"Imagine for a moment," Pew proposed, "that you are moving to another community."
Would you like to live in the kind of place where the houses are relatively small and close together but the schools, stores and restaurants are a short walk away? Or would you prefer the kind of community where the houses are large and far apart, but the amenities several miles off?
With disquieting predictability, 10,013 adults -- respondents in the largest survey the Pew Research Center has ever conducted on political attitudes -- answered according to their ideology. Seventy-seven percent of "consistently liberal" adults went with what sounded like the urban milieu: the dense neighborhood, the compact home, the "walkability." Fully seventy-five percent of "consistently conservative" adults went with the polar opposite.
"It is an enduring stereotype – conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves – but one that is grounded in reality," Pew concluded in the report released today.
Pose the question another way, and the pattern still looks just about right...
... although the allure of the suburbs remains remarkably consistent (and surprisingly small) by ideology.
These preferences -- including the ambiguity of the suburbs -- track election results. Look at a map of how Americans voted in any of the last several presidential elections, and invariably the more urban a county is, measured by population density, the more heavily it votes democratic. The more rural, the more it favors republicans.
This latest Pew data, though, renews some curious questions about what's really going on here: Does ideology inform our living choices, or is it the other way around? Do liberals move to cities because cities happen to have the things that liberals like: dense amenities, cultural institutions, greater diversity? (73 percent of consistent liberals said museums and theaters were important to them in deciding where to live; just 23 percent of consistent conservatives said the same. The split is even wider on the question of ethnic and racial diversity.)
Or do people who happen to live in cities because they value those things come to lean liberal thanks to other concerns inherent in that way of living? If you don't have your own back yard, you're probably in favor of public parks spending. If you can't afford your own car because your rent's too high (or you simply can't find a place to park it), then you're more likely to support public transit, and taxes to pay for it. If you regularly encounter the poor, you may be more concerned about inequality.
Likewise, do conservatives settle in the exurbs and beyond because they want room to stretch out and a fenced-in yard? Or does having those things make you value privacy and individualism -- and the ideology that defends them?
It's not entirely clear, in other words, what it really means to say that conservatives like big houses and liberals small ones, or that conservatives like small towns and liberals the big city. After all, all else equal, would a liberal really chose a smaller home, or does she pick that option because the smaller home is necessary to access other things that come with it?
Likely, both of these are true in ways that are hard to untangle: We live in places that reflect our values, and our values are influenced by where we live. To complicate matters just a little bit more, many of us are also sorting our homes in search of each other. Half of consistently conservative adults in the Pew poll said it was important to live in a place where most people share their political views. Just over a third of the consistently liberal said the same.
Maybe, when you're confronted with the choice, you go for the smaller home hemmed in by neighbors not because you enjoy bumping into them in the stairwell, but because you suspect that when you do, they'll be liberals, too. The small home is just the cost of living near them.