Column: There are only 15 types of Americans

Nov. 16, 2013 @ 01:48 AM

There is nothing new under the sun, but now there are people with advanced college degrees to label everything.

You don’t need a college degree to know that this is a conservative, religious area. But maybe you need one to assign Caldwell County one of 15 labels, putting it neatly into a demographic box, the better for consultants and journalists in big cities to understand without having to visit.

Caldwell County belongs to the category “Evangelical Hub,” according to demographer Dante Chinni, author of the book “Patchwork Nation.” The Washington Post’s GovBeat blog summarized the definition of that category this way last week: “12.5 million people live in 373 counties mostly scattered through … Greater Appalachia. They are 85 percent white, and just 15 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree. (Mitt) Romney won 69 percent of the vote in an area where Democrats have a tough time making inroads.”

You may have heard the question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

The question is not meant to be taken literally but instead it pivots on the definition of “sound” – does something have to be observed in order to exist? If there are no ears to receive the vibrating waves set off through the air by the fall of the tree, is it a sound?

Demographers and political scientists make their living on the fringe of that question, observing what people do, what their group characteristics are and categorizing them accordingly.

If that seems reductive, it should.

Chinni’s study, for instance, divides up the nation by county. Even in a state like North Carolina, which has 100 counties, that lumps an awful lot of disparate people together. Consider our neighbor to the north, Watauga County. Chinni files it under “College Towns,” and indeed there is a college town there. But if you live in Meat Camp in the east, Zionville in the north or Banner Elk in the west, you don’t much look, act, vote or spend like the students and professors in Boone, but the latter outnumber you, so you are a “College Town” person.

And then sometimes the labels, because there are just 15, don’t seem to quite describe what you see on the ground. Forsyth County (Winston-Salem) and Guilford County (Greensboro) are labeled “Urban Suburbs,” though you would think that in order to have suburbs you first have to have urbs. The county-level designation doesn’t allow for distinguishing between the folks who live in the Trade Street arts district of downtown Winston-Salem, the true suburbs such as Kernersville and Colfax, and those who live out west of Lewisville, where there are still plenty of farms.

That doesn’t mean more localized labels aren’t coming – such databases already are used to make gerrymandering terrifyingly effective by even splitting precincts according to voting patterns.

Of course, studies like this don’t really do much different than what local party bosses used to do, and maybe still do – explaining to candidates from somewhere else how their message is or isn’t going to be received by various locals.

But that at least was knowledge gained through human interaction and passed in the same way. The technology- and data-driven method seems dehumanizing, reducing people to clashing ant colonies driven by mindless instinct rather than by free will and reason, with the "knowledge" analyzed far away, by people who never have or will set foot in the places they are analyzing.

If you cast a vote that runs counter to your county’s demographic designation, does your vote count? Does anyone care?