Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Micropolitics in NYC: Don't Ignore the Trees for the Forest

For those of us who are fascinated by way ethnicity, religion, culture, race, income, and other variables affect political behavior, there's no place more compelling than New York City. Too often, I think, people gloss over the Big Apple's voting patterns because of its overwhelming Democratic tilt. In 2008, Barack Obama captured over 75% of the vote in 4 of the city's 5 boroughs (he got 47% in Staten Island). Underneath these numbers, though, are a myriad of stories. With so many voting blocs--some newly empowered, others in decline--New York politics is extremely fluid.

I recently came across this story from last summer in the NYT about the transformation in the city's electorate over the past several years. Whereas we normally think of "ethnic politics" being about the Irish, Italians, Jews, and other groups, the reality of today's Gotham is that Koreans, Russians, Pakistanis, Haitians, and dozens of other groups comprise the patchwork of voters that politicians must now cater to. The result, while perhaps more complicated for those running for office, is also empowering for these groups seeking to gain a foothold in America. As we celebrate St. Patrick's Day and Irish Americans' ascendance to our country's socio-economic and political heights, it is appropriate to appreciate how, historically, the ballot box has been a vehicle for groups' advancement. A similar story from October looks at how New York's Muslim community has experienced a political awakening.

Some of the most interesting scholarly work on New York's changing demography is being done by John Mollenkoph at the Center for Urban Research at CUNY's Graduate Center. Back in 2003, Dr. Mollenkoph co-authored this incredibly detailed study of the changes, and political implications, taking place in both New York and Los Angeles. It also provides some wonderful historical context for urban demographic change in other large cities. His findings challenge our conventional way of understanding urban politics. Whereas in past generations we saw a white/black divide and cleavage in big cities (and also Latino based in some places), the new urban landscape is much more balkanized and complex, requiring a more sophisticated approach to campaigning and governing.

To complicate things even further, we must remember that these ethnic or racial groups are not monolithic in their political behavior. Consider the maps at left, produced by the Center for Urban Research. They show the 2008 vote overall in the city as well as Barack Obama's performance vis a vis John Kerry's. While Obama did better than Kerry in most parts of the city, there are patches where McCain improved upon Bush's numbers. Given that Bush himself did relatively well in NYC--in the aftermath of 9-11--this further bump for the Republicans is quite interesting. The part of this map that immediately jumped out at me, and illustrates this need to dig deep into the micropolitics of the city, is southern Brooklyn. New York reports its election returns by Assembly district. Thus, Assembly Districts 45, 46, 47, 48, and 49 are of interest.

What caused these districts to be so different from the rest of the city in terms of its voting? One thing of note about this part of the city is that it has a large concentration of Orthodox Jews. Neighborhoods such as Midwood, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park have seen large numbers from this community settle in recent years. Likewise, Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay have seen an influx of Russians (many Jewish). The conservatism of the Orthodox Jewish electorate oftentimes gets overlooked given its relatively small size. Despite the discussion during the campaign season of Barack Obama's "Jewish problem," he ended up receiving 78% of the Jewish vote on election day--on par with the performance of John Kerry and Al Gore. Among Orthodox voters, however, there has always been a greater tendency to support Republican candidates given their positions on social and foreign policy issues. The Orthodox community is more likely to be pro-life, against gay marriage, and in favor of a hawkish defense and foreign policy than the Conservative and Reform movements. During the campaign the Jewish Press, which is a strong voice and based in this community, endorsed John McCain along these lines. Given this, then, we perhaps shouldn't be surprised with the voting results shown above.

While most of the data on demographic changes in the U.S. points toward a bright future for Democratic candidates--especially in regard to the Latino vote--its important to recognize that diversity entails tremendous complexity as well. Different voting blocs will bring with them different interests, agendas, and perspectives on policy. These agendas will compete with each other in an increasingly crowded environment, creating the potential for tension. While cities like New York and Los Angeles are on the front lines of this dynamic, it won't be long until its effects are felt much more broadly. Thus the need to dig deep and examine not just the forest, but the trees as well.

1 comment:

Cameron said...

interesting post, how did you generated the last two maps??