Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Bill Bishop: The Big Sort

I'm going to do something really heinous and rehash the 2000 and 2004 elections. George W. Bush won them both. Well, you know what I mean- he became the President after both elections. Between 2000 and 2004, the Bush campaign figured out some important things that led to them winning the 2004 election. First, they realized that there was no more middle ground. The "undecided" voter was a miniscule population, not worth wasting resources on. Rather, the Bush campaign decided to spend the vast majority their funds on getting out the vote among already partisan Republicans. This was a wise move, Bill Bishop argues, because of what he calls "The Big Sort." Basically, since 1965, Americans have had the affluence to choose where they want to live. And they've chosen to live with people that are fundamentally like them. And as like chooses like, like becomes more like, which has a drastic effect on politics. In 2004, the Bush campaign figured this out and used it to their advantage. (I'm going to attempt to change the subject now.)

Recently I wrote about snap judgements that we make, whether we acknowledge them or not. Bishop's book is based on the premise that we do- whether we know what we're doing or not, Americans have begun self-selecting (sorting) into neighborhoods because they "just know" that they belong. While pundits and the media talks about red and blue "states," people don't live in states- they live in cities or towns, and even more, they live in neighborhoods and blocks. And these neighborhoods become tribes, and the tribes have political leanings. Very few neighborhoods, cities, and states now have competitive elections; rather, in the state and national elections that Bishop looks at, the elections are won by what he calls landslides (by a margin of over 20%). What that means is that within each area, people are unlikely to live near someone who voted differently than they did. Further, there is a lot of migration going on within the United States. But Bishop's research showed that people are migrating from one county with a landslide in their direction to another county with a landslide in their direction: i.e. I'm not likely to move from Alameda County to somewhere dark red. I'm going to move to another county just like this- where it's hard to find a very conservative voter. (Interestingly, during the Big Sort period while political segregation has risen, Bishop writes that racial integration has also risen.)

There have been serious political ramifications from the Big Sort. Bishop explains rather ominously that when like-minded people get together, they tend to move more to the extreme. And even though there's more information availalbe to us in the age of the internet, that doesn't mean we're likely to use it to evaluate the issues. Just like Americans have begun to seek out neighborhoods where they fit in, they also select media that meets their needs. Bishop describes why some exit polls may have been skewed in the Bush/Kerry election of 2004 (oops, I broke my promise): some Republicans did not want to answer questions if they felt the pollsters had graduate degrees. Some Republicans did not want to answer questions if the pollsters were carrying anything labeled with a mainstream media logo (the channels were sponsoring the polls). And worse, the majority of people now vote strictly on a partisan ticket. There are no more pro-choice Republican candidates or fiscally conservative Democrats. Bishop describes one County Commissioner who realized that his constituents were making decisions about him based on his position on land use: once they knew that, they figured they knew where he stood on abortion, gay marriage, gun control, etc.

With the "Big Sort," the parties have moved to the extreme, but in unequal ways. The Republican party has moved much more to the right while the Democrats have "edged" to the left, in Bishop's words. Parties can count on their voters voting for them, since few people switch sides altogether, and since the number of true independents is so small. (True story: I voted for a Republican in this election, because I believed he had better credentials for the job, which wasn't particulary about parties. I told someone this and he was shocked. Jaw-dropped shocked.) And the parties now have very little to talk about, and no real way to communicate, or get anythign done. Without moderates in the House or Senate, what is there to talk about? And this leads to the dangerous position of "the president and the courts [being] encouraged to act unilaterally." (I won't mention him again.) In 2005, according to Bishop, there were less than 10 moderates in the Senate. If all of the people in Congress and the House are getting more extreme, and feel teh same way about all the issues, what is there to argue about? What is there even to discuss? (Don't worry, they don't discuss much- Congress barely meets anymore.) And how can we expect them to get anything done?

This is not a great book. Bishop dedicates the beginning of every section with a very convincing argument that he then argues against. I kept having to remind myself that I wasn't supposed to fall for this part- wait, no, that's not it- the real thing is coming soon! And the theory of The Big Sort is extremely convincing, and probably not in need of a full length book. But it's provocative, and combines a lot of disciplines into a good theory of what lots of us think- that "they" are taking over. It's not a conspiracy, it's how we live. And it affects how we vote, and how we will continue to live. What it leaves out is where we go from here.