Self-selecting polarization: a personal narrative

I’ve been interested in the latest discussion and research into the trend of self-selected polarization – especially as it relates to redistricting and gerrymandering – for a very egotistical reason: I’m considering doing it.

When my wife (The Professor) was looking for jobs, we decided that we didn’t want to live in certain areas of the country (cough, Arizona, cough) simply because of the political situation there. And now that it looks like we’ll be staying put for a few years, we may have to make a similar decision based on local issues.

So we’ve started looking for a longer-term housing solution, and we’re faced with a choice: find a place in New Albany, so we can stay in Indiana, or move across the river into Louisville.

The backstory

We moved down to southern Indiana in a hurry because of a last-minute job offer that was too good to pass up. We picked our current place in exurban Jeffersonville because it (1) was available when we needed it; (2) it was affordable; and (3) it made for an easy commute and quick access to groceries and other conveniences. We didn’t know much about the area, so we weren’t exactly equipped to make an informed decision on where to live.

As it turns out, Jeffersonville’s government is almost completely dysfunctional. The mayor, a Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Republican, is more interested in settling interpersonal scores than actually accomplishing anything – a complaint I’ve heard over and over from local Republicans and Democrats alike. (Plus, he gets involved in embarrassing domestic squabbles in his city office.) Officers from the city’s police department get involved in drunken bar brawls, and no charges are filed. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with the city agencies very often – even though we live only a couple of minutes from the high school, we have “rural” co-ops for both power & water.

One aside: the Jeffersonville trash removal folks are top-notch. They were very helpful to a couple of new residents, even helping us navigate other departments.

And besides that dysfunctional government, there’s the fact that our neighborhood is just not what we really want. While I love having a garage, it doesn’t make up for living in an area that has a walkability score approaching zero. It’s even hard to bike around here, if only because a lack of cyclists means that drivers aren’t really sure how to react to someone pedaling along the side of the road. Public transportation isn’t a realistic option, either, even if I ride my bike the 2 miles to the nearest bus stop.

So where do we go from here?


Downtown New Albany has some truly terrific restaurants, a nice library, and it’s pretty walkable – except for the ridiculous number of one-way streets. But our church is in Louisville. And I’m spending a lot of time in St. Matthews for work. Many of the businesses we patronize regularly are in Louisville, along with several restaurants we love, and pretty much all the cultural events worth attending. Plus, there’s the city’s terrific system of parks, which would be great for cycling (me) and running (The Professor).

Political representation

Then, there’s the political factor: if I move across the river, I trade in Mike “Obamacare is like 9/11” Pence for a governor who is mostly-based in reality (even if he does insist on giving away millions to the Creation Museum’s planned theme park). I get a mayor – a man I briefly met and spoke with at a campaign event a couple years ago – who seems to understand what it takes to run a city. I get a Congressman in John Yarmuth who passionately defends the necessity of health care for everyone.

If we stay in Indiana, Mike Pence will be my Governor, and Dan Quayle’s nephew-in-law will remain my Congressman. On the bright side, unlike Jeffersonville, New Albany seems to at least have some semblance of a functioning city government.

Political consequences

Another possibly-decisive factor is the Ohio River bridges project. The new east-end bridge and tunnel will provide a connection to the sprawling, wealthier suburbs and shopping centers east of Louisville, and may even provide some spillover benefit to the parts of Clark County that will be connected. But the new downtown bridge will further cut off downtown Jeffersonville from the surrounding areas, and require demolishing chunks of Louisville neighborhoods. (And Louisville is already a city with a long history of downtown highways demolishing and barricading neighborhoods.) At a time when other cities are taking steps to dismantle and demolish urban freeways, we’re building new ones.

Apart from the design problems, there’s financing problems with the bridges project. And while no one knows exactly the right questions to ask, the answer has already been decided: tolls. That means that if we stay in Indiana, we’ll have to pay tolls every time we cross the river into Louisville – whether it’s for work, for church, for shopping, for dinner, or for cultural events.

These consequences are the result of political decisions made by the elected and appointed officials on both sides of the river. There’s no doubt that Indiana got the short end of the stick – not only is Indiana paying $1.7 billion to Kentucky, but a study predicted that 70–80% of the tolls would be paid by Hoosiers. Add to that the fact that local voices have been shut out over and over again:

Kentucky and Indiana officials said in interviews that the panel’s final makeup hasn’t been decided, but it will include seats for the Kentucky Public Transportation Infrastructure Authority and the Indiana Finance Authority — which combined currently have just three of 15 members from Jefferson County and none from Southern Indiana.

The Louisville members on the Kentucky authority are there by happenstance, and there are no legal requirements in either state for those boards’ members to live in counties affected by toll projects.

There have been some vague promises of local input in the form of additional seats, but no specifics.

The decision

So my family is faced with a decision that’s not unlike the one that has apparently led many fellow Americans to self-select ideologically similar communities.

I’d love to find a way to stay in Indiana. I’m a lifelong Hoosier, and a lifetime’s worth of Kentucky jokes make me cringe at the very idea of being a “Kentuckian”. New Albany feels like a city on the edge of a comeback, and I would love be able to contribute something to the effort.

But there’s also something undeniably attractive about moving into Louisville – it kind of feels like jumping on the bandwagon. It would be nice to be physically closer to the little points of community that we’ve found and nurtured. And I can’t deny that there’s something welcoming about becoming part of a city that (generally) makes better electoral decisions.

I don’t know what we’ll choose, or when. It will probably depend on any number of circumstances beyond our control, like housing availability and prices, as much as any of the things I’ve written about above. But being in the admittedly privileged position of having a real choice, I feel like I better understand why people would make the decision to self-segregate ideologically.

Postscript – I do find it interesting that I haven’t even once thought about taxes as a factor. I guess I could look up the differences, but it would require a substantial amount of money for it to affect my decision.