Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Least Tolerant: Educated White Liberals

New research shows least politically tolerant counties in America are in and around Boston. It's a trend

Everybody, sorry I’ve been out of touch all day. I had to go out of town unexpectedly today, and have been away from the keys. One of the nice things about this blog is when I don’t post when people think I should, folks start writing to ask if I’m okay. Some good news: in February, this here blog received over one million unique visitors — the twelfth month in a row we’ve done this. Overall, TAC had another great month as well. Thank you!

Here’s a fascinating story from The Atlantic: a map of American political prejudice. Guess where researchers found that the most politically prejudiced people live, and who they are? Read on:

In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. (In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives, as Mutz describes in her book Hearing the Other Side.) By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.

We see this dynamic in the heat map. In some parts of the country, including swaths of North Carolina and upstate New York, people still seem to give their fellow Americans the benefit of the doubt, even when they disagree. In other places, including much of Massachusetts and Florida, people appear to have far less tolerance for political difference. They may be quicker to assume the worst about their political counterparts, on average.

White, highly educated people are the most politically intolerant in the entire country. These are the people who congregate in Boston, New York, and Washington. I would love to see the demographic breakdown of who the decision-makers in major-media newsrooms are, as well as in other US institutions. We know from other demographic data that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to be liberal.

Look at this finding: “the most politically intolerant county in America appears to be Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes the city of Boston.” Here’s a map of Suffolk County:

Cambridge, home of Harvard University, is in neighboring Middlesex County. According to the researchers, it is equally as prejudiced as Suffolk County. So the most elite university in America is also located in the county that is most prejudiced — in this case, against Republicans.

How about that? Mercer County, NJ (home of Princeton) and New Haven County, CT (home of Yale), are also “considerably more prejudiced” against Republicans than most other counties in the US.

Note well: it is also the case that Republicans who live in these same counties are highly prejudiced against Democrats. But they are small minorities in those places.

If you are an educated liberal in a major US city like Boston, New York, Washington, and Philadelphia, you are unlikely to know and deal with Republicans. The cultural and political establishments in those cities are quite liberal. Interestingly, the partisan polarization in other cities is equally strong. In Dallas, Houston, and Austin, both sides are strongly prejudiced against the other; the establishments in all three cities, though, are Democratic. Most people outside Texas don’t realize that. Note too that the entire state of Florida scores strongly on the polarization scale. I found it fascinating that except for the heavily populated counties around NYC, the State of New York is pretty much the least politically polarized state in the US.

More from the article:

As politics have become more about identity than policy, partisan leanings have become more about how we grew up and where we feel like we belong. Politics are acting more like religion, in other words.

This is partly because partisan identities have begun to line up with other identities, as Lilliana Mason describes in her book, Uncivil Agreement. Making assumptions about people’s politics based on their race or religiosity is easier than it was in the past. Black people get typed as Democrats; people who go to church on Sunday are assumed to be Republicans. (But as always, stereotypes still mask complexity: about half of black Americans go to church at least once a week, for example, a far higher rate than that of white Americans.)

In other words, partisan prejudice now includes a bunch of other prejudices, all wrapped up into one tangled mess. “Americans are really divided, but not in terms of policy; they’re divided in terms of identity,” Mason says. “And the more identities come into play, the more salient they are, the harder it will be to agree, even if policy positions shift.” Politics are becoming a proxy battle for other deep divisions that have almost nothing to do with environmental regulation or tax policies. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Read the whole thing.  It’s worthwhile, though nothing about it is encouraging.  What stood out the most to me, though, is that the people who are in charge of the media, and our cultural institutions, and the ones who bang on the most about “diversity,” are pretty much extremely intolerant, monocultural white liberals. Whatever else you might say about him, Trump has these people figured out.

UPDATE: Wow, wow, wow. You’ve got to read the companion piece about Watertown, NY, judged by the Atlantic’s researchers as the most politically tolerant county in America. Trump won it by 20 percent, but that’s not why it’s the most tolerant. Excerpt:

As is the case anywhere else in the world, demonization eventually bends toward violence. Already, nearly 20 percent of Democrats and Republicans say that many members of the other side “lack the traits to be considered fully human,” according to a 2017 survey by the political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason. Even more chilling: About 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats agree that the country would be “better off if large numbers of opposing partisans in the public today ‘just died.’”

I cannot imagine thinking this! But a lot of people do. More:

The most politically prejudiced people in America right now don’t seem to be the most vulnerable ones. The PredictWise analysis showed that the most judgmental partisans tend to be white, urban, older, highly educated, politically engaged, and politically segregated. And the inverse is also true, which explains why the Watertown area stands out. It’s a very white place, but it’s also fairly young, largely suburban and rural, and not particularly highly educated.

The story about Watertown is really interesting, especially for the light it sheds on how social media ramps up division. Watertown is not perfect, though. I laughed out loud at this quote from an angry conservative woman who laid into her liberal pastor.

When I spoke with Walker, now 91, she remembered the incident well. “I said to him, ‘I am not going to church and having you preach to me what’s right and wrong,’” she told me.

Um, Mrs. Walker, you’re missing the point of church. Anyway, please read the whole story, especially to the end. It involves Mrs. Walker, and it’s a punch in the gut.

UPDATE.2: Reader Mr. “Hate Crime” comments:

When I first saw this post here, I waited to comment because I wanted to make a thoughtful response. If only some of the others here would have done the same thing…

All that being said, I like to think that I have an unusual perspective: I grew up poor in West Texas and I live in a (used to be, now not as much) very red Houston suburb now and work in the energy industry, but I also have an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a graduate degree from another Boston institution, and I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life living in Boston and New York. And I’m no longer poor, either.

I’ve seen both sides of this debate and I count as friends and family people who are both red and blue in their politics. This is what I observe:

1) First and foremost, it’s mostly a class thing and it more or less goes back to the Civil War. The liberals (urbans) think they are entitled to make judgments, the conservatives (rurals) resent being judged. And there is a sliver of truth to both sides’ positions.

2) There is animosity and polarization on both sides, but my personal experience says that most of the organic disdain comes from educated liberals, as noted in the article. Motives are impugned constantly. These people just know they have the magic answers for society and the only reason anyone would disagree with them is because they are stupid bigots. And the liberal disdain is even more severe in liberal enclaves like Harris County and Travis County for the obvious reason that those liberals interact with “rednecks” every day and are confronted with their own obvious superiority over their neighbors. A great example of this disdain is the premise of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” The liberals want to evangelize and the conservatives don’t want to be converted and the liberals get offended in response.

3a) Much of the animosity that comes from the conservatives is reactionary. They just want to be left alone. This is where I find common cause with them and is why I have always personally identified as a libertarian (I voted for Gary Johnson in 2016), or even drifting toward what is now being referred to as “alt-right” as a response to the aggressiveness of the liberal agenda. Leaving aside sexual matters (including abortion), which I’ll touch on next, on practically any other political issue: regulations, taxes, welfare, voting laws, Second Amendment, speed limits, urban sprawl – rural conservatives don’t care how things are done in Massachusetts or Chicago, they just don’t want to be told how they have to do things in their own backyard.

3b) On sexual matters, I understand the complaint that “Mike Pence hates gay people and wants to control women’s bodies” but that is something of a strawman in the sense that many conservatives see those two issues as special cases of morality or religion rather than pure politics or “human rights” as liberals tend to do. Conservatives see those two issues as being intrinsically corrosive to society – more than “just politics”, hence their desire to want to regulate those issues more than others. Many liberals in turn take the special case of the sexual matters and use that as an excuse to dismiss all other political differences as bigotry or ignorance and then we’re back at point (1) about the evangelizing.

4) My personal opinion is that a lot of the polarization is caused by the liberals due to the very nature of their mission: to effect change and seek what they see as improvements in society. As I said, the conservatives are more reactionary and don’t want the changes that are often pushed on them. With experience in both camps, I can see both sides: sometimes changes are necessary but sometimes they are just provocations, too.

5) Finally, I do not deny that there is a significant element of racism and bigotry in conservative areas, but there is also a lot more integration and harmony as well. The kind of interactions between whites and blacks and hispanics of all classes that one sees in downtown Houston on a normal workday is non-existent in downtown Boston. The idea that the south is a hotbed of racism compared to the north is a comforting myth that liberals tell each other as justification for their evangelistic zeal.

UPDATE.3: Amanda Ripley, the article’s co-author, objects to the characterization of educated white liberals as the most intolerant Americans. Here’s how I arrived at that description.

She (and her colleagues) wrote:

In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves.

They also wrote:

Nationwide, if we disregard the smallest counties (which may be hard to pin down statistically, since they have fewer than 100,000 people), the most politically intolerant county in America appears to be Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes the city of Boston. In this part of the country, nine out of every 10 couples appear to share the same partisan leaning, according to the voter-file data. Eight out of every 10 neighborhoods are politically homogeneous. This means that people in Boston may have fewer “cross-cutting relationships,” as researchers put it. It is a very urban county with a relatively high education level. All these things tend to correlate with partisan prejudice.

The next-door county to Boston — the one with Cambridge — is equally intolerant, according to the map. In fact, the East Coast cities dominated by liberal Democrats, and where the most highly educated white people congregate, score very high on the intolerance scale. Plus, a Pew survey found that people with advanced degrees are far more liberal than those without.

This is how I drew that conclusion.

It is also true that the article says:

In general, Republicans seem to dislike Democrats more than Democrats dislike Republicans, PredictWise found. We don’t know why this is, but this is not the only study to have detected an imbalance.

I do not like to read that Americans dislike each other over their political party (as opposed to sensible reasons, such as supporting the Alabama Crimson Tide). But I find it meaningful and especially worrying that the least tolerant people in the country are educated white people who live in big cities. Which demographic group is most represented in the media and in other non-legislative institutions that run the country?