Big Sort

What Are The Politics Here? You Can Tell By Lookin’

On a call-in radio show in Minneapolis in midsummer, I talked about how people had sorted themselves into politically like-minded communities. Within an hour, three people came up with the same clue that told them they were living in a neighborhood where they didn’t belong politically.

They noticed their neighbors used lawn chemicals.

OK, it was a public-radio show, so the callers were of the non-Roundup persuasion. But what struck me was the way people understood their political surroundings. Analysts talk about demographics. Voters, however, know that the way to tell the political makeup of a neighborhood has nothing to do with age, sex, income, or education. Much more telling is what people fling on their yards.

(Oh, one of the three callers was African-American. She said she also knew she didn’t fit in when she noticed that there were no other black folks in the neighborhood. But her No. 1 clue was the chemicals.)

When Bob Cushing and I first proposed in The Big Sort that people were moving to be around others like themselves and that this process was gradually segregating the country politically, there was a certain amount of scoffing. How in the world could people know the political makeup of a neighborhood before they lived there? Were we saying that people were looking up precinct voting records before signing the mortgage papers?

In the intervening years I’ve learned that quite a few people do look up voting records. But most of us are pretty good at scoping out a neighborhood, reading the entrails of architecture, hairstyle, and signage that tell us a place is safe for our kind of people. It’s a kind of cultural literacy that most of us practice without thinking.

How difficult is it to know the political leanings of a place? It’s not hard at all, and to prove it, here’s a little test. Below are 10 photos. Can you match these pictures with these places and their votes in 2004? (OK, it might be hard to get the right place with the right photo, but I bet you don’t mix up the politics.)  The answers are below.

[ A ]

[ B ]

[ C ]

[ D ]

[ E ]

[ F ]

[ G ]

[ H ]

[ I ]

[ J ]

[ K ]


A. My neighborhood, Austin, Texas; 80 percent Democratic.
B. Edina, Minn.; voted Democratic for the first time in 2004.
C.  Fayette County, East Texas; 73 percent Republican.
D. Lewiston, Idaho (Nez Perce County); 63 percent Republican.
E. Portland, Ore. (Multnomah County); 73 percent Democratic.
F.  Scott County, Minn.(suburban Minneapolis) 60 percent Republican.
G. My neighborhood, Austin, Texas; 80 percent Democratic.
H. Harlan County, Kentucky ; 61 percent Republican.
I.  Texas Hill Country; 78 percent Republican.
J. My neighborhood, Austin, Texas (and one block from where Molly Ivins lived); 80 percent Democratic.
K. Austin, Texas (Travis County); 57 percent Democratic.