the political “other” residing on the other side of the political chasm. Living in political homogeneity gives us an inflated sense of rightness and superiority. It encourages us to belittle and scoff at those we disagree with.
This situation, bad as it is, becomes even worse when it carries over into our physical lives. It can foster real and dangerous hostility.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this comes from modern college campuses: many have grown so liberal, it’s difficult for conservative-leaning individuals to feel at home there. Saying the wrong thing (perhaps something that does not fit the progressive narrative) will not just result in a reprimand: it will likely result in castigation, dismissal, even threats. The modern American university has grown so progressive, it’s become hostile to those whose views do not fit the prevailing campus narrative.
To foster towns with such an ethos isn’t just unwise—it’s dangerous.
How Livability’s Rankings Reinforce Political Stereotypes
The Livability listings do more than consider voting patterns and partisanship, however: they reveal much about the consumptive patterns of individuals within specific party groupings. As Carmichael notes,
… We wanted to find cities where the residents have more in common than just their political affiliations. For this, we turned to our friends at Simmons Research to find a group of products and services that each group is likely to buy. And from this we created a basket of goods: A restaurant, a retailer, a car brand, a magazine and a TV network that each political ideology tends to favor. Simmons analyzed these goods to find specific brands customers were swayed to buy, one way or the other, on the political spectrum. Then they flipped that around and found cities where customers were skewed toward buying those products.
If you guessed that conservatives like shopping at Hobby Lobby and eating at Cracker Barrel, you’d be right. Apparently liberals are big fans of National Geographic and HBO.
Of course there’s some truth to these generalizations. But they also belittle the great complexity of political opinion and lifestyle across the nation. For instance: Alexandria, Virginia is ranked seventh on Livability’s list of “Best Cities For Liberals.” But my husband and I have lived in Alexandria for the past three and a half years, and—despite our staunch conservatism—love this city with all our might. It is a beautiful, close-knit, historic community.
While definitely liberal in some of its urban and civic initiatives, Alexandria also affirms principles of New Urbanism that conservatives can applaud and uphold. All the liberal-approved facets of the city that Livability lists—the “beautiful, well-preserved buildings” and “vibrant cultural scene,” the “charming” community and concern for “the community’s most vulnerable residents”—are things we also wholeheartedly approve of.
What’s more, I enjoy living in a politically diverse community. I believe it makes me a better neighbor, citizen, and writer. The more we section ourselves off, the more we damage our ability to empathize with and reach people on the other side of the political aisle. To be a political minority in Alexandria is not a turnoff for me—it’s a bonus. (And I have to admit, I haven’t eaten at a Cracker Barrel in years.)
We Should Embrace Our Differences
In 2014, George Washington University professor Samuel Goldman wrote an essay for The American Conservative on what he called “The Jeremiah Option.” Many Christians were (and still are) suggesting a geographic separation from our increasingly secularized society, in an effort to salvage what remains of Christian culture and intellectual thought. The idea was first elucidated in Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic volume After Virtue, but American Conservative editor Rod Dreher has explored the topic in greater depth on his blog and in his new book, titled The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation.
There is more nuance to Dreher’s argument than mere reactionary withdrawal, but Goldman still believed Dreher’s solution to cultural secularism was incomplete. “Communal withdrawal can construct a barrier against the worst facets of modern life … yet it can also lead to isolation from the stimulating opposition that all traditions need to avoid stagnation,” he wrote.
In contrast, Goldman referenced the vision of community found in Jeremiah 29, wherein God commands the Israelites—currently in Babylonian exile—to settle themselves in the foreign city, and seek the good of their community:
Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
Goldman insists that this commitment to community is beneficial for both parties, and necessary for the development of a just and balanced society: “While not a member of traditional religious community myself, I am convinced that the rest of society is immeasurably enriched by the presence of such communities in political, cultural, and intellectual life,” he writes. “So while I do fear that practices of separation will be bad for those communities themselves … I am certain that they will be bad for the rest of us.”
These principles need not only be applied to religious individuals’ participation in the larger society. They are true of any and all of us—liberal, conservative, libertarian, moderate—who find ourselves sojourning in a “foreign land.” It is our differences that suit us to each other, and make us indispensable to each other. Iron sharpens iron. Differing populations hone and mature each other.
Living in a liberal city forces me to acknowledge the best facets of progressive urbanism, even while I seek to bring the best of my conservatism to bear on town government (wherever and however I’m able). So too, a California native who moves to small-town Idaho must learn to respect the traditions and customs that have grown in that place’s soil, even while he endeavors to bring new ideas to its community.
Perhaps discord and hostility are inevitable in our current political climate. We’re more polarized and fractured than ever before. But if these trends can be reversed, the transformation will happen in real, physical spaces—not on Facebook. Those who are willing to be sojourners in a politically foreign land will do more to bridge these ideological divides than any online commentator can achieve. We need only be willing.