A mural at a restaurant in the Mexican Town district of Detroit
A mural at a restaurant in the Mexican Town district of Detroit Carlos Osorio/AP

Political scientist and author Ryan Enos explains how geography can sharpen political conflicts.

We urbanists are obsessed with place. So it may be hard for us to believe that the connection between physical space and urbanization has been neglected by much of social science, outside of urban economics, urban planning, and urban geography. Indeed, place and geography have been notoriously absent from the greater field of political science.

That’s why the research of political scientist Ryan Enos is so interesting. An associate professor at Harvard’s Department of Government, Enos focuses on the geographic or spatial underpinnings of politics. His new book, The Space Between Us, dives deep into how the places we live influence our politics.

I talked to Enos about his new book and the spatial forces that shape social and political life in the United States. Our conversation has been edited for space and flow.

You’re a political scientist interested in political processes and patterns and how people vote. Why does geography factor so heavily in your analysis, and in our politics today?

Geography has always factored heavily into politics and human behavior more generally. Part of this comes from the nature of politics, that it is a contest over who gets what. The what is often tied to location and becomes a contest over who controls where.

On a deeper level, geography is one of the fundamental ways we understand the world: We define locations, good or bad, by who lives there, by asking, “Are they one of us?” We treat places where the people are not like us—cities versus suburbs, red state versus blue—as different than places that are like us. This creates political conflict.

Digging deeper on that, what do you mean by “the space between us,” or what you call “socio-geographic space”? How do these quintessentially geographically factors matter to our politics and society?

The “space between us” is the political space between us, our inability to come together, across groups, in politics to do the things necessary for a successful society, such as cooperating and compromising. The “distance” in political space is a manifestation of the psychological space between groups, how similar or different we think other groups of people are from our own group, and thus how much we think that we should cooperate with them.

This psychological space is influenced by geographic space: When groups are separated on the Earth’s surface—say into different sides of a city—our minds use this geographic separation as a shortcut to believe the groups are different; they become separated in our minds and this then spills over into our behavior, separating us in politics. This separation has consequences. If we cannot cooperate politically, we cannot do the things necessary to have a functioning modern society, such as building infrastructure and caring for the needy.

As segregation increases, white people in the United States hold more negative attitudes about African Americans and they are also less likely to support black candidates running for office. We can also see that when we create social geography in the lab, in a sense, creating this mosaic we discussed earlier, that the segregation induces non-cooperation between groups.

Do you see geographic dis-alignments—for example, a blue city in a red state—as affecting or hurting the city, causing people to want to leave, or is there not much of an effect?

Even liberal states are dis-aligned. To a certain extent, it’s going to keep people away when they have options. One thing we see is this divide between big cities and the state government that often control the resources that go to those big cities. You see this with a company like Amazon; it’s unlikely to move to a big city in a red state, where the state is unlikely to support that big city.

Pundits, as well as average Americans, divide our country into red and blue states. Does that basic division capture the political geography at work in our nation today?

It captures elements of it. But sociopolitical geography is more complex than these broad strokes. In a red state, we find red suburbs surrounding blue cities, and in a blue state, we find red hinterlands stretching away from blue coastal areas.

But even within the cities of blue states, we find divisions across neighborhoods where political conflict plays out, often between groups. You can go to a place like Boston, in a very blue state, and there’s a sharp division between the core of central cities to the suburbs; we move from blue to red very quickly. And that seems to divide the politics within places like that as well.

Everyone says that social media is what’s driving us apart, but you seem to be saying that that’s part of it, but it’s much more tied to where we live. How much does place matter to ideological or partisan outlook?

It’s really high up there. I would absolutely put it above things like social media, and I would even put it above age, even above income. A rich white person will vote very differently depending on where they live and who else they live around. Whether they live in a red state or a blue state, whether they live in a diverse city or a homogenous city, they’re going to behave differently. It’s going to be one of the number one predictors for how we behave.

Geography is a fundamental thing in our psychology; it shapes the way we think about the world and other people. It’s hard to imagine social media having such an effect on our politics and turning us so tribal, if we weren’t already segregated by these other geographic realities.

Some would argue that the ideological characteristics of a place stay the same, even though the groups moving in and out change. Does that jibe with what you’ve seen?

There’s this stickiness to the liberalism of cities. The groups come and go out of there, which leads to an interesting question: “Why are cities so persistently liberal?” That’s one of the great unanswered questions of social science. A lot of it has to do also with the way these cities bring together different mixes of people, and that changes the politics of individuals who are living there. There’s a push and a pull, where people who don’t like that mix of people get pushed out, but cities change people. I know that the experience of living in big cities changed me. The way these places are built and the people who already live there shape who we are.

You mention that you finished the manuscript for the book right before the November 2016 election, and then had to revise it afterward to take into account the new reality of Donald Trump. How does your theory explain the rise of Trump and Trumpism?

Yes, I had to revise it. Trump, like all political phenomena, is multi-causal, but social geography can explain why he seems to be particularly popular in some places. One of the most eye-popping correlations with Trump support is the correlation with the local growth in Latino population. The more recent growth in Latino population, the more likely white non-Latinos were to vote for Trump. Much of this was driven by white Democrats, presumably who voted for Obama, now voting for Trump.

Immigration is a hot-button issue in American politics, to say the least. In your book, you talk about the persistence of xenophobia in America. How do you think physical and psychological distance can explain this?

Unfortunately, xenophobia against immigrants is a constant in most societies, at least for certain members of those societies, and xenophobia increases as the immigrant population increases. The United States, with its great flows of immigration, experiences an almost constant xenophobia that comes with these flows. The groups change, but the xenophobia stays the same.

The key is to understand what reduces this xenophobia and what exacerbates it. These are two sides of the same coin. It is exacerbated by segregation. Immigrants, whether in big cities or small towns, are often segregated into enclaves, and this creates the psychological space between us that precedes xenophobia. This also prevents interpersonal contact, which is the antidote to xenophobia.

You do intriguing experiments on how place shapes political values, identities, and perceptions. Tell us about what inspired these experiments and what you learned from them.

One of the challenges with understanding how social geography affects our behavior is that causal connections are hard to establish. The solution to this problem is to try to experiment on social geography. So I attempted to recreate the growth of the Latino population to see if this growth really could have caused people to vote for Trump.

I did this by assigning native Spanish speakers, who looked and sounded like immigrants, to visit commuter rail stations in the Boston suburbs. They visited them at the same time for a period of several days. Before sending them to the stations, I surveyed passengers at these stations about their attitudes on immigration policy.

After they had seen these “immigrants” at their home station, I surveyed them again. It turns out that, after this exposure to immigrants, their attitudes about immigration had become more exclusionary; they were more likely to want to keep immigrants out of the country. This was a very revealing finding because it demonstrated that places like Boston, which seems so liberal, are not immune to xenophobia.

If social geography changes, the people there can also become anti-immigrant, just like we see in other parts of the country. If an economically vibrant, highly educated, and diverse place like Boston can have a backlash against immigration, then as the United States continues to diversify, how do we build institutions and shape our cities in a such way that it promotes harmony?

Reading your work can lead to a gloomy conclusion—that our deepening political divide is hard-baked into our social geography. Do you see any patterns that could lead us to either overcome our divides or figure out a better way to coexist in light of them?

It can be easy to think that our sociopolitical divisions are inevitable, but I wouldn’t do that. Taking a long view of history, many sociopolitical divisions that once seemed hardwired eventually went away. Most immigrant groups to the U.S. were segregated into enclaves and, with this, the targets of bias and discrimination. But over time, these groups integrated into society, and we’ve mostly forgot these divisions ever even existed.

To some extent, we can see this process unfolding now with Latino immigrants. I do think that the magnetic force of cities has something to do with this. Because cities concentrate institutions and opportunities, they bring people together to take advantage of these institutions and opportunities.

This provides the interpersonal contact, which is the antidote for geographically-based division. People come together in cities to do things like work, go to sporting events, lobby government, and so on, and they have contact with the other groups doing the same thing. As populations become even more concentrated in cities, the power of cities to shape this sort of behavior only increases.

Of course, as more and more people move to cities, integration and interpersonal contact are not inevitable. Things like unaffordable housing threaten them. So we must look to public policy to maintain access and integration in cities.

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