Opinion: Daily Journal

A Political Patchwork Quilt

RALEIGH – I’m probably nothing more than a sucker for a colorful political map, but I couldn’t stop looking at the Christian Science Monitor’s “Patchwork Nation” site when I learned about it last week.

Politics is a complex interaction of human nature and social institutions. It can’t easily be summarized by the simple categories we usually employ – D vs. R, blue states and red states, white and black, men and women, religious and secular, etc. In the past I’ve referred to political typologies and survey projects grouping American voters into a larger number of categories, ranging from 10 to several dozen. I once reviewed a marketing book that grouped American consumers into several hundred tiny slivers of status and behavior and tried to employ them for political analysis, among other uses.

The Patchwork Nation project, directed by Dante Chinni, doesn’t go quite so overboard. It divides counties across the country into 11 categories: Boom Towns, Campus & Careers, Emptying Nests, Evangelical Epicenters, Immigration Nation, Industrial Metropolis, Military Bastions, Minority Central, Monied ‘Burbs, Service Worker Centers, and Tractor Country.

I won’t try to summarize the definition of each category. I recommend that you follow the links and consider whether the demographics and sample community for each category seem to fit. Generally speaking, I think they do.

On the site, there is a color-coded, interactive map that immediately attracted my attention. Zooming into North Carolina, I found myself clicking the map to see the distribution of the various categories – quibbling here and there (Carteret County is a Military Bastion but Onslow is not?) and considering how even county-level analysis can fail to capture the differences within a single locality.

Take my home county of Mecklenburg, for example. Its Patchwork-Nation designation is Monied ‘Burb. Certainly there are plenty of places where the name obviously applies, ranging from some downtown pockets and Myers Park to suburban neighborhoods in Matthews, Huntersville, and points east and west. But Central Avenue would likely rate as part of Immigrant Nation, while the area around UNC-Charlotte would be Campus & Careers. The East Charlotte neighborhood where my parents bought their first home would be Emptying Nests. My childhood home would be in Tractor Country. The neighborhoods where both my parents spent their early educational careers would be Minority Central. And the South Charlotte church I attended in my teens typified Evangelical Epicenter.

But to play along for a moment, the county-level typology does help to explain some political events, such as why Hillary Clinton won Ohio and is favored in Pennsylvania despite Barack Obama’s easy win in Wisconsin, seemingly a similar state. Within North Carolina, the map helps remind us that while it is sometimes useful to group counties as urban, suburban, or rural, that can also serve to submerge key differences in political behavior among, say, Orange (Campus & Careers), Wake (Monied ‘Burb), Chatham (Boom Towns), and Johnston (Evangelical Epicenter). The Patchwork map also offers a colorful reminder that North Carolina’s rural areas are rapidly changing (there’s only one Tractor Country county but gobs of Emptying Nests). I was particularly struck by Chinni’s decision to classify four counties as part of Immigrant Nation: Alamance, Randolph, Surry, and Lincoln.

I doubt that folks will learn to rattle off their Patchwork labels by the next business mixer or potluck supper, but you nerds who read Carolina Journal – you know who you are – will enjoy the excursion.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.