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The widening political chasm is revealed in real estate data

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now to a story about so-called political segregation. The U.S. is becoming more geographically polarized. Red zip codes are getting redder, and blue zip codes are getting bluer. People are purposely moving to places that reflect their views, and the trend seems to be quickening. But as NPR's John Burnett reports, the growth of red and blue comfort zones has consequences.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: There's a Facebook group with nearly 8,000 members called Conservatives Moving to Texas. Two of them are sitting here at a dinner table, munching on barbecue weenies and brownies in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Neither are vaxxed. And they love it here.

BRIDGETT MELSON: Bridgett Melson, 52, from Southern California.

LYNN SEEDEN: Lynn Seeden, 59, from Orange County to Texas within the past year.

BURNETT: Lynn Seeden says when the state of California forced her to close her photography studio over COVID restrictions, she and her husband decided it was time to leave.

SEEDEN: As soon as I drove into Texas, literally as soon as I came into the state and stopped at my first truck stop for gas, it was like, this is wonderful. People weren't wearing masks. Nobody cared, as far as that went. (Laughter) It's kind of like - heaven-on-Earth type of thing.

BURNETT: In the modern era, Texas has fashioned itself into a sort of breakaway red-meat republic - banning books and abortion, blocking mask mandates and building its own border fence. This, in spite of the fact that the five largest counties went for Joe Biden. But more and more Trump followers are flocking here in search of the promised land.

SEEDEN: People are looking for - they're asking, tell me about the most conservative towns. Where should I be moving?

BURNETT: The real estate brokerage Redfin predicts this year people will vote with their feet, moving to places that align with their politics. It's actually been happening for some time. Residents have been fleeing states like California with high taxes, pricey real estate and school mask mandates, and they've been heading to conservative strongholds like Idaho, Tennessee and Texas. We're chatting in the fashionable home of Dr. Bridgett Melson, a family therapist and conservative activist who moved here with her family six years ago.

MELSON: We want our medical freedoms. We want our constitutional rights. We're definitely pro-life.

BURNETT: They settled in a posh subdivision out in the country with its own equestrian center, and she started the Facebook page. Melson says people used to come up and say, don't California my Texas. But now, she says, it's the Republicans migrating from the West Coast who are militant about stopping creeping liberalism.

MELSON: We're the cavalry. We're the damn cavalry. We're here to save you because we know what's going to happen. And if we don't run for office, get involved in school boards and pay attention and get out and vote, then you're going to California Texas.

BURNETT: While schools, crime, real estate prices and quality of life are still major consideration for folks who are moving, finding an area with shared political views is key. Consider the landslide counties, those where a presidential candidate won by at least 70%. An analysis by the political website FiveThirtyEight showed, over the last three decades, the share of voters who cast ballots in landslide counties jumped 300%. Put another way - Biden was nearly three times as likely to carry counties with Whole Foods than counties with Cracker Barrels. What are the implications of people clustering in Sean Hannity's America or Rachel Maddow's?

BILL BISHOP: Groups of like-minded people tend to become more extreme over time in the way that they're like-minded.

BURNETT: Bill Bishop is a journalist who co-authored an influential book, "The Big Sort," in 2008. It explains how the country is pulling itself apart, how Americans sorted themselves geographically, politically, culturally and economically in the preceding three decades. Sitting in a central Texas cafe, Bishop says that trend continues - more intensely red and blue districts elect more extreme candidates for office.

BISHOP: Then you can see that playing out in Congress. There're fewer people in the middle, and so the politics becomes less about solving our problems anymore; it's about cheering for our side. And so we're stuck.

BURNETT: Yet while social scientists and journalists may fret over this political segregation, for the people changing zip codes to be with their own kind, it's a deliverance. Meet the Wootens.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING, LAUGHTER)

TIFFANY WOOTEN: John, this is the family.

BURNETT: They moved to Austin last spring from Greenfield, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis. They're renting an apartment in Central Austin with a view of Lady Bird Lake.

T WOOTEN: Indiana's a red state as it is. But Greenfield - also very red. We, as Democrats, felt very out of place. If people in public were talking about politics, it was always a Trump view. We heard those damn liberals a lot.

BURNETT: Tiffany Wooten is 43, a stay-at-home mom. She says during the Trump years, it seems like people became more antagonistic toward them for being Democrats. She even fell out with some of her own family of conservative Christians over their support for the former president. And her 18-year-old son Cole says his politics ran counter to the kids at his high school, who were MAGA fans like their parents.

COLE: Some of them would even have, like, little Trump meetups. So they would all bring, like, their Trump flags and then just preach to each other pretty much about how great he was. It was just a really threatening atmosphere.

BURNETT: One afternoon, they discovered someone had put broken glass in their mailbox. So they were looking for an exit. But to red Texas? Fortunately for them, husband Nate, a construction executive, landed a new job in Austin. The Texas state capital is known for its liberal politics - the blueberry, as they say, in the red cherry pie.

T WOOTEN: We feel good here. We feel safe. We feel among our people in Austin.

BURNETT: In fact, COVID protocols that drove some Californians to escape to North Texas are a plus for the Wootens in Austin. Here's Nate.

NATE WOOTEN: It does feel like people take it more seriously here than they did in Greenfield - just being considerate of other people, you know? Even if you're vaccinated and you're going somewhere, still wear a mask.

BURNETT: By moving here, the Wootens joined the big sort. They made Greenfield a tad less purple and Austin a smidgen bluer. And Tiffany sometimes wonders if they've done the right thing.

T WOOTEN: I'm not sure that it's super healthy for us to be completely putting ourselves in a box and saying, I'm going to be with the blue people because they think exactly like me. We need to be able to communicate with each other, even if we do not fully agree with each other.

BURNETT: The Wootens miss having their ideas challenged and engaging with the other side. On the other hand, they say, it just feels so good to be with their own tribe.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALANTE'S "ANDLEGUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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