Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In political terms, you really are where you stand -- and sleep

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A few months ago, Nate Silver, the polling guru who correctly predicted the presidential winner in every single state during the recent U.S. election, posted a tweet that made urban planners take note: "'Heuristic: if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican."

The idea that urban locations matter in terms of voting intention is not new. Central cities in the United States have long been accepted as more liberal, while suburbia swings right. There are similar trends in Canada, too. The Conservatives dominated suburban ridings around Toronto during the last election, for example, while urban voters in Edmonton-Strathcona gave the NDP its only seat in Alberta.

In his book The Big Push, Bill Bishop argues voter segregation has become far more prevalent in the U.S. over the past three decades. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 26 per cent of the electorate living in "landslide counties" (where Mr. Carter won or lost by 20 per cent or more). By 2004, when George W. Bush won re-election, the number of voters in landslide counties had risen to a whopping 48 per cent.

Bishop posits that Americans today have more mobility than past generations, and before choosing a new neighbourhood, they drive around and notice whether their potential future community has gun shops or yoga classes, evangelical churches or vegan restaurants. As they are drawn to places where they expect to meet people who share their values, conservatives and liberals separate into like-minded geographic communities.

Admittedly, some places are better than others at strengthening political bonds. Walking around one's neighbourhood on a sidewalk generates a much stronger sense of community than driving, for example, which in turn increases the likelihood of becoming friends with those around you and speaking with them of serious matters.

Still, while there is variation in just how important location, specifically, is in the formation of political clusters, there is no contention that connections between liberals on one hand and conservatives on the other are being made. Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels, blogs and websites, it is easier than ever for people to encounter those who think like them. And whether like-minded citizens find each other by moving to a new neighbourhood or by following a favourite radio host, the means is perhaps not as important as the result: American liberals and conservatives are interacting less and less with each other.

Ironically, the unprecedented array of choice on TV and online is actually causing this isolation. Citizens lack the time and inclination to consult so many news sources, so they seek out others who hold opinions that already fit their world view. The effect of this lack of contact between the two sides, studies show, is that members become more extreme. Politics is no longer a discussion between adversaries, who disagree but still possess respect for, and at least a little curiosity to learn about, one another's perspective, but a battle between enemies. Compromise and consensus are eschewed, as debates become a shouting match.

While things here are not as severe, more than ever Canada is similarly becoming a nation divided. The House of Commons is dominated by a right-wing party on one side and a more left-leaning caucus on the other. Moreover, in recent years surveys shows Canadians have less respect for their political opposites.

Of course, recognizing this problem exists is easier than coming up with solutions. No serious pundit would recommend curbing North Americans' right to mobility, but a more reasonable approach might be to encourage schools to aggressively promote critical thinking, in order to foster an inquisitive electorate that demands evidence-based arguments and does not trivialize opposing perspectives. There is also merit to providing greater opportunity for young citizens to participate in volunteer programs, like the now-defunct Katimavik, to meet their counterparts from across the country and spend time in parts of Canada they would otherwise know nothing about.

These are not foolproof answers. They require willing participants to work, and do not consider the situation of adults. Still, to build a healthy democracy, this dilemma must be addressed. Just something to think about the next time you're walking, or driving, down the street.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate of the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2012 A11

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