I recently finished reading Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort. It’s a “big ideas” book and something of a road map to help you understand why the world (or at least America) is what it is today. The book begins with an insight: the 1976 Presidential election was highly competitive and only 26.8% of Americans lived in a ‘landslide county’ – where the margin of victory was at least 20%. However, in 2004, that number had reached 48.3% (and steadily increased each election from ’92-’04, despite all of them being competitive).

So why did this happen?  Well, a big part is geography.  Economic specialization has led geographic segregation.  This should scare you as there is substantial evidence that people who are in groups will polarize (see Stanley Schacter, Muzafer Sherif, James Stoner, etc.).  There are two reasons why this happens: first, when people spend all their time with a group, they only hear the same ideas and it becomes self-reinforcing.  The other is that when you’re in a group, adopting a position a little to the extreme of the group can be a way to ingratiate yourself.  A similar slippery slope; this is okay for your Little League, but it’s the stuff wars are fought over when it’s politicians doing so.

In politics, this lack of dialogue is reinforced by how politicians live in Washington.  In 1990, Rick Santorum made an issue of the incumbent Congressman’s house – he’d bought a house in DC to keep his family together – and promised that, if elected, he would spend less time in Washington.  Now Senators and Congressmen frequently live with other party members and spend so little time in Washington that they don’t socialize (and thereby talk) with their peers in opposite parties.

However, it’s not as simple as that. As the same time as this economic specialization has occurred, there has been a corresponding decrease in the role of traditional American institutions: Elks, marriage, the Presbyterian Church, the daily newspaper, arguably the federal government and the Democratic party (think the New Deal).

In fact, 1965 turns out to be the Annus Horribilus for trust in America.  The year started with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid plus many of Johnson’s Great Society programs (the War on Poverty) and the Justice Department ordering desegregation.  It saw Bloody Sunday in Selma.  The year ended with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the first stirrings of anti-war protests and then the Watts riots.  One hell of a year and a massive shock to the system resulting in a massive drop in people’s faith in old institutions.

This shock in 1965 is partially explained by Inglehart’s theory of social change.  In the early 1970’s, he proposed that when people grow up in abundance, their social values changed.  The 1950’s and ’60’s represented the first time that the mass of Americans grew up middle class-and it had a profound effect on their values.  Inglehart predicted that society would transition from being “elite-directed” to being “elite-challenging” and that we would live in a “post-materialist” society where people would lose interesting in traditional religion, become more interested in personal spirituality and people would be more interested in personal freedom, abortion rights, gay right and the environment.  He also predicted that folks would vote less but sign more petitions.  It’s largely played out that way.

And this is where my beef with The Big Sort begins.  After this aggressive hypothesis, the rest of the book falls into a set of stylized facts explaining how we got to today and how it’s represented in society, rather than a discussion of how to live in today’s reality.  We learn that geography, more than class or gender, is a better indicator of how you will vote.  Labour leaders were pro-Iraq was in Republican counties but against it in Democratic counties.  Same for women.  We hear that in 2004, 73% of Americans lived in counties where the same political party had been elected since 1992 (not much dialogue there).  And there’s a long description of the rise of the Evangelical Right (the origin of Public vs. Private Protestantism, the preacher McGavan [Bridges of God] recognizing that Christianity spreads as a mass movement and this leads to the Saddleback Churches of the world) plus a quaint description of how Applebee’s uses community to fill tables (each Applebee’s has a ‘community wall’ celebrating the history and people of the area; they then eat in groups).

There’s a lot of commentary on how dangerous a situation this is and a thorough description of how it’s emerged, but there’s no guide to the future.  There’s not even a whiff of how we might manage our way out of this.  A great book, but I’m hoping there’ll be a sequel about what we might do next.

And now for some interesting factoids:

  • Democrats may be a little more flexible than Republicans.  Between 1995 and 2000, 79% of people who left Republican counties moved to counties that would vote Republican in 2004.  However, people who left Democratic counties moved to both Republican and Democratic-voting counties (but not to Republican landslide counties).
  • In Ohio in the 1960’s, Michigan’s working class voted solidly Democrat. However, in Ohio they voted Republican (which was arguably against their interests). The explanation is that in Michigan all the workers lived near one another and acted as a block whereas in Ohio they were interspersed with the middle class, who frequently voted Republican. There was no cohesive Ohio working class and no cohesive Democrat machine to get out the vote. This is a prelude to today, where Bishop would argue that economic specialization has led to geographic segregation, which is reflected by more similar people living together (hence the landslide votes).
  • The Founding Fathers envisioned the House and Senate as a place for a constant clashing of opinions.  In the early years of the Republic, there was talk about whether legislators should be “instructed” by their constituents or if they should represent the local opinions of their constituency but be focused more on what was best for the nation.  The national perspective was the winner, but Bishop would argue that the “instructors” are taking back the legislative branch.
  • Contact hypothesis: when groups have contact with others, they can learn how to integrate and find middle ground.  However, in order to work, the groups must see themselves as equals, the meetings must take place as a pursuit of a shared goal and the meetings must not be artificial.