A single chart from an 84-page research paper about the workings of American democracy has gone viral, with mainstream media and the Twitter-verse jumping on the authors’ classification of large U.S. cities on a scale of liberal to conservative.
Buffalo landed at No. 9 among the 10 least conservative cities with populations of more than 250,000. San Francisco was most liberal. The most conservative city on the list of cities was Mesa, Ariz. The Economist magazine colorized the scientists’ graphic of the cities’ ranks, and the image was picked up online by sites for think tanks, national broadcasters and newspapers, major magazines and pundits from the left, right and middle.
Researchers Chris Tausanovitch of UCLA and Christopher Warshaw of MIT were not looking for Buzzfeed-like fame when they crunched the “policy preference” data for U.S. municipalities so they could compare it with local government operations, but if it helps draw attention to their main work, they’ll take it.
“Academic articles often get zero press, so if people find the city rankings interesting, that’s fine,” Tausanovitch said on Saturday when reached by phone in California. “That was only a small part of our goal. Our main point was about (political) representation.”
Which is what it says in the title of their paper, “Representation in Municipal Government,” being published by the American Political Science Review. The scientists’ chief purpose was to investigate whether local governments are responsive to the political ideologies of their constituents, or if government on the micro scale is more apolitical, run by power brokers and focusing on basic services such as garbage pick-up and road repair rather than on broader issues, as some have theorized.
“We found that city-level politics is a lot like national politics – that policy matters,” Tausanovitch said. “People previously have assumed that it is different from the interests on a national level, but what we found is that, yes, cities are affected by national issues.”
Among the issues the researchers looked at were concern for the environment, such as making government buildings more energy efficient; city support for housing for the poor, elderly and disabled; tax systems that are progressive or regressive; and various quality-of-life issues – bike paths, tree planting, subsidies for public transportation.
Also on their radar were tangible responses to more philosophical matters. Did the governments allow community gardens on public property and support farmers markets? Are police allowed to stop and question individuals they think might be in the country illegally? Does the city provide health benefits to employees’ same-sex partners? Are parks or libraries closed to save money?
“We asked about a large mix of national policy issues and local policy issues, and we found that the local underpinnings are reflective of the national issues,” Tausanovitch said. “Cities do respond. More liberal cities are getting more liberal policies.”
Former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello said he has seen those policies evolve in Buffalo in the 20 years since he was first elected, with government taking a more active role in building on the city’s assets – assets it could never afford to build from scratch today, he said.
“We saw it start (in the 1990s), and Mayor Brown has continued it. Canalside, the Medical Corridor, putting circles back in the Olmsted parkways. Some people want little things, some people want more,” Masiello said. “Community centers, more trees, more walkable neighborhoods – I feel we have become a more inclusive city.”
He added that he “absolutely” believes Buffalo has become more progressive in the past two decades.
“We’re keeping young people in Buffalo now. They want what the city has to offer,” he said.
Tausanovitch said it was entirely possible that the blue-collar, Rust Belt image of Buffalo has become outdated.
“What we think we know about a place can change once you start looking at the real data,” he said.
And the two scientists looked at a lot of data, including basic demographics of the populations, voting patterns in recent presidential elections, surveys of thousands of urban residents and the fiscal health of the communities. The numbers for large cities got all the early press, but the researchers based their findings on information on more than 1,500 municipalities with populations of 20,000 or more.
What they found was that, as expected, liberal cities tax more and spend more, drawing their revenue from progressive tax systems such as property taxes to fund projects that fit into their residents’ political preferences and expectations.
Conservative cities generally collected less in taxes, relying on more regressive sales taxes and fees, and spent less on services – also in line with the wishes of most of their constituents.
And in some areas, these cities can exist nearly side by side.
On their website, americanideologyproject.com, the researchers have published the full list of more than 1,500 cities and their rankings, including 59 municipalities in New York State. Buffalo is on the liberal end, with Ithaca, Albany, New York City and Rochester. On the other end of the scale, the Town of Tonawanda ranks as the most ideologically conservative community in the entire state, with the Town of West Seneca coming in third place.
Adding other interpretations to their results – such as whether people chose particular cities to live in based on their political ideologies – will be left to later studies, Tausanovitch said.
“The fact that cities in general skew liberal has been true for a long time, even internationally,” he said. “What we have done is made all our data available, for all the cities, on our websites and I hope that other researchers interested in how democracy works will be able to make use of it.”