Politics December 2013

Do Democrats Make Better Neighbors?

Possibly, though not if you need a kidney, or your plants watered while you’re away
Stephen Vuillemin

The arc of history has not always been kind to Mount Pleasant. Tucked into Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., the neighborhood was originally constructed as a stately suburb to the areas surrounding the White House. Mount Pleasant, like much of the city, gradually fell on hard times, bottoming out in a race-fueled riot in 1991. But in the past 10 years, the neighborhood has regained much of its leafy, prosperous sheen, drawing families and young people alike. Hobart Street, where I live, celebrates this newfound identity with an annual block party featuring bouncy houses as well as drag queens. Residents kick off a parade by reciting: “I pledge allegiance to Hobart Street Northwest … gay or straight, woman or man, all are welcome on Hobart Street—except for Republicans.”

No doubt many Mount Pleasant residents recoil at this mixed message, but the pledge unintentionally raises an interesting question: If you could choose, would you rather have Democrats or Republicans as neighbors?

Not surprisingly, there are partisan arguments for both sides. Take Garrison Keillor’s view: “Liberals stand for tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful, love of learning, freedom of belief, art and poetry, city life, the very things that make America worth dying for,” he wrote in his book Homegrown Democrat. “Conservatives stand for tax cuts … [and] use the refund to buy a gun and an attack dog to take with you when you drive your all-terrain vehicle through the barricades of Republicanville.”

On the other side is Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, whose perspective is pretty well captured in the title of his book Makers and Takers: Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less … And Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals.

It might seem that opinion and anecdote would be the only recourse here. But as it happens, one part of this dispute was supposedly settled several years ago. In 2006, the economist Arthur C. Brooks, then a professor at Syracuse and now the president of the American Enterprise Institute, published Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. Brooks made a data-driven case that, even after accounting for income differences, conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than liberals do, and that residents of red states volunteer more than those of blue states do. The book was taken as proof that Republicans are more generous than Democrats, a conclusion that caused some damage to liberals’ self-image and led the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to rebuke his fellow Democrats for being “cheapskates” and “bleeding heart tightwads.”

As a lifelong Democrat, I found Brooks’s conclusions chafing, but also appealing in their rebuttal to the Hobart Street pledge. But while volunteering and charitable giving are important elements of neighborliness, they are by no means the only ones. I decided to look for additional proxies to determine which partisans are better neighbors.

For fact-based measures, I turned to the General Social Survey, a biannual survey of social attitudes conducted in collaboration with the University of Chicago; the Citizenship, Involvement, Democracy survey, from Georgetown University; and a variety of social-science experiments. It’s worth noting that these surveys’ data are self-reported, raising questions about both recollection and honesty; can be sliced many different ways; and are vulnerable to cherry-picking. When taken as a whole, though, they form a useful guide to what sorts of favors you might expect from the guy next door, depending on his political leanings.

I immediately zeroed in on data showing that Democrats are more likely to offer assistance to other members of their community: over the course of a year, they are more likely than Republicans to talk with someone who is severely depressed; help a friend or neighbor find a job; or help friends, neighbors, or family members with homework. I also noted a series of differences—albeit not statistically significant ones—showing that Democrats more frequently loan dishes or tools to their neighbors, help strangers carry their belongings, offer up their seat on a train or bus, allow strangers to cut ahead of them in line, and give food or money directly to someone in need.

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