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Housing choices reflect political divide

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.

RALEIGH — There is a familiar kind of political argument that goes something like this: “I know we are politically divided. I think that partisanship has its place — but surely there is no need to make [fill in the blank] a partisan issue.”

Different people fill in that blank with different examples. Politicos routinely claim that education shouldn’t be a partisan issue, or health care shouldn’t be a partisan issue, or whatever, because of course we all care about good schools, good medical care, and other good things. What comes next, all too often, is a passionate argument for a particular policy, one disproportionately favored by either Democrats or Republicans.

I don’t think such rhetoric is dishonest, for the most part. Human nature takes over. We all tend to see our own views as reasonable applications of broadly accepted principles, while describing alternative views as informed by narrow special interests or partisan gamesmanship.

Most of these partisan divides aren’t artificial. They accurately reflect deep, persistent differences in values, assumptions, and even definitions of terms. Few policy issues are immune from the effects.

Take the very pragmatic, seemingly non-ideological question of how to structure and deliver public services to local communities. Progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans tend to disagree about issues such as housing regulation, mass transit, street design, and growth controls not because of external pressure by special-interest groups but because their preferences are fundamentally different.

A recent poll question from the Pew Research Center tees this up well. Asked whether they would rather live in communities where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away” or in communities where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance,” voters as a whole were evenly divided — 49 percent favoring the former, 48 percent favoring the latter.

But ideology was a strong predictor of who preferred which option. Among the respondents who were most consistently left-wing on other issues (from fiscal policy to foreign affairs), 77 percent said they’d prefer the option often described as “smart growth,” the more-walkable communities with higher densities. Correspondingly, among the most conservative respondents on other issues, 75 percent said they’d prefer the less-compact suburban option, a model my John Locke Foundation colleagues have long described as “flex growth.”

The present task is not to explore all the growth-policy arguments and counterarguments that lie beneath this philosophical disagreement. My sympathies lie with my fellow flex-growthers, to be sure, but that’s a topic for another day.

Rather, I will point out that in North Carolina, as in most other states, voters are acting on their personal preferences and policy priorities not just with their votes but also with their feet. People who like both urban living and progressive politics are moving into or near the downtowns of Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Asheville, Wilmington and other cities. They’re living in denser, mixed-use neighborhoods. They’re disproportionately voting for Democrats, up and down the ballot.

People who mix a preference for suburban or exurban lifestyles with conservative politics prefer to live in other parts of urban counties — places such as Wake’s Cary, Apex, and Holly Springs, or Mecklenburg’s Huntersville, Mint Hill, Matthews, and Pineville — or in next-door counties such as Union, Cabarrus, Johnston, Franklin, and Alamance.

The effects on local politics are clearly evident. Big cities that used to have at least some spirited partisan contests are increasingly Democratic, so that most races are settled by primaries or with “left vs. further left” races that are officially nonpartisan. And some populous, fast-growing counties that were once Democratic, and then went through a period of robust partisan competition, are now reliably Republican.

If this troubles you, I understand. But waving your hands at millions of your fellow North Carolinians and insisting that they “take a nonpartisan approach” won’t change anything. Each will say the other side’s policies on growth are costly and counterproductive. Each will define those terms differently.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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