Notes from a former good ol’ boy

A correspondent writes:

I have some red state/blue state observations for you. I’m not sure quite what to make of them but they strike me as being worth sharing, particularly given that they fall in areas of common interest.

A friend of mine who lives in a small town in the south recently made some anti-GOP comments on an online forum and later ran into an acquaintance who told him that he very much agreed but he didn’t want to comment publicly because, being a small business owner, he didn’t want it known he was a liberal Democrat.

Here’s the kicker. The business owner was more or less openly gay. I’m sure he didn’t have a rainbow flag in his front yard but he was living with his partner and was in no sense in the closet. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, a gay Democrat in a small Southern town was more afraid of the reaction to his politics than to his sexual orientation.

Obviously n=1, but I’ve had other conversations with acquaintances in Arkansas, Georgia and Florida, straight and gay, black and white, and I keep hearing similar stories (along similar lines, I’ve personally noticed that, in that same town, the attitudes toward mixed race couples went from shock to nonchalance in less than a generation): traditional forms of racism and homophobia becoming less extreme while newer forms of bigotry, more partisan and media-driven, are becoming more extreme.

My concern from a social science standpoint is that this might be one of those situations where dramatic changes can be almost undetectable when the data is aggregated and viewed through the standard set of metrics. Relationship hold but the arrow of causality flips. Poll numbers remain stable but only because of offsetting changes in the population.

A number of the people in this discussion have commented on the role of retirees. Predominately white and conservative, they choose to move (self-selection alert) to predominately white and conservative communities in areas often associated with racial intolerance. Even in our connected age, interstate moves weaken social networks (family, former community) and thus leave the movers more open to new influences such as talk radio which tends to push the same barbarians-at-the-gate narrative that prompted many of the retirees to move.

I don’t know how much weight to give the influence of retirees in red states. In fact, I’m not ready to give a lot of weight to any hypothesis right now (and that’s way out of character for me), but I have noticed a lot of details accumulating which undercut standard narratives and make me wonder about the appropriateness of the standard metrics.

This interaction between age, income, geography, and political orientation seems worth looking into. For a long time we’ve heard about sunbelt states being more conservative, and about conservatives moving to these states. But the strong correlation in recent years between age and political attitudes (most notably on health care and gay rights, but also on left-right issues more generally) adds a new twist to the story.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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