The presidential election once again made clear that there is a striking and surprising relationship between population density and party vote share. The salience of the American electorate’s polarization on density renewed interest in my 2019 paper, The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash, which explores how the logic of long-term urbanization explains the density divide by spatially segregating the national population along the lines of ethnicity, personality, and education. A few listeners mentioned that they’d like to hear me talk about the paper on the podcast, and discuss whether there are new insights to be gleaned from Biden’s win in the 2020 election, so here it is: an improvised two-hour monologue on the Density Divide.
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Readings: “The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash” and its Audio Version by Will Wilkinson, Who’s Your City by Richard Florida, Jason Rentfrow on Google Scholar, Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide by Jonathan Rodden, and The New Geography of Jobs by Enrico Moretti
Will Wilkinson: Welcome to Model Citizen. I’m Will Wilkinson, your host. This week we’re going to try something a little bit different. The election sparked a flurry of new interest in my 2019 paper, “The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash.” I’ve had a number of people tell me they’d enjoy a podcast about that subject and how it applies to the 2020 election. Well, as it turns out, the election renewed my interest in the subject as well.
Will Wilkinson: I was already planning to do a sort of informal “Density Divide” inspired series that would involve interviewing a bunch of the scholars whose work I relied on in writing the paper. It makes a lot of sense to do a quick and dirty overview of the general argument of the paper to create a framework for those future discussions, so that is what we’re going to do.
Will Wilkinson: Now I should mention the paper is about 80 pages in length. It is very complicated. It’s got a lot of moving parts. This is going to be at best a hasty, cursory sketch of the overall argument. I’ll also mention that I read the entire paper and made it available in a sort of podcast format. Each section of the paper is kind of a different episode. I will put the link to that in the show notes.
Will Wilkinson: If you like listening better than reading, you can listen to me read the entire thing, which will be a much more coherent experience than what you’re going to get right now because there is absolutely no way that I am going to be able to improvise the kind of fluency with which I write. Some of this is going to be a bit of a wandering, meandering, free associative, jazz odyssey, but I wanted to keep it loose. I wanted to keep it conversational even though I’m not talking to anybody in particular.
Will Wilkinson: My dog is in the room, my 12 year old Vizsla. He’s sleeping on the bed. If you hear any snoring, that is Winston, not me, but I’m not going to be able to make it perfect. Enjoy the ride because I’m not exactly sure what order I’m going to do this in. I have written myself a kind of rough outline, but it’s basically no different than just the table of contents of this 80-page paper. We’ll see what happens, so buckle up folks.
Will Wilkinson: Where to start, let’s try with some general context. I think by now, most people have become aware of the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties are divided by geography. That cities are Democratic, and that outer suburbs, exurbs, small towns, rural areas, those are Republican. As I say in the paper, there is no Republican city. That’s what my wife thinks I should lead with anytime I discuss this stuff. She thinks that’s captivating and will probably be mad at me because I didn’t say that right at the start.
Will Wilkinson: That’s the puzzle that we’re trying to solve. Why is it the case that there is no Republican city? In a lot of commentary on this stuff, it’s just called the urban-rural divide. I don’t like to say rural exactly because it’s not just people who live on hog farms and stuff like that. It’s smaller towns, but more importantly, most of the Republican population lives in big metro areas because almost the entire American population lives in big metro areas, generously considered these big metropolitan statistical areas.
Will Wilkinson: They’re basically commuting zones for a large labor market. It’s just that Republicans live on the outer fringes or the least dense part of those big cities, but any way you slice it, there’s this really strong correlation between population density and partisan vote share. Now that’s something that’s interesting. It kind of begs for an explanation. It’s really just kind of weird. I mean, it’s really weird.
Will Wilkinson: It’s not just that there’s this vague relationship between population density. It’s a really strong relationship. The higher the population density, the higher the Democratic vote share, and the lower the population density, the lower the Democratic vote share and the higher the Republican vote share. You get this continuous relationship from more dense to less dense, and that’s more Democratic to less Democratic to more Republican. It’s weird.
Will Wilkinson: A good way to visualize it is to imagine that city streets are painted in the color of electoral maps, and the shade of red or blue corresponds to party vote share. Imagine you’re in a car. You’re in the densest part of any city or town. That’s usually going to be the downtown area. That’s going to be the most densely settled part of the city. That’s where you’re going to get really, really dark blue. Now, if you point your car toward the city limits and you start to drive, the blue will start to shift toward a more violet hue.
Will Wilkinson: It’s still in the blue set of things. You’re out of the central business district. You’re into the inner suburbs. It’s blueish, but it’s getting purpler. You get into the outer suburbs, it’s pretty purple, but it’s hard to say, “This is purple. I don’t know, is it red? Is it blue? Who knows?” Then you go into the exurbs, and now it’s pretty clearly a kind of like violet-ish red. You get to the city limits, it starts to get really red.
Will Wilkinson: You get out into the country where there’s nobody, and it’s just like deep, scarlet red. That’s what it’s like. It’s weird. What explains that? “The Density Divide” is a paper that seeks to explain that and use that explanation to account for the rise of what I call in the paper populous backlash. At the time, everybody was really concerned to explain the existence of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. How did that happen? I mean, WTF? Why did some real estate huckster, reality star end up in the White House?
Will Wilkinson: Everybody was trying to explain that, and there was a lot of different ideas. Oh, it was globalization. It was neo-liberalism creating precarity, and there’s this backlash of the working class, what have you. I found those not that satisfying. I think there’s some truth in pretty much all of those explanations, but I didn’t think they really got to the core of things. In particular, they didn’t explain this pattern that I was seeing between population density and partisan vote share.
Will Wilkinson: That is clearly part of the story, so I wanted to dig into that. That’s the source of the paper. That’s why I got into it in the first place, why Trump and what the heck explains this crazy pattern? Why is there no Republican city? Why is every city Democratic? Why is every small town Republican? Pretty much. There’s something deep going on there, and that’s what I wanted to explain. That and how does this crazy pattern help explain the vitriolic, negative polarization that has characterized our politics since Trump hijacked the national consciousness?
Will Wilkinson: Before we get too deep in the weeds, let me say a little more about how the pattern of the density divide has developed over the course of the last 20, 30 years or so. In 2000, in the hotly contested election between Al Gore and George W. Bush in which Gore won the popular vote but lost the election thanks to the Supreme Court, Al Gore won 659 counties versus George W. Bush’s 2,397 counties. Now the 659 counties that Gore won, that accounted for just a little more than half of the United States’ economic output, 54%.
Will Wilkinson: The Bush counties produced 46% of GDP. Fast forward 16 years to 2016. Hillary Clinton won 472 counties, and Donald Trump won 2,584 counties. Gore won 659. Clinton won 472. They both won the popular vote. Clinton won by more with nearly 200 fewer counties. Now the real mind blowing thing about this is that those 472 counties that Clinton won accounted for about 64% of national economic output. Those 2,584 Trump counties produced 36% of output.
Will Wilkinson: Now this year, updating that statistic, Joe Biden won 509 counties, so he won more than Hillary Clinton by 37 more counties. Those 509 counties produced 71% of national economic output. Trump this year won 2,547 counties, and those account for 29% of economic output. This is a pretty stark difference, 2,500 versus about 500, but the 500 counties produced 70% of the GDP. That’s wild, and a really significant trend that we’ll discuss a little bit later is apparent in these numbers.
Will Wilkinson: If you go back to 2000, Al Gore remember won 659 counties. Those were just a little bit more than half of GDP, 659 counties, 54%. This year Biden has 509. That is 150 fewer counties. He won 150 fewer counties than Al Gore, but still he decisively won the popular vote. Those 509 counties produced 70% of GDP, and so you can see two things right there. The population is becoming more concentrated, and the economy is becoming much more concentrated in big cities.
Will Wilkinson: Now Biden’s number jumps from Clinton’s 64% all the way up to 71%. that is a big increase. That’s seven percentage points. The reason why he makes such a big jump with that small handful of counties is that the counties that he flipped were mostly very large, suburban counties around big cities that had been right on the line that Trump barely won, but that Biden was able to win this time around. For now, let’s talk a little bit about what the “density divide” literally means in my thinking about this.
Will Wilkinson: The density divide is the population density at which the population shifts from being Democratic majority to Republican majority. The crossover point, the 50-50 point where the majority shifts from Democrats to Republicans, it happens somewhere in, well, I usually say somewhere between the inner and outer suburbs. In the last election, they pressed out further into the outer suburbs, which is why Biden won pretty decisively overall.
Will Wilkinson: Now there really is no rigorous social scientific taxonomy of suburbs. There’s not a clear, distinct analytical meaning to inner suburb or outer suburb or exurb. These are all just vague, gestural impressionistic categories, so there’s not a lot of use in leaning on them very heavily. That’s why I like to talk about specific population densities. The point at which it flips is about 700 people per square mile.
Will Wilkinson: That is not very dense in the scheme of things. There’s obviously a lower bound on how sparse an area can be. There are plenty of areas in the United States where there are zero people in a square mile. This is a very empty country. We got plenty of room for more people. 700 people per square mile is a lot more than zero, but it’s not that many really. Don’t think of 700 as a dense density. This is just a suburban neighborhood with relatively spread out, detached single family homes with generous yards.
Will Wilkinson: It’s not packed because a really dense big city gets upwards toward 100,000 people per square mile. New York City pushes up against that in some places. Other cities in the world are more dense than 100,000 people per square mile. There is a much wider range of majority Democrat population densities. They range from 700 all the way up to 80,000, 90,000 in the United States. That is a big difference. The difference between 700 and 80,000 is a lot bigger than the difference between zero and 700.
Will Wilkinson: That’s why you have to plot the relationship between population density and partisan vote share on a logarithmic scale. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get it into a single visualization. One of the axes is just going to go on forever, and you don’t have mile-long pieces of paper, so you have to compress it. Now, 700 people per square mile as the inflection point, that line is what I’m calling the density divide. That’s the line at which party majorities flip one way or the other.
Will Wilkinson: If you want to do really, really crude electoral analysis, you can get pretty far by just finding that population density, just drawing a line around 700 people per square mile. It’s not going to be a circle. It’s going to make a weird shape around any large city or even a small city. There’s going to still going to be a zone that is denser than that. I should note here that this isn’t just a city thing. It’s a density thing.
Will Wilkinson: Any place that has population densities greater than 700 people per square mile is going to have Democratic majorities in those places. My hometown, Marshalltown, Iowa, place about 27,000 people. The core of Marshalltown is very heavily Democratic, and then it shades off in the way that I’ve described. It just turns out that there are more people in Marshall County that live outside the density divide than inside, so the county is majority Republican.
Will Wilkinson: It’s not really a question of red counties versus blue counties, red states versus blue states. It’s a question of the relative population inside and outside that line. What you do to figure out who’s most likely to win an election in a county or in a state, find that crossover point, find 700 people per square mile or wherever the crossover point in that city or state has been in fact. You just put a bunch of dots around places that are 700 people per square mile.
Will Wilkinson: You can do that with Marshalltown. It’s not going to make a circle. It’s going to make a funny shape. Neighborhoods are shaped funny, but you’re going to make a shape, like a closed figure that is all greater than 700 people per square mile inside of it and all sparser than 700 people per square mile outside of it until you hit another town or another city, and then you do it again. Then you take the population of everybody who’s inside those circles and the population of everybody who’s outside those circles.
Will Wilkinson: You may have a relatively useful answer. If there are more people outside the circles than inside, then it’s a lock that it’s a Republican state because Republicans are older, they are much more likely to vote. If you have the majority of a population living in places that are less dense than 700 people per square mile, it’s Republican. It’s not so clear when you do it the other way because there are a bunch of complicating factors.
Will Wilkinson: Cities are likely to have fairly large immigrant communities, so the population might not represent the voting population. There might be a lot of kids say. Kids can’t vote. You can’t count them. You’re going to have to do something a little bit more complicated, figure out who the likely voters are or the registered voters. If you’ve got that information, if you know who likely voters are and where they live, you can just draw those circles and count the numbers.
Will Wilkinson: You’re probably going to be pretty close to right. The relationship is that secure and again, I think it’s freaking crazy. We got to this point because the relationship has been growing for quite a while now. Did the density divide become worse between 2016 and 2020? Overall, it’s stayed about the same. The big story in this election in particular is that Biden picked up really significant vote share in a bunch of suburbs.
Will Wilkinson: Notably, he flipped six of the country’s 100 highest output counties if we’re thinking about the economic aspect of it. Biden got Maricopa County in Arizona, Tarrant County in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Duval County near Jacksonville, Morris County in New Jersey, Pinellas County in the Tampa-St Pete’s area. Those were the kinds of counties that flipped. Overall, that would suggest that the crossover point pushed out a little further into the suburbs.
Will Wilkinson: Overall, the relationship is about the same. The places with the highest and lowest population densities continued to polarize just a little bit. The densest urban cores became slightly more Democratic than they were in 2016, and the sparsest rural areas became even more Republican than they were in 2016. Overall, you could say that the density divide has widened, but the interesting story is really the shift of some important populous suburbs into the democratic column.
Will Wilkinson: That seems to mainly have to do with education, and we’ll talk about that in just a little bit. That’s the sort of horse racy, statistical stuff out of the way. I don’t find that stuff very interesting because it’s just facts. It’s a pattern of facts. What I get interested in is explaining the pattern. Let’s dig into the meatier conceptual stuff that I think helps us explain this crazy relationship between population density and partisan affiliation.
Will Wilkinson: The main structuring insight of the paper is that urbanization is incredibly underrated as a long-term social force. Now I think everybody understands that there’s this thing called urbanization and that hundreds and hundreds of years ago, go back millennia, the human population, we were all hunter-gatherers. We were diffuse and spread out, and there weren’t that many of us, and then agriculture got invented. People would stay in place, and they formed a little villages and cities.
Will Wilkinson: Then, blah, blah, blah, cities arose. You get the Industrial Revolution. Manufacturing becomes a thing. Hoards of people move from the countryside to the city, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Urbanization. Now I think we sort of take it for granted because it is this really long-term, slow thing that is the context for absolutely everything that happens in modern human history.
Will Wilkinson: Urbanization, this long-term trend, is more frame than picture, so we don’t tend to focus that much on urbanization and its effects itself. Our lives are radically different because people moved from the countryside into towns and then into cities. Then those cities got bigger and bigger and bigger, and there are fewer and fewer and fewer people in these less dense areas. It’s something that happens at a glacial pace, so I don’t think it registers as something that is happening.
Will Wilkinson: It’s like tectonic, the plates of the earth are moving, but it doesn’t seem like it. You don’t feel it, but then every now and then you get an earthquake. I think that’s kind of what has happened with urbanization. Now, why did urbanization cause an earthquake? Here’s the analogy that I make that I think really helps. I lean on it really heavily in the paper. Imagine a table top and just kind of randomly distributed over the surface of that table you’ve got a bunch of ball bearings.
Will Wilkinson: The ball bearings are not all made of the same stuff. Some of them are iron, some of them are steel, some of them are aluminum, some of them are nickel suppose. You’ve got on your table just scattered, totally random pattern ball bearings. The ball bearings are people. Now, suppose we were to place an electromagnet at the center of the table. If you started out at a kind of low level of power, it’s like an electromagnet.
Will Wilkinson: It’s at a low level of power, and so the magnet’s going to draw the nearest and most magnetic metals toward it first. As you turn up the attractive magnetic force, you’re going to get more and more of the iron, nickel, steel, whatever’s magnetic. That will migrate toward the center of the table and start to create a growing, dense, multi-metallic cluster right around that electromagnet. Aluminum say is non-magnetic, so the aluminum ball bearings aren’t going to go anywhere by turning up the volume on the magnet.
Will Wilkinson: They’ll get jostled about as the other stuff moves toward the magnet. They might get nudged toward the magnetic cluster as everything else is pushing in that direction, carried along by the general drift, but they’ll otherwise mostly stay put, spread out relatively evenly over the surface of the table. I think that’s kind of what’s happened. I think it helps us visualize how urbanization can have sorted our population over the space of centuries of migration, along the lines of population density, how it split us along the lines of population density.
Will Wilkinson: The long-term depopulation of the countryside reflects the fact that cities are magnetic for people seeking opportunity. As their attractive force has increased over time, that has slowly filtered out and sorted our population into a couple different factions. We’ve got one, a diverse, densely concentrated magnetic faction and a homogenous and sparsely distributed non-magnetic faction. For various reasons, the non-magnetic faction has become angry and afraid and are kind of taking it out on the rest of us.
Will Wilkinson: That is the key insight that migration isn’t random, that people move for reasons, and that cities aren’t as attractive to everyone equally. That over time, over hundreds and hundreds of years of people making decisions, whether to move out of their little town, whether to go to the big city, over time, that’s going to filter out the people who have the traits that make you most likely to urbanize. They’re going to get end up in the city.
Will Wilkinson: The people with the traits that make you least likely to urbanize are going to end up either out there in the country or in the part of the city that is least like a city but still gives them access to the jobs, which are almost exclusively in cities these days. That is the basic dynamic of the story. There’s another element. I wouldn’t say it’s a different dynamic because it’s internal to the logic of urbanizing migration, but it’s worth drawing out.
Will Wilkinson: An aspect of the trend toward urbanization is the concentration of economic production in cities. Everybody understands that our economy has changed in fundamental, structural ways a couple of times over the past 100 years or so. In mid, late 19th century, the United States was almost entirely an agricultural economy. Interesting historical fact about me. When I was in college in the mid ’90s, I was a tour guide at the Joseph Smith Historic Center in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Will Wilkinson: We would always talk about to our tour groups, mostly of Mormons on pilgrimages, that at the time Nauvoo, which was a city founded and settled by Mormons, that at its height, its population rivaled Chicago’s, which seems like a big deal, but in 1844, which is the year Joseph Smith was murdered, after which the Mormons trekked West to Utah, in 1844, the population of Chicago was about 8,000. Let me see. New York’s population was maybe 300,000 or so.
Will Wilkinson: Today, Des Moines, Iowa is twice the size of New York city in the 1840s, which is pretty indicative of these long-term trends. 300,000 at the time was just huge. In the 1790s, around when the Constitution was ratified, New York City had a population of about 30,000 or something like that. 300,000 by the middle of the 19th century represents just absolutely torrid growth, which shows you the effect of the Industrial Revolution, which starts in the late 18th century with stuff like the cotton gin and then automated weaving shuttles and crap like that.
Will Wilkinson: Clearly, I am a eminent historian of technology. The Industrial Revolution gets going right at the end of the 18th century, and that sparks an incredible growth in the size of cities. They start doubling, tripling, quadrupling in size very, very, very quickly. No city in the United States was bigger than 100,000 until about 1810. By 1950, the number of metropolitan statistical areas that had more than 100,000 people had grown to 150. At that time, that accounted for 62% of the country’s population, so it was about 60-
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Will Wilkinson: I counted for 62% of the country’s population. So it was about 62% urbanized by 2017, which is the date I have my paper. The number of metros with more than a hundred thousand, had increased to 352, right? From 150 to 352 in 67 years. Right? And they contained 85% of the total population, right? And now a city of 100,000 is no longer considered big. We didn’t have any cities bigger than a hundred thousand until 1810. Now, we have 300 some of them, and that’s where 85% of the population lives. That is a big shift over time. Similarly, no American city had more than a million people until about 1870. That was New York, the Big Apple. But by 1950, there were 14 cities that had over a million people. They made up 37% of the population at the time. In 2017, there were 53 MSAs containing more than a million people, and they made up more than half the American population, right?
Will Wilkinson: So 56%, it’s more than that now, but in 2017, 56% of the population, solidly more than half, lived in just 53 metropolitan statistical areas, each of which has well more than a million people in it. So that is a big, big, big change. Now that big change, as I was suggesting, is an economic change. Each structural change, each evolution in the basic nature and structure of the economy, makes cities even more magnetic, right? Each of these shifts turns up the juice on the urban electromagnet. It draws more and more people to the city. And as it turns up, it also raises the volume on the filtering and sorting aspects of urbanizing migration. Now, when you get to the level of urbanization we have now, around 80, 85%, we’re supposed to get to around 90% in about 2050, that’s going to slow down. Right?
Will Wilkinson: We’re not going to get the same level of urbanizing migration just because nearly everyone lives in the city and the people who don’t by that point, probably aren’t ever. There’s probably part of a permanent structure of agriculture. There is some growth in rural counties, but the high growth rural counties tend to be what they call recreational rural. Right? It’s places in Colorado that have a mountain, places where you can have a cabin in the woods, little resort towns, things like that. Places like that have some growth and they have some growth and economic output as well. That’s going to keep people in those places. So there’s always going to be some level of non urban population, a lot of people just like it better and there still are jobs to do.
Will Wilkinson: There are oil wells to sink into the ground. Somebody’s got to frack. Fracking doesn’t frack itself, right? So there’s always going to be people out in the hustings, keeping busy, giving tours of waterfalls and crap like that, which is lovely. Actually, what I just said was not true. The highest growth rural counties are rural counties that are adjacent to a swiftly growing city. They’re rural counties that are in the process of becoming an exurb. So seeing the population growth there is a little bit misleading because it’s actually an indication of the growth of the city and the ongoing advance of inexorable urbanization. Now, as the population becomes more concentrated in cities, it just follows that the economy becomes more concentrated in cities. Economic output is a function of the productivity of workers, and if all the workers are in cities, that’s where all the productivity is going to get done.
Will Wilkinson: But it’s not just that. It’s that people are more productive in cities. Why that’s the case is one of my favorite topics. I’m not going to delve too deeply into it, or maybe we’ll get a bit to it when I talk about education, but for now we’ll just bracket the fact that density has its own efficiencies and that contributes to the concentration of economic production to the cities. The important point right now is just that the lion’s share of the population lives in large urban areas and the economic production is increasingly concentrated in a relatively small handful of very large cities. Okay? Now, if you add that fact about the concentration of the economy in cities with the correlation between population density and partisan vote share, you get an important fact that I think drives a lot of the story, which is that lower density places that are predominantly Republican are struggling economically.
Will Wilkinson: They’re either stagnating or losing ground in absolute terms while almost all the growth is concentrated in a few really big cities. That Republican areas are in relative decline is pretty clearly implied by the figures I discussed earlier. I think this comes across clearest if you look at it from the perspective of the Republican numbers. So just think about the fact that Donald Trump won nearly 200 more counties than George W. Bush did in 2000. But despite the fact that he had added almost 200 counties to his side of the ledger, the cumulative output of all of the Republican majority counties dropped 10% from 46% to 36%. More of the country is producing less of the wealth, right? That’s what it means to say that the economy is becoming more concentrated in cities. It means that every place else is becoming relatively less productive. Now this has a number of important consequences. I’ll mention just one right now, which is that there is a pretty well established literature that shows that economic growth has a generally liberalizing effect on moral culture, on political culture.
Will Wilkinson: As the pie gets bigger, people tend to feel more expansive and generous and inclusive. When the economy is stagnating or shrinking, people have the opposite instinct. They feel like they’re playing a negative sum game, that if you get more, I’ll get less, and so there’s this very vicious mindset that can set in where people are scrambling to get theirs because there’s not enough for everybody to go around. I think that’s an important part of the story of the rise of nationalist populism in the United States and in other countries. The election of Donald Trump, some of the anxieties that he was catering to, activating, eliciting, but I want to be clear that I don’t think the main thing in the story here is economic anxiety. Economic anxiety is important, but it’s more important because it intensifies and irritates things that are happening for more fundamental reasons. We’ll plunge right back into those right now.
Will Wilkinson: Okay. Now back to the table of ball-bearings. The whole idea is that over the broad sweep of time, the movement of people to the city slowly selects out the people who are most likely to urbanize, the people who are least inclined to urbanize, hang back, or resettle in the least dense parts of cities. So the question then is which attributes make you more or less magnetic? Now in the paper, I concentrate on three fundamental ones, one ethnicity, two personality, three education. I’ll get a bit into each one, and each one of those subjects is something that I’d like to dig into deeper with the guests that I’d like to bring on in future episodes because there’s a lot of interesting stuff here that I think people don’t know as much about as they should.
Will Wilkinson: Okay. Ethnicity. What’s the story here? There is no story with respect to white people. A lot of the density divide is a divide among white people. But the important aspect of ethnicity here is just that almost all Republicans are white. The population of small towns, the countryside, exurbs, they are very white. It is predominantly white people who have resisted urbanizing migration or have urbanized at the least dense fringes of cities. The other side of the story is that non-white people overwhelmingly selecting to cities. There’s a number of reasons for that. The fundamental racial dynamic in the United States is, of course, black-white, reflecting our country’s history of enslavement, official apartheid, racial oppression, discrimination. Pre-emancipation, most of America’s black population was rural for obvious reasons, enslaved Americans were mostly involved in coerced agricultural and domestic labor on large plantations and farms. To this day, some of the biggest non-white rural populations are in places in the South that had a high concentration of slaves.
Will Wilkinson: The so-called black belt where the crops that enslaved people were made to tend grew the best. Post-emancipation, there was a huge exodus of Black Americans to cities in the North, partly because that’s where the economic opportunities were. Partly because those were places where they were less likely to be abused, exploited, and oppressed, even though the likelihood that they would be abused, exploited and oppressed was still relatively high. The critical text here, if you want to learn about the great migration, is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s a terrific book about the mass migration of African Americans out of the South into Northern cities. So that’s a big part of the story, but I won’t go into it any further here. Now, as a general matter, human beings tend to like other human beings that are like them in important respects. The sociologists call that homophily, the love for the same.
Will Wilkinson: We are all homophiles, to one extent or another. Homophily is particularly strong in minority groups who are more conscious of the attributes that make them a minority, especially if they’re likely to be exploited and abused because of those attributes. So you generally find that minorities will cluster together, both because they tend to have a strong consciousness of the identity that makes them a minority, but also for strength in numbers and mutual protection for community social insurance sort of reasons. Now, if you’re in the minority, you can’t be spread out randomly around the country or else you’ll be really isolated and vulnerable. Particularly in representative democratic system, if you’re not clustered together, you won’t be able to form a voting block that’s capable of gaining any representation for your group. So as a matter of political necessity and self protection, there’s a strong incentive to concentrate your heft in a certain place so that you can guarantee some level of political representation and power.
Will Wilkinson: Okay. And then that’s pretty much the explanation for every other non-white group’s concentration in cities, strength in numbers, representation, just plain homophily. If you’re an immigrant from Vietnam, you’re going to want to live somewhere where there are other people who speak Vietnamese, where you can buy Vietnamese groceries, eat Vietnamese food, experience Vietnamese culture. More importantly, if you’re a new immigrant, you’re going to need a network of support that is most likely to exist in a relatively large immigrant community of people from your country of origin. Right? So that’s what we see. We see very, very large majorities of every non-white ethnic group living in big cities.
Will Wilkinson: So here the magnetizing attribute that draws you toward the city is just non-white ethnicity. Or you can think of it another way, in a more general way. The magnetizing feature is being a member of a relatively vulnerable minority. If you’re gay, you’re more likely to find a community of people like you in a big city. If you’re a member of a religious minority, if you’re Muslim or Jewish, you’re more likely to find a substantial community of people like you in a city. And so you’ll tend to find cities more attractive than you would if you were comfortably in the majority, for all the reasons that I mentioned having to do with race, ethnicity, foreign nationality and so forth. Okay.
Will Wilkinson: So how about white people? Right? The majority ethnicity in our country, right? Being white doesn’t predict urbanizing migration. Whiteness is not a magnetized attribute. However, as I mentioned, nearly everybody who hasn’t urbanized is white and a pretty hardy majority of the population who has settled in the least dense parts of big metropolitan areas are white. And those are the Republicans. So what’s the difference between those white people and the white people who are attracted to density, who do tend to urbanize, and when they urbanize tend to move deeper into the denser part of the city?
Will Wilkinson: All right. So now I’m going to talk about personality. And for me, this is the coolest and most interesting part, but it’s also in some ways the most controversial, but I want to dig into that now. I think I’ll start with a kind of sidebar. So since I was a grad student, at least I’ve been deeply interested in questions about moral motivation, how people learn and internalize moral norms about people’s moral intuitions, how our moral sentiments are recruited and get us to do things or to refrain from doing things, how we form moral concepts and the way moral categories change over time and so forth. That interest over time bled into an interest in what you’d call political psychology, which studies what psychological attributes tend to explain political behavior and in particular, what psychological differences underlie ideological differences and partisan differences.
Will Wilkinson: And so I’ve been into that literature for a long time now, and there’s a bunch of different literatures, Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, John Jost’s Just World Theory. There’s a really rich set of theories and studies, some of which is better validated than others, but the work, the literature that really captured my attention was just the basic research in personality psychology and the application of the dominant theory in personality psychology to politics and ideology. So the dominant theory in personality psychology is called the Big Five Theory or the Five Factor Theory or the OCEAN Theory. OCEAN is an acronym. It stands for openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, right? Those are the five principle dimensions of personality.
Will Wilkinson: There’s a lot of interesting methodological questions about how you decide that there are five rather than three or seven, and it has to do with what you call factor analysis. Basically, you want to find the minimum set of attributes that don’t correlate with one another very well. If you find two personality traits that are tightly correlated, they’re probably not two traits. They’re probably maybe different aspects of the same trait. So anyway, over quite a long time now, decades, personality psychologists have boiled down human psychology into these five dimensions. And each of these dimensions has a high and a low end. There’s a normal distribution, right? Like by definition, these traits are normally distributed through the population, right? So you can be low on openness to experience or high on openness to experience, but by definition, most people are in the fat part of the bell curve for openness to experience, and so on for all the rest of the traits. Now it turns out that the big five theory is useful for lots of things.
Will Wilkinson: It’s predictive, it’s well validated. It does a good job of predicting what kinds of people will like what kinds of jobs, will succeed in what kinds of jobs, just all sorts of stuff. But the really fascinating thing to me is that two of the five main personality traits are correlated with social liberalism or conservatism. There is no correlation between any of the big five traits and your economic views, but there’s a pretty strong correlation between openness to experience and conscientiousness when it comes to predicting whether somebody is going to have liberal or conservative attitudes on social and cultural issues. So these would be things like abortion, same sex marriage, immigration. There’s not a hard and fast distinction between social issues and economic issues, but the stuff that we culture war about. If you get really upset that those people are wrecking our culture or that they’re not teaching our children that there are just two genders anymore than you’re socially conservative. It basically means exactly what you think it means.
Will Wilkinson: All right. So the thing that predicts that most strongly is openness to experience. People who are high in openness to experience are socially liberal. People who are low in openness to experience are socially conservative. Now, what is openness to experience? Openness to experience is the trait that makes you interested in novelty, curious about the world, attracted to travel, foreign cultures, art, literature, learning generally. So, high openness to experience is the sort of thing that is going to make you likely to want to try foreign cuisines or to visit Turkey or Thailand. What’s it like there? It sounds interesting. Oh, I’ve always wanted to try puffer fish or whatever. Those are high openness kinds of dispositions.
Will Wilkinson: Lower openness people tend to like familiarity. They like things to stay more or less the same. They are not attracted to novelty, exotic climbs in cultures and so forth. Very importantly, for the purposes of the Density Divide Theory, openness to experience is also correlated with your inclination to migrating. Openness to experience is also correlated with your degree of in-group bias or ethnocentrism. There’s a specialized sense of ethnocentrism that operates in the political psychology literature. Ethnocentrism measures the difference between the positivity of your attitudes and beliefs about your ethnic in-group and your positivity toward other ethnic groups. Right? So it doesn’t have anything to do with you, whether you dislike other groups, it has to do with whether you like your own group a lot more than other groups. So there’s kind of two ways they measure it.
Will Wilkinson: One is a feeling thermometer survey, gives you a bunch of groups, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, and you just say how warmly you feel towards that group with a little thermometer where zero is freezing cold and a hundred is boiling over with affection. The other way they do it is with a set of questions about your opinions about other groups. So things like how hardworking or intelligent or lazy or so forth do you think Asians or Hispanics or African Americans or white people are? So a highly ethnocentric person is going to have a pretty substantial gap between the positivity of their attitudes toward their group and towards other groups. Somebody who’s low in ethnocentrism is going to not feel that much more warmly toward their own in-group than other groups.
Will Wilkinson: So remember earlier I brought up this kind of weird term, homophily, the love of like? Ethnocentrism is sort of a measure of ethnic homophily, how much you like your group relative to other groups. And that has significant practical aspects. If you are very high in ethnocentrism, you are going to have a fairly strong preference for being around people who are like you ethnically. If you’re low in ethnocentrism, you aren’t going to care that much about whether you’re living around people who are different from you. Okay. So the point here is that openness to experience very strongly predicts ethnocentrism.
Will Wilkinson: It also pretty strongly predicts another measure of racial attitudes, which is sometimes called racial resentment. Racial resentment is a sort of thorny measure. So I won’t get into that. The takeaway here is just that openness to experience has a strong relationship to ethnocentrism, which in turn is a measure basically of your tolerance for diversity and your taste for living in a group of people who are very similar to you.
Will Wilkinson: Openness to experience is also significantly correlated with your desire to seek out education. It’s not what makes you good at school, it’s what makes you want to go to school and stay in school and do more school, because you’re curious and you’re really interested in this stuff. Okay? Maybe you’re now starting to smell what I’m stepping in here. Openness to experience has something to do with whether you want to move or stay put. It has something to do with your tolerance or aversion to diversity, whether you prefer to live around people who are like you or if you’re indifferent or even positively attracted to living in a diverse place. And it has something to do with your motivation to seek out higher learning. Okay? I don’t want to be mysterious. So let’s try to spell some of this out and take stock, see where we are so far.
Will Wilkinson: If you’re relatively likely to want to move, where are you going to move to? Well, you’re going to move to a city because almost all migration is movement toward the city. That’s what urbanization is. It’s a trend of migration toward cities. If there are relatively persistent individual differences in the propensity to migrate, over time, you would expect the people who have stronger propensity to migrate to end up in cities and the people with the least propensity to migrate to be the people who don’t, who hold out. Right? Well, we already know that lower openness to experience is correlated with a more conservative attitude, more conservative beliefs on social issues. It also makes you less likely to want to move in general. Okay?
Will Wilkinson: But now openness to experience also relates to ethnocentrism. It relates to how much you like your own group relative to other groups. People who are high in openness to experience, they like novelty. They like difference. They have a high tolerance for diversity. Everybody is a homophile. So it’s not the case that people who are high in openness to experience don’t like people like them. People who are high in openness experience are very biased toward other people who are high in openness to experience, but they are more likely to have a friend who is a different race or ethnicity. They’re more likely to speak another language. They’re more likely to have a friend who is from a different country. So as we’ve already discussed, almost the entire non-white population of the United States lives in cities. The immigrant population of the United States is heavily concentrated in cities. Cities are pluralistic. They’re polyglot places with all sorts of different people from all sorts of different places with all sorts of different preferences. So that is not going to be a barrier to migration if you’re high in openness to experience. It’s an attraction if you’re high in openness to experience. Right? So you’re higher in openness to experience, you’re already more likely to move. If you’re already more likely to move, you’re likely to move to a city. Cities are diverse places. That doesn’t bother you if you’re high in open…
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [01:00:04]
Will Wilkinson: Cities are diverse places. That doesn’t bother you if you’re high in openness to experience. But if you’re low in openness to experience, you’re less likely to want to move at all, which means that you’re less likely to end up in a city. It also means that cities are going to be the less attractive places to you because they’re full of people who are not like you. Okay, now, openness to experience also correlates with your interest in getting more education and your motivation to seek it out.
Will Wilkinson: Something I think people have overlooked is the relationship between college education and migration. I live in Iowa City, Iowa. My wife is a professor at the University of Iowa, and a lot of students here come from small towns, were raised in rural areas, on farms. And for them, Iowa City is an incredibly weird, exotic, and somewhat scary place. It’s full of people who are not like them. It’s a very white place, but it’s a very diverse place compared to Marengo, Iowa, but that’s not the overlooked part exactly.
Will Wilkinson: The overlooked part is that just going to college requires moving away from home. It’s a form of migration. People who are less likely to want to migrate in the first place are more likely to resist moving away from home to go to college. People who are lower in openness to experience are more rooted. And it’s not just because they’re relatively less curious or adventurous. Part of that is that they are more deeply invested in their family and their community. They like stability. They like seeing the people that they’ve always seen, going to the places they’ve always gone.
Will Wilkinson: Lower openness to experience people are incredibly loyal. They’re stalwart pillars of their communities. And if that’s your disposition, it can really be unattractive to move away for four years. Add to all that, a relative aversion to diversity and difference, and there’s plenty of reasons to not want to go to school. Or if you go to the university for a semester or a year, you just might have a bad experience. You might feel like you don’t fit, and head back to your smaller town where everything’s familiar, where all of the relationships and social practices that give your life meaning are located.
Will Wilkinson: That’s not an insane or irrational thing to do by any means. But it means that you’re less likely to end up with a four-year college degree. And these days, there is a very significant wage premium to a college degree. You can make more money if you’ve got a four-year degree. It depends on exactly what you graduate in, but overall, you’re going to make more money if you went to college. But in order to cash in on the college wage premium, you’re probably going to have to move to a big city, to a big metro area.
Will Wilkinson: The economy overall is becoming more concentrated in big metros, and it’s especially concentrated in those places for higher skilled workers with college graduate and professional degrees. And so if that’s your prospect, you’re going to see that too. You’re going to be like, “Okay, I have to move away from home, live in this weird place, full of weirdos who like to eat food that smells weird and put on experimental plays where everybody’s naked with horses’ heads on where people don’t respect my conservative values. And if I can manage to put up with living among these people that I don’t feel like I fit in with and missing everybody back home, what I’m going to have is a credential that I’m going to have to move even further away from home to really make use of, to really benefit from.” So it’s point.
Will Wilkinson: And again, on the flip side, everything is the reverse for people who are high in openness to experience. Going to a novel place where everything is different, where there will be a bunch of new experiences, where you’ll get to learn a ton of new things, that’s going to be really, really attractive. The fact that there are a lot of different people from different places there. There’s going to be foreign students. There’s going to be all sorts of races. There’s going to be gay students. There’s going to be activists. There’s even going to be some in a crazy Bible beaters out there telling you that you’re going to be damned, that’s a fixture of college towns too, all that just sounds super great, right?
Will Wilkinson: And you’re going to be motivated to do all these liberal arts requirements. You’re like, “Oh, philosophy, it’s fascinating. Literature, it’s fascinating. Oh, I’m so glad I finally got a chance to read Jane Eyre,” or whatever. You’re just going to have a fundamentally different experience. And so you’re just more likely to want to go to college in the first place. You’re going to be excited about going to the college town. You’re going to like being there. You’re going to like school in relative terms. And so you’re more likely to finish school. You’re more likely to end up with that four-year degree. And because you’ve got that four-year degree, you’ve got the credential that’s going to allow you to earn a better living.
Will Wilkinson: But the jobs are in the city, and the city sounds great. It’s full of sights and sounds and all sorts of different people and art galleries and orchestras and there’s a Chinatown and there’s great sushi. And my friend says Peruvian food is great. I’ve never had Peruvian food. What’s that like? So you’re going to get excited about going to the city with your college degree. And so you move to the city with your college degree.
Will Wilkinson: Now I’m putting this in kind of binary terms between people who are really low in openness to experience and people that are really high in openness to experience. Like I said, most people are somewhere in the middle. And I don’t intend to say anything about any specific individual. I’m not making any predictions about what any particular person does because everybody has different circumstances, and they can push you to do all sorts of different things. I know from my personal experience, as somebody who’s right up at the upper limit of openness to experience and right down there at the lower limit of conscientiousness, which is the other trait that more weakly predicts social liberalism and social conservatism. So I’m the maximally socially liberal personality type.
Will Wilkinson: I liked growing up in my small town, Marshalltown, Iowa. I really liked it there. One of the things I liked about it is that there was a really good theater program, and I was president of the thespian club. And there was pretty good art in the high school, and all I did was draw, and so I got an art scholarship. These are all very high openness things to do. I was a terrible student because I am low in conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is the trait that inclines you to get stuff done on time. I don’t have that trait. So I’ve never been a very good student, but I love learning. And so I lucked out and got an art scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa. And when I got to UNI being, it’s not like Cedar Falls, Iowa is any great shakes, but the university itself is a more cosmopolitan place than I’d spent any serious time.
Will Wilkinson: And within a year of being at the university, my horizons had expanded considerably. I saw all sorts of possibility for life that I hadn’t considered. I seriously thought I would go back to Marshalltown, but after a semester of college, just the small degree to which that opens up your mind, Marshalltown just disappeared into the past. I wanted to move to a city. I wanted to experience all these things that I was learning about. I wanted to see the world. And that’s more or less what happened, but it wasn’t inevitable by any means. I mean, I could have not gotten an art scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa. My parents might not have had money to send me to college, so I would have had to stay and work. My parents might have gotten sick. My mother was sick when I was in high school and died before I graduated.
Will Wilkinson: If someone in your family is ill and they need you to take care of them, no matter how bad you want to leave your small town, you might just end up staying. So there’s nothing about this stuff that says anything about any particular individual. The point is just that these tendencies, these small differences in individual people that make them slightly more or less likely to migrate, cityward, to migrate to the college town and get a degree, if you add that up, hundreds of millions of people making billions of choices, the aggregate effect of that is going to show a pattern. It’s going to show a pattern that reflects these individual differences. So over time after millions of choices, cities are going to end up with a lot more high openness people. And that is the pattern that we see. If we combine the fact that low openness, and to a lesser extent, high conscientiousness, predict Republican Party affiliation with the fact that the partisan density divide does exist, then we can safely infer that white Americans are geographically sorted on these personality traits.
Will Wilkinson: This conclusion is pretty well supported by a field called geographical psychology. There’s a lot of really super cool stuff in here. Here’s actually a weird aside, I don’t know, but I vaguely suspect that I may indirectly have something to do with the development of geographical psychology. So here’s my story. In I think maybe 2006 or ’07, I was working at the Cato Institute, and I was the editor of Cato Unbound, a little web magazine that we had. And for one issue, we had an essay by Richard Florida, the noted urbanist, most famous for The Rise of the Creative Class. And I had edited Richard’s piece for Cato Unbound. It had needed a little bit of work, and so I patched it up. Richard is one of those just hyper-productive people. And one of the things about hyper-productive people is that they just are not perfectionists. They will iterate. They will delegate.
Will Wilkinson: And Richard sent his essay, and it was a little bit rough. He felt like he dashed it off. It was something he said he’d do. He did it. And so I cleaned it up a bit to just make it read a little more smoothly and cleanly than the initial draft did. I was worried that he was going to get mad at me for having a relatively heavy editorial hand. But on the contrary, he was delighted with the way his essay came out. And shortly afterward, he said, “Hey, hey, I’m working on a new book, and I wondered if you’d read it and make a bunch of suggestions and edits. I loved the way this came out and I would love to have your help on this book and I’ll pay you.”
Will Wilkinson: I thought, well, that sounds pretty cool. So I read his manuscript. The book is called Who’s Your City? It’s a book about how to pick a city to live in that fits you. And while I was reading it, I started thinking about the big five theory of personality. And I was wondering, hey, I wonder if there are certain places where certain personality types are more predominant, so that if you took a personality test and you are super high agreeableness or low neuroticism or whatever, that you’ll be a good fit? And so I just had that idea and I mentioned it to Richard. I was like, “That’d be kind of cool if there was any evidence or any research on the distribution of personality types around the country, in different cities. That would be a cool way to help match people up with a place that suits them.”
Will Wilkinson: And he took that to heart and he searched out somebody who was doing work like that, or at least, or at least similar to that, a guy named Jason Rentfrow at Cambridge in the UK. And I believe he commissioned some work from Rentfrow that he didn’t include in the book. That’s all I knew about it. When I came back to this issue, when I started writing this paper, I came across a bunch of stuff that Jason Rentfrow had done, which I had kept up with over the years. But I kept digging deeper. I was trying to find more stuff on the relationship between personality and residential choice. And whenever I was looking through a lot of this literature, the citations kept pointing back to Who’s Your City? by Richard, Florida as one of the seminal texts in geographic psychology.
Will Wilkinson: And I was like, “Wait a second. Was this my idea?” Anyway, I think it was really weird. Because I was looking for research that turned out to be related to an idea I’d had more than a decade ago. I thought that was kind of cool. Anyway, that’s quite an aside. And now that I’ve said it, it sort of sounds like I’m trying to take credit for the advent of a whole field of research, but I am not. I am not claiming to be a pioneer of geographic psychology because I had a vague idea about how cool it was to put a personality test in a book about how to choose where to live. But it really is just a sort of random … But it really is just a sort of random confluence of events that underscores the fact that I’ve been really interested in this stuff for a long time.
Will Wilkinson: Now, this research in geographic psychology is very cool. If you give people in various states in the United States a big five personality survey, you will find that there are interesting relationships between personality type and state. Like they’re not all the same. There are differences in the kind of average personality in different states in the United States. In particular, you do see that the highest population, most urbanized states have by far the highest openness populations. And it’s not just because there’s self-selection of Americans into big cities, but big cities are also hubs for international migration, and international migrants are even more likely to be higher openness. That is a much bigger jump.
Will Wilkinson: If you’re going to find your way to the United States from India, say, you have to be a very adventurous person who is totally okay with moving to a completely foreign place and starting a new life among people who you don’t already understand. So you should expect that immigrant populations from abroad are going to be relatively high openness, and that’s going to affect the overall composition of states that are big gateway cities for international immigration.
Will Wilkinson: Now, if you look at state-based personality measures, you do find that they predict pretty well presidential vote, at least in the, I think, 2008, 2012 elections, which were the last that I could find research on. So states that are higher in openness are more likely to support Democratic candidates. States that are lower are more likely to support Republican candidates. That’s exactly the sort of thing that we’re looking for to back up the density divide thesis. At a finer grain you see the relationship. There haven’t been studies of this, I think, yet in the United States, but Rentfrow in the UK has done studies of London that show the distribution of personality attributes throughout the London Metro.
Will Wilkinson: And if you take the visualization of the concentration of higher and lower openness people in London, and set it next to the population density map for London, they look pretty similar. They’re almost the same map. The densest parts of London have the highest concentration of people who are high in openness to experience. And that drifts off, that fades off as density goes down. So if there’s a relationship between higher and lower openness and our political views, our attitudes and beliefs about social issues in particular, then you ought to see that reflected in electoral maps. And do you do. If you set the Brexit vote map next to the openness map and the population density map, again, you get almost exactly the same pattern. So the highest density parts of London have the highest concentration of people who are high in openness to experience. And those are the places where no Brexit had the highest vote share, and the Brexit vote share increases, pro-Brexit increases as both openness to experience declines and population density declines. So that’s super cool, and I would expect that you’d see something similar in the US.
Will Wilkinson: Now of course, someone somewhere is having the thought, well, are you higher openness to experience because you moved to the dense part of a city or do you move to the dense part of the city because you’re higher in openness to experience? That is to say, is the personality trait affected by the residential choice or vice versa. And in all of these things, it’s always a little bit of both. But one of the important things to keep in mind with the personality stuff is that it is flexible to a certain degree, but it’s fixed to a certain degree. So the heritability of the personality traits is fairly high. Openness is the most heritable. It’s just slightly less heritable than IQ or general intelligence. Heritability is a measure of the extent to which differences between people in a trait can be explained by differences in genes. So intelligence is about … It’s heritability is about 0.7, I think, depending on the study, which says that about 70% of the variation in intelligence in the population is explained by genetic differences. The other 30% of the variation is explained by other stuff, environment, diet, what have you.
Will Wilkinson: I think if I recall correctly, that openness is about 0.6. That means 60% of the differences between people and openness are a reflection of genetic differences, which means that there’s still quite a big margin for environmental effects. So for instance, it’s pretty clear from various studies that going to college increases your openness to experience. Traveling when you’re a young adult increases your openness to experience. Now, it’s interesting that those things like going to college, traveling widely to foreign locales, those are things that you’re more likely to do if you’re higher openness in the first place. So if you’re higher openness, you’re more likely to go to college, your more likely to take a big trip abroad, and then that makes you even higher openness. If you’re lower openness, you’re less likely to do either of those things. So you’re less likely to have that trait shift in you due to those experiences.
Will Wilkinson: But if you are lower openness and you go to college, you will end up being higher openness afterwards. You might still be on the low end of the scale, but you’ll be higher than you would have been otherwise. And same with travel and a couple of other things. Now, I don’t doubt that moving to a city, especially if you aren’t from one already, would increase your openness to experience. I bet it does. I actually looked for studies on that and didn’t find anything. But I would put a pretty big bet on the proposition that moving to a bigger, diverse place that offers a wider array of experiences, makes a bunch of different kinds of people and cultures available, would tend to have an effect on openness to experience.
Will Wilkinson: So not all of it is a selection effect, but I do think the selection effects outweigh the treatment effects here, largely because as I just mentioned, you’re more likely to get the treatment effect. You’re more likely to undertake an activity or experience that increases your openness if you’re already relatively high openness. So you can see how that kind of dynamic can be an engine for polarization. These differences in personality can lead people to sort geographically, to segregate spatially. And once they do that, the choice that they make can have an amplifying effect on the traits that led them to make that choice in the first place. So those populations get even further apart on some of the dispositions and attributes that predict their political attitudes.
Will Wilkinson: Now, if you think about it, that that isn’t that strange. There are lots of things like that. If you’re slightly more athletic than everybody else at your age, you’re more likely to enjoy athletic activities because you could be better at them. And because you’re better at them, you’ll stick with it and you’ll get even better still. You’ll be recruited for good team and you’ll get special coaching and you’ll get even better still. And so the small initial difference between you and everybody else becomes amplified over time. But the thing that sets that whole series of events in motion is the initial difference.
Will Wilkinson: I think this is an interesting general feature of the world that’s a little bit overlooked. As whole cultures get wealthier and people just have more opportunities, they have more resources to do what they want to do and develop the capacities that they enjoy exercising, that will tend to amplify smaller initial inequalities. A small musical difference can lead one person to become a professional violinist while the other person can carry a tune, but doesn’t know how to play an instrument. That’s a big difference. The initial difference is small, but it sets in motion a series of experiences that leads to a big difference.
Will Wilkinson: Now, if you wanted to explain the difference between the professional violinist sister and her musically competent but completely inept on an instrument brother, you would say that most of the difference is because of the fact that she practiced for years and years and years and years to become better at the violin. But the reason she practiced for years and years and years to become better at the violin was that she was slightly better at things like the violin from the start. Now, that kind of example is pretty innocuous, but it’s not so innocuous when the differences that are getting amplified leads to widening differences in political attitudes that can make large groups of people increasingly hostile to one another over time.
Will Wilkinson: Okay, now I haven’t said that much about the other trait that correlates with political attitudes, conscientiousness, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. The most important is one, that the correlation between these attitudes and conscientiousness isn’t as strong as it is with openness. It’s still significant. It shows up again and again in the studies as a statistically significant correlation, but conscientiousness doesn’t have all of these other correlations that really drive the story that I’m telling forward. So there is no real relationship between conscientiousness and your propensity to migrate, for instance, so differences in conscientiousness aren’t going to explain why some people are leavers and some people are stayers.
Will Wilkinson: Conscientiousness is kind of just like an effectiveness trait. So if you are inclined to do something or not do something for some other reason, being high in conscientiousness is going to make you more likely to follow through on those inclinations. So for example, if you are super high in openness and you live in a small town and you just dream of having wild adventures in the big city, but you’re super low in conscientiousness, and this is me, super high on openness, super low in conscientiousness, if you’re super low in conscientiousness, you just might not get your act together. You’re not going to be so good at planning, and you’re not going to be so good at figuring out all the steps that you have to do. You might forget to put a deposit on the rental truck, whatever.
Will Wilkinson: So if you’re low conscientiousness, you are less likely to do the things that your high openness makes you want to do. And that might include something like going to college. You may be super curious. You might be incredibly motivated to learn about a wide array of topics. You might even be really smart and have some real ability to do intellectual and academic work, but you never got around to taking the SAT because you forgot to get up in time, and so you don’t go to college. It’s that kind of thing. And it’s the reverse in the other direction. If you’re high in conscientiousness, it’s just going to kind of lock in whatever you want to do. So if you-
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:30:04]
Will Wilkinson: It’s just going to kind of lock-in whatever you want to do. If you really are determined to stay with your friends and your family in the community that you’ve always known and love and are invested in, if you’re high conscientiousness, you’re going to do all of the things that route you even further in that place. If you’re low conscientiousness, you might end up screwing something up and having to move elsewhere for some reason or other, like you get evicted from your house or commit a crime and you have to go to jail. It’s not great to be low conscientiousness. It’s bad. It’s bad for you.
Will Wilkinson: Also, conscientiousness doesn’t have the same kind of relationship to ethnocentrism or a strong taste for homophily. The conservatism of conscientiousness is about means and clarity, high conscientiousness people like a lot of certainty about the relationship of inputs and outputs.
Will Wilkinson: “If I do this, I’ll get that.” That makes you conservative in a different kind of way. You don’t like things to be an improvisational, free for all. That makes you a little bit uncomfortable. You like things to be structured. You like to know what to expect so that you can deal with things successfully and systematically as a low conscientious person, I am very jealous of high conscientious people. It seems like a superpower to me to just want to do something and then not only be able to do it, but sort of be unable not to do it, to experience a lot of anxiety. If you feel like you are not absolutely certain that you will be able to get your term paper done on time, so you have to start now. You won’t be able to enjoy doing something else because what if something comes up and I won’t have time to finish it. I have to finish it so that’s why I’ve got to start now.
Will Wilkinson: You start now, weeks in advance of when it’s due and you finished it a week before it’s due and you are not stressing. Now, this disposition leads to a sense of self-efficacy. A sense that people can just get shit done if they try. High conscientious people are the kind of people who are likely to think that somebody is lazy if they weren’t able to succeed, because what was so hard about it? You just have to try. You just have to gut it out. Just have to start on time, work systematically and sooner or later you’ll achieve your goal. This tends to engender a kind of ethos of individual initiative, individual responsibility, and a kind of annoyance at structural explanations for why somebody couldn’t get something done. Anyway, because I see conscientiousness as a kind of amplifying trait.
Will Wilkinson: It seems secondary to me. Conscientiousness isn’t in the driver’s seat. It’s a process disposition. It’s not telling you what to want. It’s telling you how to get what you want. That makes conscientiousness a great trait to have. It’s what makes you good at school. It’s what makes you good at your job. People who are high in conscientiousness get better grades. They’re more likely to get promotions. They’re more likely to get raises. I really, really wish that I had it. Conscientiousness doesn’t make you want to go to school. High openness makes you want to go to school. Conscientiousness is just what gets you to turn everything in on time, gets you to check all the boxes and meet all the requirements. That’s a perfect place to shift to the third of our magnetizing attributes. I went on a little too long about personality because that is just an enduring fascination of mine.
Will Wilkinson: I can talk about it for many hours, but we need to move on if we’re going to get to the end of this before I make this like a five-hour monologue, which, who on Earth would listen to that. Okay. Education. Now, I’ve already said a number of things about education, about how higher openness people are more inclined to seek education, how they’re more inclined to want to move other places. They’re more likely to want to move away from home and go to college. I want to focus here on another one of the kind of big picture dynamics that have been kind of shaping the economic, cultural and political landscape of our country. I’ve mentioned several times now that the economy, economic production, is increasingly concentrated in urban areas. For decades before the 1980s, living standards in poorer areas were catching up with wealthy areas.
Will Wilkinson: They were converging, but that catch-up growth stalled in the early 80s, toward the beginning of the Reagan administration, right when growth in employment and economic output shifted away from manufacturing, further away from agriculture and toward services and knowledge work that was based in new computer technology, new information, technology, communication technology. Since that point, since the early 80s, the gaps in regional productivity, in regional living standards, and also in the ability of local economies to bounce back from economic downturns, from bouts of unemployment. Those gaps have been widening year after year. The economist Enrico Moretti at Berkeley calls this the great divergence. We’ve got part of the country is just getting richer and richer. The other part of the country is stagnating or getting even poor. The core of the problem is that “good jobs” were really widely distributed geographically before, but good jobs gradually became concentrated in the best educated cities through a kind of positive feedback loop.
Will Wilkinson: You can check out the paper if you wanted the fuller story about the great divergence. The important thing really is just that it’s been happening. The economy’s become more and more concentrated in big cities and smaller, less dense, wider places have been economically stagnating. You can see that in all sorts of statistics. In public health statistics, what Deaton and Case called, deaths of despair, drug overdoses from opioids, suicides. There is, in fact, declining life expectancy among white people who live in lower density areas of the country. Things are objectively bad in material terms. Meanwhile, things are increasingly good in big cities, bracketing all of this pandemic tragedy, over the long run, big cities keep getting richer and richer. They keep attracting more and more of our best educated workers. The productivity of an area is largely a function of the education of the workforce.
Will Wilkinson: As those big cities suck up all the best educated, skilled workers, they get richer and richer and richer. The rest of the country becomes relatively less educated. Their economies become relatively less productive and they start falling behind. Now, as I said before, I don’t think this is an economic anxiety story. I think it is a story about the white people who live in lower density areas becoming progressively more homogenous in terms of openness to experience, in terms of the traits that predict socially conservative, ideological views, that predict Republican party affiliation. As the wage bonus to urbanization and education go up, the magnetism of the city goes up and over time, you would expect that to mean that the people who have not urbanized are among the least magnetic people in the population. In our terms here, that means they’re the most dispositionally conservative and the most ethnocentric.
Will Wilkinson: The more time you give that, the more thorough the filtering ought to be, the fewer sort of anomalous cases of high openness people who are there to take care of their parents. Those start dissipating over time as the larger force starts to predominate over idiosyncratic circumstances. That is a large part of the story. We have an increasingly homogenous, increasingly conservative, increasingly ethnocentric, lower density, white population. That population has been experiencing declining economic fortunes. These are people who don’t really care for change, and they feel like things are changing for the worst because they are in fact on the whole, doing worse. These diffuse forces that are causing the economy to become more concentrated in cities, the way that economic productivity relates to higher education and the way education relates to technology to produce higher levels of productivity. Those aren’t something that just anybody understands.
Will Wilkinson: It’s abstract and mysterious. If things are going poorly for you, you want to know why. Now, this is a group of people who is wary of difference. It’s a group of people that dislikes diversity. As I mentioned earlier, a condition of stagnation puts you on a kind of war footing. You feel like things are getting worse for you because somebody is taking something from you. You see the big cities getting richer and richer and you see your community struggling. It just makes sense to think that somehow they’re stealing what’s yours. These are the places where Democrats live. They’re the places where all the black people live, where all the Hispanic people live, where all the immigrants live. You’re suspicious. It feels like they’re screwing you over somehow. Obviously, that’s going to put you in a position where you’re going to be receptive when somebody comes along and affirms as strongly as it’s possible to affirm, that those people, people are in fact, screwing you over.
Will Wilkinson: That if you allow them to be in charge. If you allow them to have power, then your world is over. They’re going to destroy it. You have to fight back. That’s the core of the why Trump explanation. The increasing temperamental uniformity of America’s economically struggling, lower density, white population, helped to unify it around a shared sense of identity, interests, and urgency, making it much easier to organize politically. It’s really something. That white identity populism finally turned out to be a winner in the GOP primary and the general election, after decades of overall improvement in race relations. Barack Obama’s presidency was an example of that progress, but it sparked a realigning ethnocentric reaction to it. This is a crazy fact that I haven’t gotten into, but you can’t underestimate how little information and knowledge typical voters have. The realignment of white working class voters away from the Democratic party, where their relationship had something to do with their historical connection to unions, to the Republican party, had a lot to do with the simple fact that Barack Obama was black.
Will Wilkinson: That seems crazy, but that sent a signal that people weren’t getting before, because all of the candidates, all of the presidents were white. Just run of the mill working class white folks weren’t totally clear about which was the party of black people and civil rights, in which party was the party for white people. Barack Obama made that abundantly clear, and it created this pretty big realignment that created a much more cohesive coalition for a populist demagogue to come along and organize. Trump was able to consolidate and activate this more coherent homogenous group of low density white voters, by recasting the very real economically and culturally polarized pattern of the great divergence of these diverging regional economic prospects into a scapegoating, populist narrative that sees cities as a cancer, sapping, lower density, real America of its vital essences, of its economic prosperity of its demographic centrality and cultural power.
Will Wilkinson: That story is so deeply compelling. It hits you in the gut because it combines a kernel of truth. Dense diversity really is outcompeting sparse uniformity. It can combine that kernel of truth with a gross distortion of reality that taps directly into zero sum mindset, into those ethnocentric dispositions, that have been primed by the lower density population’s sense of declining status and material security. Now, this wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if we elected presidents by the popular vote. Trump never had majority support. He lost by nearly three million in 2016. Once they were finally finished tallying the votes this year, his popular vote loss is going to be something like six, seven million or something like that. It’s a big loss. Trump and the Trump-ist GOP, which is very much still with us, it’s contesting the election, is trying to overturn Biden’s election to the presidency.
Will Wilkinson: That Republican party is possible only because all of these cleavages map on to defects in the structure of our electoral system and our constitutional system. The founding fathers did not anticipate the level of urbanization that we’ve achieved. They, as I think I mentioned, New York City at the time had about 30,000 people. A world in which you could have cities that had 10 million people in them, I think would have been mind boggling. It would have been impossible to conceive. They did not plan for a system in which the population was so concentrated in a few places. The constitution obviously reflects the compromises that got Southern slave states on board. The three-fifths compromise that treated enslaved people as three-fifths of a free person for the purposes of representation. The way the Senate is structured, the way the electoral college is structured, it all reflects that.
Will Wilkinson: There’s a strong, low density bias in the American political system, and that creates big problems. If a huge majority of the population is concentrated in a handful of very large cities in just a few states, you get a system where the numerical minority of citizens can dominate over the vast majority. We’ve got a situation in which the parts of the country that produce 70% of the nation’s economic output, can be politically dominated by the rest of the country, which has many fewer people and produces only 30% of the output. That is just an unstable situation, and it’s not just that the GOP relies on the low density, low population bias, built into the constitution to win elections. That is not enough. In order to win elections, they have to selectively disenfranchise voters. They have to close polling places, implement voter ID laws, just do absolutely everything they can think of to make sure that the superior numbers of the Democratic party don’t translate into political power.
Will Wilkinson: Now, we’re seeing the kind of end game of that currently, in which the institutional establishment GOP is denying that the clear winner of the election, won the election. Denying that the states that have certified the election for Biden, did so legally. They’re trying to take it to the Supreme Court. All these attorney generals, all these republican house members have signed an amicus brief, basically just asking the Supreme court to overturn the election because they didn’t get the result that they wanted. There’s all sorts of crazy conspiracy theorizing going on. I think a lot of rank and file Republican voters who just believe the things that their political leaders tell them, really do believe that the election was rigged and that Biden stole it.
Will Wilkinson: I don’t believe these attorney generals or these members of the House of Representatives really think that the election was rigged. I think that they’re mirroring the view that Trump has assiduously cultivated among the Republican base, that the Democratic base is not really American. That they are in some sense, imposter Americans, that their values make them kind of heretics against the American way, and that we can’t afford to allow them to have political power and that their votes are not really legitimate and ought not to count. It’s not that they don’t have more votes. It’s just that they shouldn’t have been able to vote in the first place. That is the underlying sentiment, I think, that is at work here. That sentiment has been made plausible by these forces that have divided our population along the lines that I’ve been exploring here.
Will Wilkinson: How do we fix it? I honestly don’t know if we can fix it. I did have some hope that Democrats would more decisively win the Senate. They still could win in the Georgia runoffs, but I think like a lot of people, I thought they would squeak by with a real Senate majority, and that would have made a bunch of electoral reform possible, that would’ve torn down Republican gerrymanders, that would’ve knocked down a bunch of their anti majoritarian, disenfranchisement tactics. That would have made it very, very difficult for the Republican party to win, even with their low density, low population advantage built into the constitution. That would force the Republican party to become a more moderate party, more moderate in the sense that it would have to expand its coalition. It would have to become friendlier to nonwhite voters.
Will Wilkinson: It would have to try to push deeper into the suburbs. It would have to move the line back toward the city to get reliable, durable majorities. It would have to be friendlier to women. It would have to be more attractive to college educated voters, but that sort of decisive defeat just didn’t materialize. Clearly, the GOP right now is just doubling down on its very, very worse, just virulently, anti-democratic instincts. We are living in a dangerous time. If you have half the Republicans in the house going straight to the Supreme Court and asking it to just knock down election results for literally no reason other than just shit they made up. It all just comes down to is we don’t like it. We don’t think these people should be allowed to win. They’re just going to mommy and saying, “It’s not fair. They shouldn’t get to win.”
Will Wilkinson: So we win. That Republican party is clearly going to have very little appetite for any form of electoral reform that whittles away at their advantages. They think that’ll win elections even when they don’t win elections, so they’re definitely not going to pass legislation that makes it harder for them to win elections. That means that I just really don’t know what to do. I really suspect that the system might have to break in some way for it to change. We are in a bit of a pickle, I’m afraid. I honestly don’t know what to do about it. I have lots of ideas about what you could do if it was possible to do anything, but that’s the issue. The political system is so broken that you can hardly do anything through the political system to fix the political system.
Will Wilkinson: I think as extremely lazy journalists like to say, “Only time will tell.” Speaking of time, I’ve taken a huge amount of time with my free form jazz odyssey. I’d meant to take up a few things that I haven’t taken up, like the shift in Hispanic vote share, things like that. The shift in college educated voters that swung suburbs to Biden, but those things are really pretty marginal. They’re tangential, relative to the larger phenomenon of polarization on population density. I think it gave a fairly complete sketch of my paper. There is much, much, much more that is in it. I encourage you strongly to check it out on the Niskanen Center website, The Density Divide, Urbanization, Polarization, and Populist Backlash. I will link in the show notes to the audio version of the paper that you can listen to, if you please. I’ll throw links to books that I mentioned in there as well. For those of you who asked for something like this, I hope this scratches your itch, but if you have any questions, please feel free to drop me a line. Be well, and don’t go home for Christmas. See you.
Will Wilkinson: Model Citizen is brought to you by the Niskanen Center. To learn more about the Niskanen Center, visit Niskanencenter.org. That’s N-I-S-K-A-N-E-N Center.org. To support this podcast or any of our programs go to Niskanencenter.org/donate.
PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:57:52]