Today I’m initiating a series of posts on The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart. This book was published last year by journalist Bill Bishop and relies heavily on statistical analysis provided by retired University of Texas sociologist, Robert G. Cushing. Their conclusions are somewhat controversial but I believe they are on to something.
Bishop begins the book with a review of presidential elections over the last sixty years. Some elections have been competitive (i.e., victory margin of less than 10%) and others have not. Each election after 1984 has been competitive, including the 2008 election. But when we dig deeper into these competitive elections we notice something different at the local level.
Competitiveness within counties has changed significantly. Comparing two very close elections, 1976 (2.1% margin) and 2004 (2.5% margin), the number of counties that went in a landslide (20%+ margin) for either candidate rose from 26.8% to 48.3%. Here are the maps they use to illustrate their point (Source: thebigsort.com)
Some critics maintain that this is not necessarily a sign of some significant cultural impetus to sort. Two objections are usually raised.
First, some claim the map above is largely a result of gerrymandering. But as Bishop correctly points out, the purpose of gerrymandering is rarely to create supermajorities in a given district. Rather, the usual aim is to siphon off votes from an area where there is already a majority and move them to a less competitive neighboring district. Gerrymandering should have actually work counter to the sorting effect.
Second, some folks, particularly on the left, see a vast right-wing conspiracy foisted by a cabal of think tanks and political operatives over the past forty years to create division and win through divisiveness. While conspiracy theories are often comforting to minority views, and Bishop doesn’t deny the desire by some conservatives to achieve such an end, conspiracy has not been the issue. Rather, the conservative party has done a far better job of tapping into the divisions that have been emerging and exploiting them.
Instead, Bishop suggests:
While Bishop doesn’t directly make the claim, my suspicion is that people who are deeply partisan on the left or right are resistant to this interpretative model. When Clinton was president, the left saw the natural order of things playing out while the right saw a cabal of maniacal deceivers in power. Over the previous eight years shoes were on the other feet. Now the shoes have switched back again. I find Bishops analysis more plausible.