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Milwaukee: The Most Segregated and Polarized Place in America

Americans in general have become more partisan in recent years. But the Milwaukee schism is larger than in other places, and it’s getting bigger.

The most politically polarized place in the U.S. might not be in Washington, D.C., or the halls of Congress, but in Milwaukee. It’s already the most segregated city in the country in terms of race and poverty -- more than Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit or Los Angeles. Now, it’s become one of the most politically divided places as well. 

Americans in general have become more partisan in recent years. But the Milwaukee schism is larger than in other places, and it’s getting bigger. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported, metro Milwaukee has grown more politically segregated in almost every election since Nixon. Metropolitan Milwaukee, according to the paper, has become “the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation.” 

The area’s been politically divided for years, with urban Milwaukee County voters favoring Democrats, while suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties primarily support Republican candidates. But the red-and-blue divide has grown starker in recent elections. According to Journal Sentinel analysis, only one in eight metro Milwaukee voters lived in a neighborhood decided by single digits in the 2012 presidential contest. Meanwhile, nearly six in 10 lived in a neighborhood decided by 30 points or more. Unlike in many other large metros, where voting patterns are a purple patchwork of neighborhoods and tracts, Milwaukee comprises huge monolithic blocs of deep blue (the central city) or deep red (everywhere else).


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Most of this has to do with race. Milwaukee has long been one of the most racially divided cities in the nation. The present political polarization, says Milwaukee native and Boston University professor of political science Katherine Levine Einstein, “is almost entirely driven by racial segregation.” Like many other cities, many of Milwaukee’s white residents decamped to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. But, as the Journal Sentinel points out, Milwaukee “hasn’t experienced a far more recent trend -- the movement of blacks and Latinos into the suburbs -- that’s changing the metropolitan landscape and making the suburbs of some large metros, such as Chicago and Detroit, more Democratic.” The racial divide is reflected in a host of other measures in Milwaukee, from education to poverty to marriage rates.

The polarization in Milwaukee has fueled increased political participation and voter turnout. Suburban Ozaukee County, for example, had the nation’s highest turnout of voting-age citizens among counties with more than 50,000 residents in the 2012 presidential election, at 84 percent. Milwaukee County had one of the highest turnouts among large urban counties, at 74 percent. “The fact that it’s a competitive environment,” says Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “actually brings people out for regional and state elections.” 

But greater citizen engagement hasn’t necessarily made Milwaukee any easier to govern. “High levels of participation might not be good if people being elected have no incentive to compromise because they are being elected by a homogenous population of people,” says University of Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell. In fact, the polarized electorate makes it that much more difficult for any sort of cooperation or coordination on regional issues, such as transit. It’s not impossible, though. Albuquerque, for instance, developed a regional transport system, despite a similar urban-suburban geographic and ideological divide.

Still, Milwaukee’s deeply entrenched divides make it hard to reach consensus. “It’s ironic,” says Campbell. “Political conflict isn’t the problem. When the conflict is so sharply divided along other lines, then that just makes it really hard for people to have an incentive to find common ground.” 

Kevin Tidmarsh is a Governing intern.
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