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How Proximity Makes Progressives


Two years of a coronavirus pandemic and the extraordinary responses to it by all kinds of institutions and jurisdictions have generated masses of data that will be pored over for years to come. These data will have important things to tell researchers in a wide range of disciplines – from sociology, through behavioral psychology and political science to epidemiology and immunology.

Various governments all around the world strongly advised immunization and instituted policies to facilitate it. In the USA, for example, federal, state, county and municipal governments all passed measures to coerce citizens and companies to follow that advice.

Since detailed records of vaccination rates have been maintained, we now have a rather unusual dataset concerning not merely people’s stated opinions about a government policy or issue – but a revealed preference to follow, or refuse to follow, the strongest possible government advice. 

Obviously, there are many reasons why someone might choose to get or not to get immunized against Covid with one of the recently and quickly developed products for the purpose, and so there are many variables with which rates of immunization might correlate.

No one has been surprised by the fact that Democratic-leaning areas have tended to respond to the pandemic with more restrictions while Republican-leaning areas have tended to resist doing so (in some cases even banning some of the restrictions imposed on citizens elsewhere).

Stricter lockdowns, mask mandates, and enforced “social” (read physical) distancing might be expected to make people feel safer and therefore less demanding of immunization. In fact, of course, immunization rates have tended to be higher in places with greater legal restrictions.

 In such places, social and cultural pressures that are largely stimulated by government-promulgated information favor both the legal curtailments of basic rights (free movement, association, privacy etc.) and immunization. Many individuals have justified their support for both the legal restrictions (acts of public policy) and immunization (an act of private choice) as being necessitated by a moral responsibility toward other members of their communities.

Trust in government and its ability to solve problems has always tended to be higher in more urban areas. Government solutions tend to constrain individual action, and this too tends to be tolerated more in more populated areas. Across cultures and times, areas of higher population density have been associated with more politically and culturally progressive attitudes, manifested in a greater willingness to trust governmental power and to follow its lead.

Data on immunization are consistent with this general correlation. 

For example, in the United States, according to Census and CDC data, the adult immunization rate in statistical metropolitan areas stands at 65.4% while that in non-metropolitan areas (of lower population density), is significantly lower at 57.4%.

A crude bivariate analysis of immunization rate vs. population density by state yields a striking correlation with an R2 of 0.24. 

The General Relationship between Politics and Place

A good estimate of the strength of support for Left-leaning parties throughout a democratic country can be made using only a satellite photograph of the nation at night-– with brighter areas, indicating greater population density, being those that prefer more progressive policies and parties.

Coloring the bright areas of a photograph of the United States at night blue and the dark areas red will turn the image into an approximate map of Democratic and Republican support. Make the corresponding conversion for a photograph of England at night, and you’ll see that the shires are overwhelmingly Tory and the metropolitan centers are overwhelmingly Labour without having to look up any election results.

In the USA, while multiple demographic and other factors determine the population density at which majority (D) areas give way to majority (R) areas, most voters in an area with a population density of more than about 900 people per square mile support Democrats, whereas most at a lower density support Republicans.

That threshold shifts with the political winds, but progressivism increases with population density. 

This rule of thumb operates on all scales. For example, even in a small town in Iowa, the central few blocks with a density above the threshold will be reliably Democratic-voting. 

Political scientists have examined the causes of this correlation. One of the most well-supported findings is that openness to experience (a personality trait) predicts both progressive political views and a preference for living in closer proximity to others with more nearby amenities. 

Remarkably, however, the mechanism of any direct impact of population density on residents’ political views has been relatively neglected.

Since experiences depend on living environment, and political opinions are based largely on experiences, a causal link between population density and political preference potentially offers the strongest and most intuitive explanation of the observed correlation.

Our lived experiences, more than anything else, affect the issues that most concern us – simply because we can’t help but attend to our experiences (which is what makes them experiences). As the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset nicely put it: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

For example, if you were told about two conversations – one about guns, taxes and crime and the other about gay marriage, animal rights and abortion – you could guess with confidence which took place among progressives and which took place among conservatives – even without knowing anything about the content of either conversation.

Population density affects the everyday experiences of the residents of a community and, therefore, the issues to which they pay attention; in so doing, it influences political opinions.

To identify any direct effect of population density on political opinions, we can ask the following question. 

Are there any politically formative experiences or encounters that are more (or less) likely in areas of low (or high) population density?

The answer is in the affirmative inasmuch as many such experiences depend on (or are highly favoured by) proximity to others (population density). These experiences arise from two broad factors.

The first of these could be termed, “overlap of lives:” proximity correlates with the visibility of choices (and their results) at odds with one’s own, and with the magnitude of the impact of others’ choices on one’s own quality of life.

The second could be termed, “visibility of groups:” proximity correlates with the visibility of groups of people identifiable by a particular characteristic or set of characteristics, along with the ways in which their behaviours, experiences and attitudes, differ from non-members of those groups. 

For both of these reasons, living in close proximity to others causes attention to be paid to issues that are of little concern to more dispersed populations and can reasonably be expected to nudge people in a more politically progressive direction. 

Proximity and the Overlap of Lives

Consider a typical resident of a large city. She is likely to encounter people very different from herself as she goes about her everyday life. She may pass richer people, who she sees buying things in stores and living in penthouses that she cannot afford, but she will also pass people who struggle in ways she cannot imagine – being poorer, homeless, or on drugs. 

She will also interact with people who belong to different sub-cultures and care about different things from her, as immediately evident from the way they dress or conduct themselves. 

If our big-city resident were to walk past a visibly rich man while she were struggling to pay her own rent, she would likely register the economic gap, having been made aware in her immediate experience of the distribution of wealth in her community, whether she wanted to or not.

Similarly, walking past an addict on the street, she would likely also respond viscerally. She might feel sympathy for his plight, or fear or disgust if he were exhibiting behaviour unconstrained by hygiene or social norms. She might be more concerned that he hadn’t received the help he clearly needs or that her own children might be harmed in some way by witnessing the addict’s behaviour. Whatever her motivating concern, she is likely to decide that this visible, large-scale problem demands an equally large-scale, and therefore governmental and policy-based solution. As soon as she begins to think about the trade-offs in such a solution, she is engaged in essentially progressive politics, looking at how government can best solve a social problem – even one that arises from individual choices.

In the same vein, walking past a homeless man, she might viscerally experience sympathy for his plight, resentment at the presumption of an approach for money, or even simple disgust at his odour. The need to solve the problem of homelessness – either for the benefit of those afflicted or the safety and comfort of the rest of the community, is something most people feel directly whenever confronted physically with it, whether they want to or not. As soon as our resident acknowledges her own inability to fix the problem and thinks in the next moment of how the government should do so, she is again engaged in progressive politics or at least implicitly admitting the need for the same. 

What if this hypothetical urban resident were of a more conservative bent, wanting to keep as much as possible of her income, but also wanting fewer addicts and homeless in the neighbourhoods where her children walk? She will have to compromise somewhere. Does she become more sympathetic to tax increases, or does she loosen her views on law enforcement and personal responsibility when she discovers that treating addiction as a health issue is cheaper and more effective than putting addicts who steal to fund their habit into the criminal justice system? Or both? Considering any such actionable solutions to the problem, which affects her only because of her close proximity to it, nudges her in a progressive direction.

The same applies to more mundane matters, like littering. A resident of a small rural town with much space and few people would barely notice if one in 20 of the town’s residents littered. In contrast, if one in 20 people in a city were litterers, the place would quickly become unlivable without sufficient government spending and action on cleaning and enforcement.

In higher-density areas, there is more street crime simply because there are more streets with more people on them. More police resources are required to deal with that – and that means more government decisions about collective solutions, implemented using other people’s money taken through taxation, typically curtailing the rights of a few, legitimized only by majority votes in elections or ballots. This is the progressive mindset once again: such solutions by government agency are inconsistent with pure libertarian or conservative doctrine.

Unsheltered individuals often live in tents, vans and recreational vehicles. In the United States today, there are tens of thousands of these and they are almost all to be found in large cities like San Francisco and Seattle. Our typical city resident is thus faced with basic questions about individual rights and property that rural communities do not have to ask: should these unhoused individuals be allowed to set up their tents and park their vehicles on public land because no one in particular owns it; or should they be removed from it because it’s not theirs?

If everyone owns it (through their government), should its users be allowed to use it but for a fee? Or does it make more sense to allow the homeless to use it, paid for by general taxation, because that is the only affordable solution that keeps everyone else in the community safe from the inhabitants? Once again, whichever of those options our urban resident prefers, just asking the question is to assume the insufficiency of pure conservative or libertarian doctrine.

In summary, in a high-population-density environment, a resident’s self-interest often necessitates helping others at one’s own expense or at the expense of third parties through governmental authority and action (taxation and enforcement). That’s progressivism in a nutshell. 

In the Country, Conservatives

Things are very different in the exurbs and rural areas.

The problems already discussed, from addiction to littering , exist in rural areas but much less visibly so. Consequently, they do not impinge as directly and pervasively on the experiences of rural residents. Moreover, when residents of low-density areas witness such problems, they can more easily avoid them and their consequences by their own efforts – reducing the demand for, or expectation of, government intervention. 

In an exurban or rural community, a resident may see a homeless individual during a half-hour trip – but never an encampment that only a government agency has the authority and means to deal with. 

A rural resident will simply avoid places where he might be exposed to unpleasantness. He’s less concerned about crime because he doesn’t have to go anywhere near an addict and, if anyone comes to burgle his home, he can – in the USA at least – defend it with a gun that he can fire without fear of unintended consequences. 

In exurban or rural communities, bad habits don’t bother neighbours because neighbours are tens or hundreds of yards away. Meanwhile, in urban communities, in contrast, parents work to protect their children from the bad habits of their neighbours, or they may just resent being kept up at night by the noise from the apartment above. Moreover, while our urban resident may softly approach her noisy neighbour in a kindly fashion to ask her to be a little quieter at night, in a city with many such interactions, some of them are bound to result in conflict – generating the need, yet again, for government intervention.  

When outside her home, our urbanite may have to close her ears to crude men or avert her eyes from recruiters for one group or another who harass her when she’s shopping. If she owns one of the shops, she’ll be more concerned with the harassment of her customers as they are visiting her place of business. In all cases, she relies on government to set and enforce boundaries and the necessary trade-offs between, for example, everyone else’s right to free speech and her right to be left alone or to operate her business without interference.

In contrast, the exurban or rural resident is more likely than the urbanite to benefit from the absence of government. His interactions with his neighbours are much more likely to be voluntary, such as in a church or a community group, and any government involvement in the same can only be experienced as an impingement. 

To reiterate the general point, while it is true that people who lean progressive are more likely to choose to live closer to others, just as clearly, people who have chosen to live in closer proximity to each other have more negative experiences that cannot be immediately resolved except by government involvement. 

Proximity and the Visibility of Groups

A more dispersed population is less likely to have groups that are easily identifiable by a single or a few characteristics that mark them apart from everyone else around. 

Even when a dispersed population contains individuals that could be identified as members of such a group, since they are mutually distant and their interactions are infrequent, they do not form a distinct and visible subculture. 

In contrast, among denser populations, sub-populations of people who have an affinity with each other (perhaps because of skin colour, native culture, sexual orientation etc.) can easily find each other, and develop a sub-culture that reinforces their distinctness from others. In so doing, they and their distinguishing characteristics become visible to those who live in close quarters with them.

Inasmuch as such a sub-population appears to experience unfair – or even just different – treatment or outcomes, people are more likely to see a large-scale problem that cannot be solved by individual action, and so demand government action.

These conditions promote a progressive approach, as the demand is made for the use of political authority to target the generalized status of large groups, rather than rights that adhere strictly to individuals. 

Conclusion and Consequences

A general rule captures the fundamental distinction between the needs of residents of low- and high-density areas.  

  1. In low-density areas, quality of life depends on not being interfered with; in high-density areas, it depends on the effective management of inevitable interferences.

This difference translates directly into a difference in demands on government: 

  1. As population density increases, residents increasingly depend on governmental authority to manage the impact of others’ lives on their own. 

Whereas the correlation between population density and voting patterns has been previously explained in part with reference to common causal factors (such as personality types), the direct causal link between population density and political leanings, mediated by the frequency of politically formative experiences, may be highly significant.

Everyone’s politics are influenced by their experiences, which are determined by whom and by what they encounter in everyday life. That’s why place makes politics – and ceteris paribus proximity makes progressives.

Quantifying the asserted effect of population density on political leanings, mediated by experience, is statistically fraught, as the number of confounding variables is enormous. Any quantitative, empirical analysis must identify them. Such variables include the extent to which people are politically influenced by their neighbours’ views and that variable itself is affected by population density; the extent to which domestic migration is driven by changes in political attitudes (reversing the direction of causation considered herein); and the role of life decisions that simultaneously drive both geographical and ideological changes – such as when a couple marries and has children, which is associated with an immediately increased preference for more living space (and thus a lower population density) and a shift toward more conservative views over time. 

With respect to that last problem, might population density itself explain, in larger part than previously expected, the impact of life decisions on political leanings? 

Mathematically, of course, the moving of a fixed population within a fixed boundary cannot change average population density – but it can change the number of people who live within communities with population densities above or below any given threshold. 

Daunting as a detailed quantitative analysis of the claims herein may be, a very current phenomenon may provide a new opportunity for political scientists to carry it out. 

The rise of remote working in response to the Covid pandemic has in the USA accelerated net out migration from several city centres into suburbs and smaller towns of much lower population density. 

The claim that proximity makes progressives predicts that domestic migrants out of population centers are likely on average to become more conservative. Since we know who the movers are, multiple approaches to testing the claim are available. 

Accordingly, an opportunity exists for taking a large step forward in our understanding of political opinion formation. If it isn’t taken by political scientists, then perhaps it will be taken by political strategists who see something to gain not just by influencing opinions to force changes of policy but also by influencing policies to force changes of opinion.

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  • Robin Koerner

    Robin Koerner is a British-born citizen of the USA, who currently serves as Academic Dean of the John Locke Institute. He holds graduate degrees in both Physics and the Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge (U.K.).

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