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.

In another measure of community engagement, Democrats are also more directly involved in political life: they’re more likely than self-identified “strong Republicans” to contact a public official, sign a petition, work for a political party, or join a lawful demonstration. Depending on your stance on bumper stickers and yard signs, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing in a neighbor.

But the data are by no means one-way. For certain tasks, like watering your plants or taking care of your pets while you’re away, Republicans are a better choice. They’re also more likely to give of themselves in the most literal sense, through organ donations.

How about unneighborly behavior, the little things that can cause friction within a community? Paul Piff, a psychologist at Berkeley who studies the ethics of the wealthy and the poor, has consistently found that rich people are especially prone to an assortment of unethical behaviors, including lying, jumping turns at four-way stops, and cutting off pedestrians while driving. In the course of this research, Piff and his colleagues have also noted political leanings—though they didn’t publish them—and determined that conservatives more commonly engage in these behaviors. (When it comes to the drivers cut off at four-way stops, however, Democrats are slightly—though not statistically significantly—more likely to respond with the finger.)

In one set of controlled experiments, participants played a game in which a computer would randomly generate a five-dice roll. They were asked to report the results, which they were told would not be independently verified. Those reporting the highest numbers would receive $50. In reality, each computer-generated set of rolls was exactly the same, allowing the testers to see who reported accurately and who did not—and as Piff told me, conservatives consistently exaggerated their results more than liberals did.

So what about Arthur Brooks’s finding that Republicans are more generous with their time and money? If the most recent research is to be believed, it turns out to be less than ironclad. Earlier this year, Michele Margolis and Michael Sances, graduate students at MIT, reran Brooks’s analysis using his original data and another, more reliable set. Like Brooks, they found that conservatives give more to charity than liberals do, but they found this gap to be relatively small and largely attributable to the fact that Republicans are, on average, wealthier. As for volunteering, the 2012 General Social Survey found that “strong Democrats” are more than twice as likely as any other group to perform frequent volunteer work for a charity. And volunteerism is not always funneled into charitable organizations. Among Citizenship, Involvement, Democracy respondents, strong Democrats were more than twice as likely as any other group to have launched more than one neighborhood-improvement project. (Independents, both parties will be glad to know, were the least likely of any political group to have volunteered or donated to charity in the past year.)

It’s not surprising that both Republicans and Democrats do things that contribute to, and detract from, communities. And there is an emerging body of evidence, from fields as diverse as sociology and neurology, that shows very real differences in the behaviors and cognitive styles of Democrats and Republicans. But until the data can create a clearer picture of the politics of neighborliness, I’ll settle for a neighbor of any affiliation so long as he or she supports the local food bank, feeds our fish while we’re away, and doesn’t cheat at cards.