Wednesday, March 21st, 2012
“We have built a country where everyone can choose the neighborhood (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.” — Bill Bishop in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart
In a new article in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics, “‘The Big Sort” That Wasn’t: A Skeptical Reexamination,” political scientists Samuel J. Abrams and Morris P. Fiorina take a look at the findings of Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort and come to rather different conclusions than Bishop did.
Bishop’s argument is that the clustering of Americans into like-minded political communities is unhealthy and a relatively new phenomenon. As John Sides at The Monkey Cage blog writes, Bishop finds that “if one categorizes a county by how its residents voted in presidential elections, as of 2004 nearly half (48%) of Americans lived in ‘landslide’ [counties] where one presidential candidate got at least 60% of the vote. In 1976, that number was 27%.”
Unlike Bishop, Abrams and Fiorina think that there are too many other factors involved in presidential voting and thus it is not a reliable indicator of partisanship. Instead, they looked at party registration to measure voters’ political preferences.
If we define landslide counties according to their voter registration rather than their presidential vote, the proportion of the American population living in landslide counties has fallen significantly, from about 50% to 15%. [… Of the 21 states under consideration,] only Wyoming shows the kind of increased geographic polarization that Bishop claims to be the general pattern: from 21.74% in 1976 to 63.09% in 2008.
The authors stress that they do not argue that political residential segregation is not occurring, but only that it hasn’t yet been proven to occur. But, they continue, even if geographic political sorting were occurring, the effects would be rather minimal simply because neighbors in neighborhoods have become increasingly isolated from each other:
Contemporary American neighborhoods are not the first places one would look for the operation of strong social pressures. Even if neighborhoods were becoming more homogeneous politically, any resulting tendency for neighborhoods to squelch dissent and enforce conformity would be at least partly offset by the fact that their denizens were less likely to be involved in neighborhood affairs, and consequently less likely to be sensitive to any purported neighborhood consensus. If a dissident regards her neighborhood as little more than a place to sleep, she can hardly be intimidated into adhering to the neighborhood consensus–if she knew there was one.
This does not mean, however, that Americans are not sorting themselves politically, “that they are becoming increasingly ideologically inbred, and that they have difficulty comprehending people unlike them”–or that these trends aren’t troubling. To Abrams and Fiorina, it just means that these trends appear to be independent of geographic political sorting.