In chapters 10 and 11 of The Big Sort, Bill Bishop delves into the political consequences of sorting. Forty years ago there were a variety of community oriented organizations groups that included people from a broad range of backgrounds and views; groups like the Elks, Masons, Eastern Star, and veterans groups. Mainline denominations could be added to this list to. With the collapse of faith in social institutions that began in the late 1960s, these entities went into decline. New groups with specific agendas began to take their place in the 1970s.
The real growth in organizations seemed to come from the conservative world in the 1970s because, as Bishop notes, conservative had become all but excluded from “mainstream” political organizations and think tanks. Groups like the Heritage Foundation, John M. Olin Foundation, the Federalist Society, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, all emerged around this time to give voice to conservative ideas. In the meantime, the left was creating Common Cause, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The advantage the conservatives developed was that many voters perceived that establishment ideas had failed to address pressing problems and the intensity of dissatisfaction with these “liberal” ideas was strong.
Since at least 1970s, there has been a strong tendency by both extremes to attribute the ascendancy of their adversary’s views to political gurus and think tanks that masterfully manipulate and deceive the public. In the 1990s, the Clintons could talk about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” while conservatives saw James Carville, and other Democratic operatives, skillfully deceiving the public. Fast forward a few years and it is the puppet master George Soros creating a “vast left-wing” conspiracy while Svenagli-like Karl Rove mesmerizes people into divisive camps.
Fifty years ago, people shared relatively similar ideological filters and then quibbled about specific policies offered by candidates. As time has gone by, ideological differences have grown in both depth and intensity, sorting us into echo-chambers. Bishop writes:
Further, he writes:
Bishop demonstrates how this sorting process has worked to bump moderate politicians from congress in this graph (page 247):
There are a variety of interesting details in these two chapters concerning how sorting has affected politics. I won’t recount them all here. One of note was Bishop’s observation about the Democrats perception that, in the 2004 and 2006, Republicans were wining over voters on values issues. Closer analysis does not confirm this. What appears to have happened is that Republicans better segmented their constituencies and fired up the intensity of support. I suspect Obama learned this lesson and that, along with the timely collapse of the financial markets, this propelled him to victory.
Something I’ve noted concerning the sorting effect is the way people receive this book’s storyline. You need to know that Bishop considers himself an Austin, TX, liberal. When the book first came out last spring, liberals I encountered tended to praise the book and used it as evidence of the need for a new bipartisan era being touted by Obama. Conservatives tended to see the present political order as the natural way of the world and preferred to hold to the idea of a “vast left-wing conspiracy” as the source of discord. Now that Obama is president everything has switched. For liberals who know of the sorting idea, they’ve come to reject the thesis. To them, Obama’s election signals a return to the natural order of things with a few right-wing nut cases running around. While some conservatives I know have awakened to a parallel world of liberals and see Bishop’s analysis as insightful. Even the “The Big Sort” is affected by the big sort.