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‘Foot Voting’ and the Dilemma of the Two Americas

Should it be merely about promoting the individual’s self-interest or about something larger?

Recently, J.D. Vance wrote in the New York Times about his decision to move back to his native Ohio. Readers of his breakout 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, will know that Vance, who grew up between the Rust Belt city of Middletown and the Appalachian town of Jackson, has resided in California, working as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, since graduating from Yale Law School. He explained that his motivations for moving to Columbus were twofold. "Part of me loves Ohio simply because it's home," he wrote. And said he wanted to found "an organization to combat Ohio's opioid epidemic."

Yet both of these motivations were bound up in a third that can best be described as a desire to help stem the cultural crisis Vance wrote about in Hillbilly Elegy. Surrounded in Silicon Valley by "other highly educated transplants with seemingly perfect lives," Vance wrote that he found it "jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse." Vance sensed that his own story was testament to the country's growing cultural and political segregation.

Vance's move is an example of what Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, advocates as "foot voting" -- people moving to places where governance practices better reflect their values or provide them with the opportunities for personal and professional advancement. But Somin, in a Washington Post column, questioned whether Vance, by returning to Ohio, was moving in the right direction. "Civic-minded successful people" like Vance, Somin argues, "can best serve society by living wherever they can be most productive."

By framing his critique this way, Somin makes clear that his case for foot voting revolves more around promoting individual self-interest than collective civic responsibility. This not only delimits the range of incentives citizens may have for voting with their feet, but it also undermines the capacity of local and state governments wanting to employ foot voting to their advantage -- as part of the solution to the problems they face. Yet if foot voting is at least partly about enhancing opportunities for citizens to contribute to the broader society, as Somin suggests, then shouldn't Vance's decision to return to Ohio exemplify foot voting at its best?

And Somin's argument that people should move to places that better reflect their values doesn't square with the idea that citizens and governments should consider the country's well documented cultural polarization and geographic divisions. Indeed, what's shaken up Washington can in part be attributed to the cultural backlash of the lower-income white demographic in the rest of the country.

Somin may be right in saying that there's no empirical evidence indicating that foot voting exacerbates cultural segregation and geographic sorting. As he has pointed out elsewhere, the reality is that people are often "willing to move to jurisdictions that don't match their partisan biases, because they have specific policies that the migrants expect to benefit from."

But in focusing on this caveat, Somin overlooks foot voting's potential to help ease the country's current cultural crisis. As recent survey data shows, citizens living in politically diverse counties are much more likely to have "cross-party friendships" than those who live in the "safest" counties.

While people living in the safest counties may be more likely to seek common ground when political differences arise, they're also far less likely to broach these differences in the first place. Given our current climate, a few more "cross-party friendships" may go a long way to easing the day-to-day tensions now tearing many communities apart.

All of this tells us that foot voters like Vance can potentially act as cultural change agents when they choose to move home -- or away from home as the case may be. Without belittling the contribution he made as a venture capitalist in the Bay Area, it's what Vance has to offer as a cultural go-between for the "two Americas" that may leave the longest and most heartfelt legacy for the community and country he calls home.

An associate professor of politics at Australian Catholic University
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