If you’ve moved to a new county in the past 30 years, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing write, there’s a good chance you moved to a community of people just like you … and our “homogenous units” are tearing us apart. (More)

The Big Sort, Part I: A Community Just Like You

This week Morning Feature looks at Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Today we begin with why and how Americans began to sort ourselves into “homogenous units.” Tomorrow we’ll see how like-minded communities have polarized partisan opposition on issues from abortion to bike paths, education, taxes, and even towing stalled cars. Saturday we’ll conclude with whether and how we can reduce that polarization.

Bill Bishop is a journalist in Austin, Texas. He has written for several newspapers, and he and his wife now co-edit The Daily Yonder, a news website focusing on rural issues.

Robert Cushing is a retired professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

My wife … drew a smiley face on the map

In the introduction, Bill Bishop describes his family’s move to Austin, Texas:

We rented a Ford Taurus at the airport, bought an Austin map at the U-Tote-Um quick stop, and toured the city in search of a place to live. We didn’t have a list of necessities – granite countertops or schools with killer SATs – as much as we had a mental image of the place we belonged. We drove and when a place felt comfortable, seemed right, my wife, the daughter of one of Kentucky’s last New Deal liberals, drew a smiley face on the map.

They weren’t looking for a politically homogenous community. They didn’t look at recent precinct election returns or canvass would-be neighbors. They just looked for homes in neighborhoods where they could imagine their children playing happily with the neighbor’s children, and where they could imagine themselves fitting in.

Still, as Bishop waited in line to vote in the 2004 presidential election, he wasn’t surprised to meet a neighbor whose dog was named “Che.” He had long realized that he and his wife moved to one of Austin’s bluest Democratic enclaves. When one of the neighborhood’s few Republicans dared to endorse a local GOP candidate in on their community email list, the criticism was courteous but swift and overwhelming. For example:

Stephen, you’re in the minority politically on this list and in this neighborhood, and while your opinions are your own to have, this isn’t the place for them … This is my home, and this list is an extension of that … I hope we can all agree to prevent it from becoming a battleground.

“Picking a Party … “

That partisan sorting wasn’t just in Bishop’s neighborhood. In the 1976 presidential election, three-quarters of Americans lived in ‘contested’ counties where the margin was 20 points or less. By 2004, half of Americans lived in ‘landslide’ counties where the margin was more than 20 points. The Big Sort was written in 2007 and published in 2008, but the trend has continued:

President Obama established an all-time low percentage of U.S. counties for a successful presidential candidate: just 689 of more than three thousand, or a paltry 22%.
The 22% figure is even more remarkable when you look at the candidate who held the record before him. It was … Barack Obama, who won just 28% of U.S. counties in 2008, then went ahead and broke his own record.

Yet despite losing almost a quarter of the counties he won in 2008, President Obama’s popular vote margin hardly changed: from 53-46 in 2008 to 51-47 in 2012. The clustering was even clearer in 2012 House races, where 1.5 million more voters chose Democratic candidates yet Republicans won a 234-201 majority in seats. This graph by Nate Silver highlights the point:

Many progressive pundits leaped to blame Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 Census, but the Washington Post’s John Sides and Eric McGhee found redistricting had little if any effect:

If we assume that nothing else affects House election outcomes but the partisanship of the districts—in other words, if we allow redistricting to have its maximum possible effect—we find that the 2011 redistricting cost Democrats 7 seats in 2012. This is not nothing, but it’s far less than what the Democrats needed to take back the House and about half what Wang estimated.
More important, once we took incumbency into account, the apparent effect of gerrymandering vanished. That is, the ability of Republicans to retain the House majority may have been due to incumbency advantage, not new and more favorable districts.

Simply, Democrats have moved into fewer but bluer districts, while Republicans moved into more and redder districts.

“… Choosing a Life”

Most of that self-gerrymandering happened intuitively, without a conscious effort to move into Democratic or Republican communities. Instead, Americans who moving to a new community looked for the same things Bishop and his wife sought: a place where they could imagine their kids playing with the neighbors’ kids, or where they and their children would fit into the local church (or fit in by not attending church).

Maybe you like denser, urban neighborhoods with bike paths and mass transit, schools with science fairs and drama clubs, small shops, small cars and minivans, churches whose signs include a rainbow or the word “inclusive,” and racial diversity. If so, you’re probably a Democrat … moving to a community of Democrats.

Maybe you like sparser, rural-feeling neighborhoods with open fields, winding but well-paved roads, schools with faith-based clubs, Walmart, pickup trucks and SUVs, churches whose signs include words like “Bible-based,” and few if any people of color. If so, you’re probably a Republican … moving to a community of Republicans.

“Just like you”

What is far less likely, Bishop and Cushing found, is that you will look for a place with characteristics from both of those lists. Since 1980, the two parties have become more than voting blocs with different views of government. They have increasingly become tribes with different lifestyles.

Democrats, for example, are less likely to live near adult children and other family members, and less likely to join clubs or attend church. If they attend church, they are more likely to choose one that helps them ponder difficult questions than one that gives fixed answers. They’re more likely to talk about work with people from other companies, and to have broader networks of more casual acquaintances.

Republicans are more likely to live near adult children and other family members, and more likely to join clubs and attend church, and tend to want churches that set clear rules that reinforce their ideas of right and wrong. They’re more likely to talk about work only with colleagues, and to have tighter networks of mutual friends.

Developers, civic, and church planners learned about these differences, and by they 1990s they were customizing neighborhoods, civic groups, and even churches to attract “homogenous units” … to ensure that, if you were moving into the area, you could find a community of people just like you.

More and more of us did, and tomorrow we’ll see how that self-sorting has broken our political system.


Happy Thursday!