Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Politics in the USA: The Big Sort—1976 to 2008

Bill Bishop has produced an absolutely fascinating book with tremendous relevance to the political situation we face today: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. In fact, it is inconceivable that one could believe that they comprehend what has taken place without familiarity with the issues Bishop discusses.

Bishop tells us that beginning in the 1960s a major transformation took place within our society. Prior to that period the major concerns of people centered on security and on insuring the fundamental needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Given the Great Depression and World War II, people had a sense of common history and of common purpose. People felt comfortable in a society that provided services they needed, and recognized the role of government in providing those services. Once the basic requirements for subsistence were no longer at risk, people began to concentrate on more personal needs. The ubiquitous hand of government no longer seemed to be as necessary and came to be resented and, in fact, distrusted.

What Bishop describes seems to be a reversion to form. People originally organized themselves into tribes of individuals linked by heritage and genetic relationships. Tribes became amalgamated into nations because the larger structure was better capable of providing physical and economic security. When the fear of loss of physical or economic security faded, it was as if people felt more comfortable reverting to a tribal organization.

"....unnoticed, people had been reshaping the way they lived. Americans were forming tribes, not only in their neighborhoods but also in churches and volunteer groups. That’s not the way people would describe what they were doing, but in every corner of society, people were creating new, more homogeneous relations. Churches were filled with people who looked alike and, more important, thought alike."

Slowly, but inexorably, people were deciding that they preferred to be surrounded by people who were just like they were. Society and the economy provided sufficient opportunity and mobility for this sorting to take place. There are many social, economic, and political ramifications from this trend. What is of interest today is the effect it has had on our politics.

"Social psychologists had studied like-minded groups and could predict how people living and worshipping in homogeneous groups would react: as people heard their beliefs reflected and amplified, they would become more extreme in their thinking. What had happened over three decades wasn’t a simple increase in political partisanship, but a more fundamental kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division. The like-minded neighborhood supported the like-minded church, and both confirmed the image and the beliefs of the tribe that lived and worshipped there. Americans were busy creating social resonators, and the hum that filled the air was the reverberated and amplified sound of their own voices and beliefs."

Bishop uses data from presidential elections to indicate how this sorting has transitioned the country away from one in which political partisans shared locations and coexisted. They even talked to each other about political issues—presumably. The "tribalism" that developed has clearly marked out regions as red/Republican or blue/Democratic. This is represented graphically by highlighting the counties in which a presidential candidate won the popular vote by more than 20% (a landslide).

To insure clarity, the legend for the charts is reproduced here:

This chart for the 1976 election indicates heavy regional Democratic voting in the South. This represents the residual of the heavy Democratic presence in the South that persisted since the Civil War. The effect was undoubtedly accentuated by having a Southerner running on the Democratic ticket. Most of those Southerners would soon turn Republican.

Bishop published his book in 2008, before the election of that year. Consequently he referred to the 2004 election results as "after the sort."

In the paperback edition that came out after the 2008 election, Bishop included a chart for that election and concluded that the sorting had continued.

Bishop provides this analysis in a section added for the paperback edition.

"In 2008, Barack Obama and john McCain pictured themselves as post-partisan candidates, politicians who could reach beyond red and blue division."

"They were wrong. America came out of the recent presidential election more divided than it had been in November of 2004. Nationally, political differences from county to county increased in ’08, continuing the movement toward a more politically segregated country that began in the mid 1970s."

States became more firmly red or blue.

"The number of states where a candidate won by more than 10 points increased, from 19 states in ’76 to 29 in 2004 to 36 in ’08."

The number of states that were not reliably either red or blue continued to decline.

"And there were fewer states where the vote between Democrats and Republicans was at all close (less than five points)—20 states in 1976, 11 in 2004, 7 in ’08."

These states remained close only because their regionally-segregated populations happened to be about equal. In effect, it is these "undecided" states that determine the election. The votes cast by most people are worthless, while a handful of voters in a few places determine who is elected president.

What has this isolation contributed to the character of our political discourse? Bishop provides this quote:

"In mid-October [2008], just a few weeks before the election, pollster Peter Hart found that more than a third of each candidate’s supporters reported that they had grown to ‘detest’ their opponent. ‘How do you knit a nation back together with this kind of animosity?’ Hart asked."

Bishop provides considerable detail about this sorting process. There are anthropological, sociological, and economic factors involved. It makes a fascinating read. What is presented here is just enough detail to provide some insight into how our country became so polarized.

More will be coming.

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