4 years ago

American Magazine April 2014

American University is located in Washington, D.C., at the top of Embassy Row. Chartered by Congress in 1893 to serve the public interest and build the nation, the university educates active citizens who apply knowledge to the most pressing concerns facing the nation and world. Students engage with leading faculty experts and world leaders, learning how to create change and address issues including the global economic crisis, health care, human rights and justice, diversity, the environment and sustainability, immigration, journalism’s transformation, corporate governance, and governmental reform.


“IT’S NOT A MONOLITHIC UNITED STATES THAT IS EVOLVING; IT’S THOUSANDS OF PLACES MOVING IN THEIR OWN DIRECTIONS TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF THE SHIFTING LANDSCAPE AROUND THEM.” —from the introduction to Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the “Real” America As a kid Dante Chinni began logging miles on the road, and as an adult he began writing stories about American places. In one year, he drove north to Bob Dylan country along the Iron Range in Minnesota, south to Dale Earnhardt country to cover a NASCAR race in North Carolina, northwest to East Liverpool, Ohio, and headed home like a rolling stone back to Detroit. As a journalist, Chinni covered all these places and more, reporting on what makes each place the way it is. He saw how communities—and the country—were changing. And he discovered something else: place matters. You spend enough time traveling around the United States, says Chinni, and you start to notice how this one town looks a lot like another town—not the town next door, but the one you visited halfway across the country. You’ve been here before—not literally, but you know this town: the place whose downtown is lifeless but whose Walmart is thriving five miles out. You know there’ll be a McDonald’s where locals get their morning coffee. And a strip of stores. That’s just one type of American place that the goateed journalist with a taste for numbers began to notice while he crisscrossed the country gathering his stories. He started to see that the nation was a patchwork of distinct community archetypes and that the people living in those different types of communities know different realities of the “American experience.” Politicians and analysts often default to misleading generalizations about “what Americans believe” or “what the American people want.” But the fact is, what Americans actually believe and know and want varies a whole lot from one place to the next. When he wasn’t on the road, Chinni was crunching numbers for the Pew Research Center and its annual State of the News Media, trying to quantify changes that were happening in the media. And he got to thinking: the United States was and still is undergoing an upheaval, with tectonic shifts—cultural, political, demographic, socioeconomic—reshaping its communities, rural and urban, north and south, east and west, liberal and conservative. There must be a way to quantify everything he was seeing, a way to understand the country as a journalist, and then to use that data as an analyst to break the country down with some new unit of measure, some typology, by which we could systematically analyze these different Americas, these different places that define our varied positions and mindsets. The problem, he saw, is that our models aren’t working. For example, take the map we’ve been using since the 1980s to bisect the country into two camps by state and region: Red America and Blue America. Red and blue, says Chinni, “have become shorthand definitions for the country, and they miss the point,” except on election night when “you gotta have teams to keep score and see who wins.” We’ve latched on to two words that have become a code, he writes. “When we say ‘red’ and ‘blue’ in the context of American culture, it conjures up a set of stereotypes.” But the simplicities of red and blue, conservative and liberal, ignore the nuance at the community level. They miss the red parts of New York or the blue parts of Texas. “Red and blue,” he writes, “is black and white.” It’s shorthand that doesn’t work. “Culture is just more complicated,” he says. “Culture is a mix of economy and politics and religion and consumer culture and all these things.” Places that are very red can be very wealthy and very poor. And places that are very blue can be very wealthy and very poor, very well educated and very poorly educated. “It changes from place to place,” he says. The suburbs of New York, for instance, look more like the suburbs of Denver than towns of upstate New York. “The kinds of people that live in those kinds of places share similarities, regardless of the state they live in.” ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ How do we move beyond the black and white of red and blue? Chinni saw an opportunity to create a new vision: the United States as a patchwork nation. Working with the Christian Science Monitor and PBS NewsHour, he directed a project that became a book, Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the “Real” America. 22 AMERICAN MAGAZINE APRIL 2014

What the journalist needed was a statistician, and Chinni found one in James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland who became his coauthor. They went in search of a more granular and statistically meaningful level of geographic observation, and they drilled down until they hit pay dirt: county. Smaller than states or congressional districts, counties are stable, independent entities with central governments. What’s more, they’re the smallest unit from which come many types of data: race and ethnicity, religion, education, occupation, income level, unemployment, immigration patterns, population growth and density, consumer spending, and just about anything else. The United States has 3,141 counties. That’s a whole lot of data. Why not use zip codes? “First of all, they’re not based on anything,” he responds. “They’re based on postal carrier routes, and they change all the time. No other data is collected that way in a reliable fashion that you can look at over time.” Using his notes from the road and data from the 2007 American Community Survey—an ongoing statistical survey that the Census Bureau uses annually to track changes in the population—Chinni and Gimpel organized these 3,141 counties into 12 types of community. Among the places they were able to identify and type by name were Monied Burbs and Mormon Outposts, Boom Towns and Military Bastions, Immigration Nation and Emptying Nests, Service Worker Centers and Industrial Metropolises. (He has since modified his typology and changed his method of data analysis.) To ground truth his model, Chinni picked 12 representative places—and hit the road again. He visited Eagle, Colorado, and El Mirage, Arizona; Lincoln City, Oregon, and Hopkinsville, Kentucky; Claremont, Florida, and Philadelphia—each of which represented one of these community types (although no place fits entirely into one type, each has elements of others). He made several visits to each community, talking to lots of people and getting to know each place really well. It was 2007 when the journalist and the statistician first went to work on Patchwork Nation, before the great recession that changed everything. The original idea had been to cover the 2008 election and report on how it played out in these 12 communities around the country. What played out before and after the election, however, was a tsunami of change that swept across the country: a Wall Street collapse and a Main Street catastrophe, a housing bubble, hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and homes, along with political and technological and socioeconomic and demographic upheavals. As the economy was falling apart, Chinni was on site watching the poison work its way through one place after another. “It’s really horrible to watch, it’s very sad,” he says. “But it’s fascinating, too, because it’s like, ‘this place is so different [than it was].’” Eagle, Colorado, his representative Boom Town community, was a perfect example. “First time I went to Eagle was the winter of 2008. The housing crisis hadn’t hit there yet, and they thought everything was going to be fine,” he says. When he returned in the summer of 2008, people were worried. When he went back in the winter of 2009, “the bottom had fallen out, things were closed. I mean it was remarkable how much that place changed in the course of just a year, and I was able to watch that happen.” It’s cautionary, he says. “In Eagle, they were absolutely sure that they weren’t going to be affected—and they were affected, probably as much or more than anybody. People were just trapped in their homes out there, they were all underwater.” ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ After finishing his book, Chinni took his idea of a patchwork nation on the road, moving the project from the Pew Foundation to the Jefferson Institute before finally finding a new and perhaps more permanent home at American University. Along the way he began to sharpen his methods and expand his model from 12 to 15 types of community, a change that would help clarify different types of rural and suburban communities. Working with a new academic partner, Iris Hui, a political science professor at Stanford, he redesigned his idea into the American Communities Project (ACP). The project seems perfect and perfectly titled for AU’s ambitious School of Public Affairs (SPA). When Jon Gould, director of SPA’s Washington Institute for Public Affairs Research (WIPAR), saw the website for Patchwork Nation, he was impressed. When he talked with Chinni, he was impressed The ACP has an enormous and constantly expanding data library. Economic and political data come from the Census Bureau and other government sources; consumer data come from Experian Marketing Services and major polling operations, including Public Opinion Strategies, Peter D. Hart Research, and the Pew Research Center. Most data are received or gathered in spreadsheet format, each sheet containing thousands of individual responses to various survey questions. “So we know who watches Duck Dynasty,” says Dante Chinni, “and who shops at Whole Foods.” The numbers live in cloud files that can be accessed and shared. The 15 county types were identified using a cluster method of analysis: a set of 36 different indicators, from population density to military service members, was sorted using an algorithm that grouped similar places. Presently ACP data are available only upon request, but plans are to make them available to the media, academics, and others. again—this time by Chinni’s personality and his passion for what he’s doing. “But he can’t sell it to save his life,” says Gould. Chinni, he decided, was not that familiar Washington type, the self-promoter, but Gould saw the potential and jumped. “Here’s a great opportunity to put together a really interesting guy doing fascinating work with a school of public affairs that is so connected and interested in the world around us,” he says. “My job now is to help him go out and seek funding for the work that he’s doing.” The SPA dean offered Chinni a part-time position as practitioner in residence, leaving him time to write his weekly Politics Counts blog and graphic for the Wall Street Journal. Gould introduced him to Antoine Yoshinaka, a political scientist with a specialty in American politics and statistics and a soft spot for large data sets. “Dante has access to really fantastic data that’s otherwise inaccessible to social scientists,” and he admits, “I was intrigued by that.” LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 23