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Saturday, August 7, 2021

The Politics of Place

Federalist 57: "THE THIRD charge against the House of Representatives is, that it will be taken from that class of citizens which will have least sympathy with the mass of the people, and be most likely to aim at an ambitious sacrifice of the many to the aggrandizement of the few."

[Place] still matters a lot — more than you might think — in defining who many Americans are. In the average county weighted by population, according to a study from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, 55 percent of Facebook friends live within 50 miles of one another, even though only 1 percent of people live within 50 miles of one another. Childhood is defined by being in the places that your family chooses for you, and after high school you can finally pick your own place to live — yet one analysis found that college students on average move less than 15 miles from their childhood home. Another study found that the median distance that adults live from their mother is 18 miles.

Since places are their own communities with their own self-reinforcing worldviews, it stands to reason that, in our democracy, the people who represent those places should genuinely understand them. A democracy that allocates power by place is, or is supposed to be, an intimate democracy. Not all democracies are set up this way — countries like Israel and the Netherlands allocate power through national systems of proportional representation — but in the United States, our political leaders are meant to govern people with whom they share a lived experience anchored in a place.

Most Americans still realize how much their place shapes their lives and choices. However, for the most privileged Americans, the power of place, while very real, has become harder to see — because their places change more significantly and more frequently.

Those with professional or graduate degrees are nearly three times as likely as those without a high school degree to move across state lines in a given year, according to the American Community Survey and demographer Lyman Stone. These numbers are even more dramatic among the highest-status educational institutions: As of 2015, 85 percent of Harvard first-year students moved from outside Massachusetts. And those Americans more willing and able to move toward opportunity tend to concentrate in the most privileged neighborhoods in the most privileged metropolitan areas. In 2019, 9 percent of Washington’s population moved from outside D.C. The comparison here is admittedly imperfect, but in the congressional district where I’m from in the North Country, 3 percent of the population moved in from a different state or country.
One study in the journal Political Behavior found that in the 2005-06 congressional election cycle, about 5 percent of America’s Zip codes — concentrated in a few neighborhoods in a few metropolitan areas — were responsible for 77 percent of all individual contributions to congressional campaigns. And Anne Baker at Santa Clara University found that, from 2006 to 2012, the “average member of the House received just 11 percent of all campaign funds from donors inside the district.” The trend in this direction has been dramatic. In 1990, according to a study in Political Research Quarterly, out-of-district donors accounted for 42 percent of individual contributions to the median incumbent in the U.S. House. By 2010, that number was 72 percent. And candidates from both parties have a similar geographic distribution in their fundraising: Republicans also raise lots of money from New York City, and Democrats also raise lots of money from Houston.

There is an entire infrastructure that reflects — and then reinforces — the sense that place matters much less than it really does. Polling firms that produce results dominating our political system ask questions that matter enormously everywhere rather than those that only matter somewhere. They ask how people compare Joe Biden to Donald Trump, or what they want done about immigration, rather than what should be done about a locally significant employer that is departing.

Political elites campaigning for office internalize this lesson over their careers and speak the language of a post-place politics. They talk about red or blue and Trump or Biden. For their part, political editors at major outlets send reporters from far away to cover wide swaths of the country because they do not have reporters living there — and those reporters are more likely to cover these places through a national lens.