The 2016 debate around Syrian refugees dominated politics this past week with Democrats and Republicans, for the most part, taking sharply different positions. Democratic politicians have largely signaled they are open to taking in refugees while Republicans have talked about blocking them, stressing security concerns about the would-be newcomers.
When you look at the numbers that may not be a surprise. Of the many fault lines that define the blue-red divide in American politics, diversity is one of the most prominent. Simply put, Democratic communities tend be far more diverse than Republican ones.
There is a long list of reasons for that, from the urban nature of Democratic communities to geographic self-selection that leads the members of each party to cluster around different kinds of people and places.
And a look at the spread of people whom the U.S. Census defines as “Arab” shows how that diversity divide is likely playing a role in this latest debate. (The Census does not ask Americans about their religious affiliation so getting a good sense of the Muslim population is difficult.)
There are roughly 1.75 million Americans whose ethnic heritage is defined as Arab and the overwhelming majority of them, some 1.34 million, live in counties that voted for President Barrack Obama in 2012. That’s 77% of the total. The remaining 23% live in counties that voted for Mitt Romney.
But in a sense that gross accounting misses how deep the divide actually is.
There are 37 counties in the United States where the Arab population is 10,000 or more and 34 of them went for Barrack Obama 2012. As you might expect those 37 counties are all part of the nation’s biggest metro areas – Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, with the biggest population in Wayne County, home of Detroit.
The metro Detroit area has been drawing large Arab populations for decades now. And earlier this month, the city of Hamtramck, which sits entirely within Detroit city limits, voted in a majority Muslim City Council.
On the other end of the data, according to Census, there are 926 counties that have no residents whose ethnicity is defined as Arab. The overwhelming majority of those counties, 819 of them, went with Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race.
And partisan differences on the refugee question existed before the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.
The September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked whether the United States should take in more than the 10,000 refugees Mr. Obama was calling for, less than that number or none at all? Among Democrats 68% said the U.S should take in that amount or more. Among Republicans 56% said the U.S. should take in fewer or none at all.
The point here is not that Republican-leaning communities are opposed to Arab populations in the United States or that Democratic-leaning ones favor such populations. The point, rather, is that Democrats and Republicans really do live in different worlds in this debate.
Many Democratic communities, particularly the most populous ones, have seen growing Middle Eastern populations for years. They have had time to grow used to seeing different faces and churches amongst them. There are still tensions in those places, but the populations are not something new.
For many Republican communities the populations being discussed in Syrian refugee crisis and indeed throughout the Middle East are more truly “foreign” to them. Those places simply have less experience with the populations in question, which may make them more likely to be concerned about those groups coming to the United States.
That’s one big reason why the stances and words around the Syrian refugee look so different depending on whether the politician is talking to Red or Blue America.