Bill Bishop is a journalist and editor in Texas. His work with Robert Cushing, a now retired professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, resulted in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. The book’s aim is to tell “the untold story of why America is so culturally and politically divided.”
With this interview, we begin a two-part series about partisanship. Next month, we will talk to Nathaniel Persily, professor of law at Princeton University, and editor of the forthcoming book Solutions to Polarization.
Q: How did you begin to work on the series of articles that led to writing The Big Sort?
When I first met Robert Cushing, I told him that I had data on Austin’s economy but didn’t know what to do with it. He said, “I do.”
We started looking at it from an economic perspective, cities that had a lot of technology industry vs. cities with less technology. We did a series on income distribution. Why is Austin, Texas, becoming richer and someplace else becoming poorer?
Right away, we could see that technology cities were more Democrat and non-tech cities were more Republican. But that was only looking at metro areas. What if we compared the data to votes in presidential elections, looked at smaller geographies, and examined longer time frames? What would that show? Could we see the same phenomenon appearing in other aspects of life?
Q: Describe briefly the concept of the “Big Sort.”
People who can move are moving to places where they can be around people who are like themselves. That increases the political dynamic of Republican or Democrat in that area.
Not much of that is intentional and it’s all incremental over time.
The other dynamic is that as the level of Republicans increases, for instance, Democrats shut up. Those in the political minority tend to withdraw from political life. They don’t want to apologize for their votes so they just don’t vote.
The question is why participate at all? People are voting in their own self-interest. Your one vote doesn’t affect anything. Voting only provides you with an opportunity to express yourself. For example, I’m a good member of the people who vote for Democrats or Republicans. Voting is the most utilitarian way to express your membership in the tribe. As other markers of community lose their meaning, then the utilitarian nature of voting is self-expression. It’s a tribal thing rather than simply a political one.
Q: Does this redraw the political map away from simply red and blue or does it intensify the colors? We move to a red state because we’re red and the state becomes redder?
Yes, that is exactly what has happened. According to Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, in 1976 there were 20 states where the election was within five points. In 2004 there were 11, seven in 2008. By 2012, there were only four.
There are very few states even in contention now. Counties and precincts in Wisconsin tell the biggest stories. In the recall election of Governor Scott Walker, 80 percent of people lived in a landslide county. Torben Lütjen, a German political scientist, did a study of two counties in Wisconsin: Madison and Waukesha. Two-thirds of the people who moved to Waukesha are Republican and vice versa. How could they see another side when no one they knew thought that way?
Q: Do we sort naturally? Isn’t this just the natural order of things?
All that was part of what we saw in the economy part. Dora Costa studies sorting and mating. Those with college degrees want to marry people with college degrees and move to a place where there are people with college degrees because that’s where the jobs are.
We’re sorting by education, by health attributes; regional accents are increasing. Parts of Kentucky are lost, but then Austin is booming. Poor people are moving out of Austin and rich people are moving in. All these are natural sorts and maybe politics is the least important.
Q: Where does the vitriol come from? Why do we detest each other?
Vitriol comes from politics having two sides sorted both geographically and ideologically. Republicans have all the conservatives and Democrats all the liberals. Any time there is the “other” group, we dislike each other naturally, for no reason.
A poll asked people a question about NSA spying techniques. During the Republican administration, the Republicans agreed with the NSA’s methods. Four years later, a poll asked the same question, and the views reversed — now Democrats agreed with them. A Democrat was president. Nothing else had changed.
Q: How do you weigh the roles of gerrymandering and money in politics against the “Big Sort” in intensifying the partisan forces?
Districts have become more Democrat or Republican over time. As I said at the outset this has been an incremental process that is not tied to redistricting. Gerrymandering has little or no effect. It’s almost impossible to draw districts that turn out the way they turn out. No one is gerrymandering state lines and yet the polarization into redder and bluer states still happens.
Money just seems to solidify the whole thing. The polls were the same in June 2012 as in November. Everything else seemed to cancel itself out — advertising, contributions, talk radio. You could have held the election in June and had the same result. People are that set in what they think and what they’re going to do. The question for a politician is: Can you turn out the people who agree with you?
Q: Are we looking at government for the few (i.e., my individual constituency) rather than the many (i.e., what’s best for the country)?
Increasingly, decisions are being made locally where there are large constituencies supporting something. People move to Portland because of the public transportation system while other towns invest in highways and two-car garages.
We opt out of national standards. Nobody wants the Common Core in education, for instance. A lot of places would like to opt out of vaccinations. Locally there are heavy majorities based on lifestyle.
We’re breaking down politics to the local level, and so we lose the chance to deal with inequality. That’s not a local problem. Global warming is not a local problem. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised in forever.
People can find a place where the view of that problem matches their own. That leaves aside any chance that we will deal with bigger problems as a nation. There is no collective response at all to any of those things, none. The Congressional Black Caucus holds job fairs. President Obama asked some guy to send him his résumé. To solve global warming, buy a Prius. We’re looking at solving problems one at a time rather than collectively.
Q: Is this all self-reinforcing, eventually becoming like the chicken and the egg?
Oh, yeah. No one chooses to be around people who disagree with them. The question is how long do these lifestyle choices persist? Will issues arise where this Republican constituency finds some reason to align itself with Democrats, what’s called cross-cutting relationships, where election lines don’t make sense anymore? I thought that might be the case with health care. Wal-Mart was in favor of health care reform, and there were other large mainstream conservative organizations that wanted it, so it seemed like partisanship might break down over that. But of course it didn’t.
Q: And so there’s no way out?
On the path we are currently on, the way out is you devolve decisions to the local level. Will there come an issue that doesn’t fall easily along one party line or the other? We’re not there yet. But then everything always changes.
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