How Much Can Democrats Count on Suburban Liberals? Small shifts in racial homogeneity elicit unexpected changes

NYTimes. com, By Thomas B. Edsall Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, published a book last year, “The Space Between Us,” suggesting that the ideological commitment of liberals in these and other similar communities may waver, or fail entirely, when their white homogeneity is threatened. 

A clever study of commuters explored the reliability of suburban liberalism and found it wanting.CreditJonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

Just how reliable is suburban liberalism?

In affluent, largely white Massachusetts communities like Wellesley, Southborough and Dedham, Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump by margins ranging from 23 to 50 percentage points.

These and other townships surrounding Boston epitomize the gains the Democratic Party has made nationwide in liberal, well-educated suburbs.

Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, published a book last year, “The Space Between Us,” suggesting that the ideological commitment of liberals in these and other similar communities may waver, or fail entirely, when their white homogeneity is threatened.

Not only is the upscale wing of the Democratic Party an unreliable ally of the left on economic issues — as I have noted in this column before and as Lily Geismer and Matthew D. Lassiter eloquently pointed out in The Times last week — but Enos demonstrates that the liberal resolve of affluent Democrats can disintegrate when racially or ethnically charged issues like neighborhood integration are at stake.

Six years ago, Enos looked at nine townships southwest of Boston that were “overwhelmingly racially and politically liberal.” As such, these communities were a “test of the power of demographic change because these were people who, we might think, would be unlikely to change their attitudes in the face of immigration.”

Enos and his colleagues conducted an experiment, which is described in detail in a 2014 paper, “Causal effect of intergroup contact on exclusionary attitudes,” published by the National Academy of Sciences. The results are thought provoking.

Enos described the experiment as

a randomized controlled trial testing the causal effects of repeated intergroup contact, in which Spanish-speaking confederates were randomly assigned to be inserted, for a period of days, into the daily routines of unknowing Anglo-whites living in homogeneous communities in the United States, thus simulating the conditions of demographic change.

To achieve this goal, during the summer of 2012, Enos dispatched “a small number of Spanish-speaking confederates to commuter train stations in homogeneously Anglo communities every day, at the same time, for two weeks.”

The stations were on two Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail lines into Boston — one starting in Worcester, the other in Forge Park — at nine stations in upscale, mostly white towns.

Enos reported that the Anglo commuters he studied had an average income of $143,365, and 88 percent had college degrees, compared with 30.4 percent nationally that year. The median household income for the country at large was $51,371 in 2012, according to the census.

The study had a complicated design, and I invite readers who are so inclined to ascertain the details for themselves. Here is Enos’s description of his experiment:

Under the assumption that people with similar characteristics tend to ride the train at the same time, I selected pairs [of trains] that were close together in time so that the treatment units [train platforms onto which Spanish-speaking confederates had been inserted] within each station would have similar passengers. Within a matched pair of train times at each station, one was randomly assigned to treatment and one to control, resulting in 18 matched pairs of train times. This design means that we should expect subjects in the treatment and control conditions to be, in expectation, identical.

Enos continues:

Subjects were exposed to the same Spanish-speaking persons in a location near their homes for an extended period, as would be the situation if immigrants had moved into their neighborhood and used the public transportation.

The Spanish-speaking confederates reported to Enos that

persons noticed and displayed some unease with them: for example reporting that “Because we are chatting in Spanish, they look at us. I don’t think it is common to hear people speaking in Spanish on this route.” After the experiment, the confederates reported that other passengers were generally friendly to them but also reported that they felt people noticed them for “not being like them and being Latino.”

Members of the treatment groups and control groups were surveyed before and after the two weeklong experiments in an effort to identify the effect of exposure to Spanish-speaking people. In both surveys, respondents were asked three questions about immigration along with other more general questions, including:

1. Would you favor allowing persons that have immigrated to the United States illegally to remain in the country if they are employed and have no criminal history?

2. Some people favor a state law declaring English as the official language. Some other people oppose such a law. Would you favor such a law?

How did the respondents’ answers change?

Treated subjects were far more likely to advocate a reduction in immigration from Mexico and were far less likely to indicate that illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain in this country.

The experiment, Enos wrote,

demonstrated that exclusionary attitudes can be stimulated by even very minor, noninvasive demographic change: in this case, the introduction of only two persons.

In his 2017 book, reflecting on the results of his experiment, Enos is more direct:

The good liberal people catching trains in the Boston suburbs became exclusionary.

Exposure to

two young Spanish speakers for just a few minutes, or less, for just three days had driven them toward anti-immigration policies associated with their political opponents.

Enos examined national precinct and county-level voting results in recent elections to see what effect a black president, Barack Obama, had on whites living in segregated areas as opposed to those living in unsegregated areas.

In the 2008 election, Enos found that with a black Democratic nominee,

white voters in the most-segregated counties were between five and six percentage points less likely to vote for Obama than white voters in the least-segregated counties.

That pattern had not emerged in the previous four presidential elections when the Democratic nominee was white.

“Every time a white Democrat had run going back to 1992 — segregation had had no such effect on the vote,” Enos wrote:

In 2008, this was a massive effect of segregation: the gap between the most and least-segregated counties was almost equivalent to the gap between men and women.

Enos then looked at results from 124,034 precincts, almost every precinct in the United States. Again:

A white voter in the least-segregated metropolitan area was 10 percentage points more likely to vote for Obama than a white voter in the most-segregated area.

These voting patterns, according to Enos, reflect what might be called a self-reinforcing cycle of prejudice.

In the mid-to-late twentieth century, Enos writes, “whites — spurred by forces including their own racism — abandoned the inner cities.” But, he goes on, that “is not where the story ends. Attitudes do not remain static.” In practice, the very fact of being segregated creates an environment in which hostile views “become even more negative and their political consequences even more severe.”

In other words,

Prejudice may have helped cause segregation, but then the segregation helped cause even more prejudice.

Looking beyond the borders of the United States, Enos argues that as much as support for diversity is integral to modern democracy, diversity can make governing more difficult:

The negative effects of diversity may be responsible for some of the profound differences between places such as Denmark and Zambia or Singapore and India. Noting that these four countries are all democracies, we see the consequences of voters — normally separated by geographic, social, and psychological space — coming together to govern and having to make decisions and allocate resources. It appears that when people are faced with these decisions in a diverse democracy, rather than a homogeneous one, they often choose not to do the things that “make democracy work,” failing to bridge the space between groups by cooperating to share resources and provide for the common welfare.

This tendency, according to Enos, demonstrates “why diversity is such a vexing problem.”

Liberal democracies endorse diversity, Enos writes,

indeed, it is often considered one of our strengths and liberal individuals usually favor diversity as a matter of ideology and public policy. We often support diversity out of a genuine ideological commitment and because we rightly perceive that diversity can improve the performance of many organizations, such as universities and businesses.

But, he continues, “looking across the world and even across states and cities within the United States, most of us would rather not live with some of the social, economic, and political consequences of diversity.” This is what Enos calls “the liberal dilemma.”

Enos cites Gordon Allport, formerly a professor of psychology at Harvard, who described “contact theory” in his 1954 book, “The Nature of Prejudice.” Under the right circumstances, Allport argued, interracial contact could reduce hostility. Those circumstances, Enos notes, include “economic equality and social integration.”

In practice, Enos points out:

Allport’s conditions for prejudice reduction are seldom fulfilled. One of these conditions was that interpersonal contact would reduce prejudice when members of each group were of equal social standing.

In reality,

not only does equality between groups not exist, but true interpersonal contact across groups seldom takes place, even when groups are proximate. Two groups can live in the same area without having meaningful interpersonal contact.

It almost goes without saying that the patterns Enos describes have been crucial to President Trump’s political success.

Trump’s “most dramatic gains,” Enos observes, “that is, where a greater percentage of voters voted Republican than had done so in 2012 — were in the places where the Latino population had grown most quickly.”

Not all of Enos’s findings are bleak. Group hostility, he writes, grows as the size of the immigrant population grows until it reaches a certain point and then begins to recede:

The relationship between the proportion of an out-group in an area and group-based bias is curvilinear: it becomes greater as the out-group proportion increases until reaching a tipping point and then starting to decrease. This means that when a group makes up a large portion of a place — for concreteness, say 40 percent — each additional person above 40 percent actually decreases group-based bias.

For those seeking to unravel what happened in the 2016 election, “The Space Between Us” is one of the most consequential of recent political books, a list that also includes two I have written about before: Lilliana Mason’s “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity” and the forthcoming “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America,” by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck.

I asked a number of political scientists for their views on the questions raised by Enos’s book, including Tesler, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Tesler emailed:

Ryan’s book is brilliant and his findings dovetail with my belief that we’re in for a tough road ahead as the country diversifies, at least in the short term.

The 2016 election, in which Trump’s rhetoric resonated with voters living in communities undergoing high rates of change, “was a perfect recipe” for the expression of anti-immigrant sentiments at the ballot box, Tesler said.

That does not “have to always be the case,” Tesler continued, noting a paragraph at the conclusion of the book he wrote with Sides and Vavreck:

Public opinion contains reservoirs of sentiment that can serve to unify or to divide. Take immigration. Places that experience rapid growth in the population of Latino immigrants do not necessarily become more anti-immigrant.

“But the polarizing rhetoric of politicians ‘politicizes’ the places where Americans live,” Sides, Tesler and Vavreck observe,

and people who live in places with a recent influx of immigrants then become more concerned about immigration. This unfolded in 2016: white Democrats voted for Trump in the highest numbers where the Latino population had grown the most.

In other words, it takes a politician like Trump to light the match.

“What gave us the 2016 election, then, was not changes among voters,” Sides, Tesler and Vavreck write,

it was changes in the candidates. Only four years earlier, issues like race and immigration were not as central either to the candidates or to voters. That changed in 2016 because of what the candidates chose to do and say — and then after the election because of what Trump has chosen to do and say as president.

A 2010 study, conducted before Trump appeared on the political scene, reinforced the key role of politicians in fanning the flames. Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, found in “Politicized Places: Explaining Where and When Immigrants Provoke Local Opposition”:

When faced with a sudden, destabilizing change in local demographics, and when salient national rhetoric politicizes that demographic change, people’s views turn anti-immigrant. In other conditions, local demographics might go largely unnoticed, or else might remain depoliticized.

Enos himself was ambivalent in response to my question: “What does your book say about the prospects for an integrated society, particularly a residentially integrated America?” He wrote back:

Like many things, it depends on whether you want to take the optimistic or pessimistic view. The optimistic view is that many, if not most, groups that are once segregated visible minorities seem to be integrated over time, almost as if there is something natural about this process.

However, Enos continued,

the pessimistic view, which is a cold shot of reality, is that some groups have never residentially integrated in the U.S. and elsewhere. The most obvious example is African-Americans. We are still living with pernicious outcomes of the segregation of blacks.

The big question facing America, in Enos’s view,

is whether other groups, especially Latinos, might follow a similar path as blacks and never be residentially integrated with Anglos or whether they will look more like previous immigrant groups.

On this score, Enos is not optimistic:

Current trends in residential patterns may make this problem worse. As our cities sprawl and more of us move to suburbs (which are still growing faster than central cities), our chances for contact are reduced and our ability to form enclaves is heightened.

It is, he added, “difficult to see how these forces can be reined in.”

In fact, the predictable “decrease in group based bias” notwithstanding, the force that may prove most challenging to rein in is Trump and the legion of Republican candidates who have seen how effective anti-immigration rhetoric and policy has been in turning Democrats into Republicans.

In politics, once a new strategy or tactic has proved a winner, no matter how reprehensible, it’s next to impossible to return to the past.