Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Our Patchwork Nation

Cover of Our Patchwork NationI've wondered for a long time how our nation can be so divided. Recent events in Wisconsin bring it forcefully to mind again, as I hear from family who heartily disagree with my perspective.

I'm fascinated by theories about different worldviews and personality types that underly our specific political stances, whether it's the research that has shown people open to new experiences tend to be liberals, or George Lakoff's concept of mental frames that construct government as either a strict father or nurturing parent.

One book that sheds light on the topic is Our Patchwork Nation by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel. The subtitle of the book is "The Surprising Truth About the 'Real' America -- The 12 Community Types that Make Up Our Nation."

Chinni and Gimpel wanted to move beyond the simplicity of the "red state/blue state" dichotomy to get a deeper understanding. They took county-level data (you know how I love a good county-level map!) and used Census information on employment, income, race, age and more to find a pattern of 12 community types.

I was particularly interested to see what they had to say about the parts of the country I know best -- the Twin Cities and my hometown area in Upstate New York.

Some of the key things I came away with:

Campus and Careers communities have almost nothing in common with Emptying Nests, Military Bastions, Tractor Country or Service Worker Centers (not to mention the anomalous Mormon Outposts). This lack of commonality is the key divide: The former community type is home to liberals and even the true left, while the latter group of communities is Sarah Palin's "real America."

Campus and Careers counties are widely scattered across the country (you can probably guess their locations), while the opposite communities are concentrated: Emptying Nests in the central-northern midwest (lots of Minnesota and Iowa) as well as Florida; Evangelical Epicenters in the Bible Belt of the noncoastal Southeast; Service Worker Centers in wide swaths of the Northeast, as well as northern Midwest and parts of the West Coast; and Tractor Country, running almost as far as the eye can see from the Dakotas to Idaho and south to Wyoming, Nebraska and Missouri. Not surprisingly, only the Military Bastions are as widely scattered as the Campus and Careers communities (the better to generate support for military spending in Congress).

The Boom Towns and Monied Burbs seem to have built their entire economies around construction -- building new houses and infrastructure for people who left an already-built place somewhere else. No one in these places is actually creating anything that's needed (on a net basis).

There are more Service Worker counties than any other type. My home county in New York is classified this way. Incomes are below the national median, and 21 percent of the people work in some type of educational field, despite the fact that these counties by definition are not home to large universities. Jobs are tight (even before the recession), and Service Worker Centers "aren't the uniform bastions of conservativism you might expect them to be. These places tend to be the economy's canaries in the coal mine…. Service Worker Centers almost always lead the pack in monthly unemployment rates…" (page 120).

Tractor Country should be almost indistinguishable from the Evangelical Epicenters (both have high attendance at Christian churches), but what separates them is their attitudes about money and community infrastructure. While Tractor Country is noteworthy for its belief in "frugality as proof of character" (age 127), self-sufficiency and joint community effort are important values. Chain store generica are not interested in Tractor Country; even the banks are local or regional, rather than national. There was no wild run up in real estate, and no crash, either. Meanwhile in the Evangelical Epicenters, little is spent on infrastructure (the exemplar city has no library even though it has almost 20,000 residents!), and their unemployment rate jumped from 5.7 to 9.9 in 18 months during the 2008 crash.

One fun side note looks at the chain store concentrations within the various community types. Not surprisingly, the Evangelical Epicenters have the highest concentration of Walmart stores, while the Monied Burbs have the most Starbucks. Whole Foods stores, on the other hand, are found almost exclusively in only four types of communities: Monied Burbs, Industrial Metropolis, Boom Towns, and Campus and Careers. (The same types of communities that are home to natural food co-ops.)

A second side note lists the number of gun shops and bookstores per 100,000 people. The fewest bookstores are found in Minority Central communities, followed by an almost-tie between Evangelical Epicenters and Mormon Outposts. The fewest gun shops are found in the Industrial Metropolises; no other community type even comes close. "You can draw a pretty decent correlation between voting patterns in the 2008 presidential election and the gun shop-to-bookstore ratio. The three community types that Obama won by the biggest margins...all have more than twice as many bookstores per capital than gun shops" (page 193) -- and vice versa.

Closeup of the Minnesota map, showing large green and red swathsLooking at the patchwork map of Minnesota is revealing. The state is split almost evenly between Service Worker Centers and Emptying Nests. Except the Twin Cities -- a ring of Monied Burbs surrounding one Industrial Metropolis (which is, ironically, St. Paul's Ramsey County, rather than Minneapolis's Hennepin) -- and a handful of Boomtowns like Rochester, Mankato and Moorhead, each of which is anchored by a state college or large health institution.

No wonder we elected a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor in the last election.


Linda Myers said...

Really interesting article! Thanks for the excellent summary. Going out to PBS to take a look myself.

elena said...

Fascinating...thanks for the summary.