One feature of political geography seems to leap out whenever I look at a map of election results: the more closely together people live, the more liberal they tend to be. Big cities vote Liberal or NDP in Canada, Democratic in the United States. By contrast, small towns and rural areas tend to be more conservative. Two hypotheses occur to me immediately:
- Liberal people choose to live in cities.
- Living in cities encourages people to be liberal.
To some extent, I think both are plausible.
The first trend is self-reinforcing. Because cities are mostly full of liberals, they attract liberals from conservative areas. Just think of the stereotype of the young gay person who moves to the big city to find a more tolerant community. While it is a stereotype, it does have the ring of truth to it. Similarly, one might expect clustering even within urban areas: with some predominantly liberal areas continuing to attract new liberals, while other relatively conservative areas do likewise.
The second hypothesis is more interesting. I can think of a few reasons for which it might be true. Mostly, they have to do with being exposed to large numbers of other people. Spending time in the company of people of differing races, classes, sexual orientations, and so forth may well reduce your chances of fearing them. I think it is likely that working with and befriending people with cultures and experiences different from your own is generally likely to make you more empathetic, tolerant, and socially progressive. It may also be the case that people in cities tend to get exposed to new ideas more rapidly and often, putting them ahead of the curve in terms of incorporating them into their own philosophies and lives.
At the same time, just spending time in close proximity to a lot of people reinforces the fact that we are all dependent upon one another, and we cannot live our lives in ways that do not affect those around us. In short, people in cities are constantly exposed to economic externalities: both in the positive form, as with public transit, and in the negative form, as with noisy neighbours or automobile exhaust.
Those in sparsely populated regions may be better able to sustain the myth of self-sufficiency, despite how virtually all rural lifestyles in rich states are just as mutually interdependent as urban lifestyles. Arguably, the lack of contact with both different forms of people and with large numbers of densely-packed people contributes to important elements of political conservatism. I realize that two of the underlying arguments above are likely to bother conservative people: essentially, that social conservatism is the product of isolation and fear and that self-reliance is largely a myth. Feel free to debate those positions, as well as the general question of why people of different political inclinations cluster the way they do.