The Barbell Nation

There is growing data suggesting the political parties are stratifying along suburban-urban, white-ethnic, working class-more affluent, and low density population-high density population spectra.

At the Congressional district level, this barbell effect is quite clear.  After the 2014 Congressional elections, the Congress bulged on two ends of the spectra.

Diversity & Education Levels and Party

Figure 1 shows the high correlation between education levels, level of minorities, and party alignment.

Figure 1: Polarizing Representation (Source: The Atlantic Magazine.)

Population Density and Party

Figure 2 compares two time periods’ correlations of population density and party affiliation.  In 1952, population density did not correlate with party preference.  By 2012, population density (i.e., urban vs. suburban or exurban) strongly correlated with party preference.

Figure 2: Population Density and Party Preference, 1952 vs. 2012. (Source: New York Times).

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

The greatest racial and ethnic diversity exists on the coasts (see Figure 3) and, for the most part, in urban or high population density areas.

Figure 3.  Diversity rates (Source: Wall Street Journal).

But the rate of change is greatest in heretofore non-diverse areas of the country – upstate New York, and the upper Great Plains (see Figure 4).


Figure 4: Rate of Change in Diversity Levels (Source: Wall Street Journal).

Change is scary.  Populations undergoing multiple changes simultaneously have a lot to be scared about; but they may also misattribute the actual from perceived sources of their fear.  I recommend this New York Times piece on White identity’s role in this election, quoted here in part:

Identity, as academics define it, falls into two broad categories: “achieved” identity derived from personal effort, and “ascribed” identity based on innate characteristics.

Everyone has both, but people tend to be most attached to their “best” identity — the one that offers the most social status or privileges. Successful professionals, for example, often define their identities primarily through their careers.

For generations, working-class whites were doubly blessed: They enjoyed privileged status based on race, as well as the fruits of broad economic growth.

White people’s officially privileged status waned over the latter half of the 20th century with the demise of discriminatory practices in, say, university admissions. But rising wages, an expanding social safety net and new educational opportunities helped offset that. Most white adults were wealthier and more successful than their parents, and confident that their children would do better still.

That feeling of success may have provided a sort of identity in itself.

But as Western manufacturing and industry have declined, taking many working-class towns with them, parents and grandparents have found that the opportunities they once had are unavailable to the next generation.

That creates an identity vacuum to be filled.

“For someone who is lower income or lower class,” Professor Kaufmann explained, “you’re going to get more self-esteem out of a communal identity such as ethnicity or the nation than you would out of any sort of achieved identity.”

Focusing on lost identities rather than lost livelihoods helps answer one of the most puzzling questions about the link between economic stress and the rise of nationalist politics: why it is flowing from the middle and working classes, and not the very poor.

While globalization and free trade have widened economic inequality and deeply wounded many working-class communities, data suggests that this year’s political turmoil is not merely a backlash to that real pain.