The Null Device

The Big Sort

According to a new book, Americans are increasingly segregating themselves from people with different values or political views, mostly along the liberal-conservative culture-war faultlines:
In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 50.1% of the popular vote. Though the race was close, some 26.8% of Americans were in “landslide counties” that year, where Mr Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.
The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then. In the dead-heat election of 2000, it was 45.3%. When George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, it was a whopping 48.3%. As the playwright Arthur Miller put it that year: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?” Clustering is how.
For example, someone who works in Washington, DC, but wants to live in a suburb can commute either from Maryland or northern Virginia. Both states have equally leafy streets and good schools. But Virginia has plenty of conservative neighbourhoods with megachurches and Bushites you've heard of living on your block. In the posh suburbs of Maryland, by contrast, Republicans are as rare as unkempt lawns and yard signs proclaim that war is not the answer but Barack Obama might be.
The Big Sort manifests itself in where people live (another manifestation of Paul Graham's observation that cities reinforce different ambitions; neighbourhoods and communities also reinforce (positively or negatively) political and cultural values), but goes beyond that. Many Americans have retreated into cognitive gated communities; they watch cable news that reinforces their beliefs, meet their mates on dating websites exclusively for liberals or conservatives (the British equivalent would presumably be the Times/Guardian/Torygraph's respective dating sites; in Britain, newspaper preference is an ideological marker), and in some cases, homeschool their kids to protect them from "wrong" ideas such as evolution or homosexuality. (AFAIK, homeschooling seems to be more a religious conservative phenomenon.) According to a University of Pennsylvania survey of people from 12 countries, Americans are the least likely to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them. And then there was the survey of an online book-recommendation service from some years ago, showing clusters of books read by liberals and conservatives, with next to no connection between them.
“We now live in a giant feedback loop,” says Mr Bishop, “hearing our own thoughts about what's right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear and the neighbourhoods we live in.”
The downside of this is that, when people segregate themselves, their own opinions become more extreme and uncompromising, and those of the other side become demonised, making workable political compromise difficult:
Voters in landslide districts tend to elect more extreme members of Congress. Moderates who might otherwise run for office decide not to. Debates turn into shouting matches. Bitterly partisan lawmakers cannot reach the necessary consensus to fix long-term problems such as the tottering pensions and health-care systems.
America, says Mr Bishop, is splitting into “balkanised communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible.” He has a point. Republicans who never meet Democrats tend to assume that Democrats believe more extreme things than they really do, and vice versa. This contributes to the nasty tone of many political campaigns.

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