Thursday, November 15, 2012

Brad DeLong on the Southern Anomaly

This is worth pulling up and chewing on, I think. Brad writes in the comments:

"I think it's simply an anomaly: when we throw race, education, age, income, gender, and religion into the mix on the right-hand side, we find that we have accounted for the overwhelming bulk of political preferences. That's how Nate Silver was able to do so well in forecasting the 2008 Democratic primary.

But that doesn't work for southern whites: there is something else going on there..."

This is a fair point. Thinking about what shapes the error structure of our models is important. So let's do the same with race. Put region in the right hand side and take race out of it.

We've explained a lot of political preference. But the model doesn't work for blacks, let's say. They are more likely to vote Obama than predicted. In fact let's forget Obama. They are more likely to vote for Democrats than predicted.

I don't have data on me to compare magnitudes, but this is certainly the case regardless. That's why Brad listed it first. It has explanatory power.

And all he's saying is that the South has explanatory power. Sure.

So? What is it that that explanatory power (because it's not really an "anomaly" - it's a correlation. It's not noise - it's information) says to us?

I'm just suggesting it says a lot less salacious things than people are implying. Southerners have for centuries not liked as active or as centralized government. This is not exactly news. After Washington took his tour of New England in 1789 he took a tour of the Southern states. He complained vigorously about how Southerners didn't seem interested in getting together and collectively providing for infrastructure the way New England did. There's always been a conservative, small government streak.

That seems to me to account for the regional explanatory power. You can throw in some more about how it was not exactly a magnet for European immigrants a hundred years ago so new fangled leftist ideas didn't get ingrained in the same way.

In any case it's a twenty point spread. It has explanatory power but I think we can just say "ya - Southerners are more conservative" without alluding to any racial undertones. Because that is where a lot of people are taking it (maybe not Brad) - that this says something substantial about race relations in the South.

If we want to talk in anecdotes there is plenty that the South has to offer in terms of bad race relations. This election cycle, twitter and Facebook have served a lot up on a silver platter. But if we want to explain the twenty point spread, I think it's irresponsible and misleading to turn to that. I know a lot of white Southerners that vote Republican that are not motivated by that. Not all white Republicans are like them. But my strong suspicion is that the vast majority are. There are a lot of omitted variables feeding into regional effects. The people who claim that the racial dog whistle of the Republican party is a substantial one are, in my opinion, quite wrong and don't know much about Southerners.

But it's an omitted variable, so it's tough to arbitrate this.


  1. This ties in to another frustration of mine on race relations.

    People obsess too much about overt racism in this country and don't think enough about institutional racism.

    And this is a problem on the right and the left.

    The right thinks there is no overt racism and so race is not a problem.

    The left thinks there's still lots of overt racism and that's the problem.

    I would say there's certainly some overt racism but that's not the real big problem and the problem is institutionalized racism that continues to drive disparities experienced in black communities.

    It's very similar to the problem here. The right thinks the South isn't racist and there's nothing wrong with the South. The left thinks the South is racist and that's what's wrong with it. I think there is certainly more racism per capita in the South than the rest of the country but it is not the driving problem - the problem is that they're so damned conservative.

    1. And - for the purposes of this discussion - the black community is more liberal in their voting than the South is conservative.

      The only reason why I don't complain about that is because the black community has it right and the South doesn't.

    2. And don't get me started on those damn libertarians...

  2. But perhaps the most interesting and alarming thing about the fact that southern white males don't vote like northern white males is that it is of relatively recent origin. Carter and Clinton got enough of the southern white vote to be competitive in the south. Gore was almost competitive. It's Kerry and Obama who are not.

    Brad DeLong

    1. Carter, Clinton, Gore v. Kerry, Obama.

      Well one thing leaps to mind immediately on that one: the first three are Southerners, and the last two aren't. And in Carter and Clinton's case they were quite outspoken about that point.

      Actually a second thing leaps to mind as well: we do know that ideological bifurcation of parties has been increasing over time. Wouldn't it make sense that ideologically distinct sub-populations are growing more distinct on the basis of party?

      I agree with you completely about the significance of the South. A lot of people are turning this into a race relations thing. That's what I think is more suspect.


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