Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Part I: A House Divided: "The Big Sort" and Its Threat to Republicanism

This week, we’ll explore polarization in America. Today’s post dives into the data behind the phenomenon. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how America can remain united by recognizing how diverse means can be applied to common ends.

Whether you hail from Surbiton, Ulan Bator or Nairobi, your genetic make-up is strikingly similar to that of every other person on Earth.”

--Roger Highfield, “DNA Survey Finds All Humans are 99.9pc the Same,” The Telegraph, 2002 

For generations, “We’re not so different, you and I,” has been a recurring trope in Hollywood, from James Bond to Austin Powers. The phrase, often said by a villain to a protagonist in a moment of self-serving self-reflection, evokes a sentiment that is universal—that for all that separates us from one another (race, sex, class, nationality, religion), there is so much more that we all have in common.

To paraphrase President Clinton’s famous line from his first inaugural address, no difference between people is so vast that the fear and hatred it evokes cannot be cured, mitigated, and ultimately overwhelmed, by our common humanity.

It hasn’t always been easy for people to acknowledge this essential truth. In earlier eras, when the world was flat (not in the Thomas Friedman-sense of the term), interactions between peoples of different backgrounds often carried significant risk of violence.

As Harvard University Professor Steven Pinker detailed in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, the world has witnessed an immense decline in violence over the past several centuries (and an even greater decline when compared to previous millennia). Pinker argues that the “pacification process” (where people agree that a State-like authority should have a monopoly on violence), when combined with the “civilizing process” (in part a boom in commerce between and among peoples) and the “humanitarian revolution” (a recognition of human rights and the moral ill of violence and torture), has led to the steep declines in violence across the globe.

In short, while ignorance of the customs of another tribe is a common prelude to fear and conflict, an understanding of those customs and a symbiotic relationship between peoples (via commerce, art, storytelling, etc.) can be preludes to inspiration and interconnectedness.

Nevertheless, despite Pinker’s exhaustively researched book and the undeniable genetic truth that we are all more alike than may appear at first glance, people continue to struggle to make sense of our differences. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics.
CC License: Flickr User "jermiac"
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on an extraordinary series of studies and polls that “paint a picture of two Americas—not just with differing proclivities but different life experiences.” The core difference identified by researchers is not political party or race, sex, or class. Rather, it boils down to where you live—in a rural or urban setting.

One data point is a particularly blunt indication of this phenomenon. “In 1992, Bill Clinton won 60% of the Whole Foods counties and 40% of the Cracker Barrel counties, a 20-point difference. That gap that has widened every year since, and in 2012, Mr. Obama won 77% of Whole Foods counties and 29% of Cracker Barrel Counties, a 48-point difference.” 

This trend is grounded in the continued self-segregation of Americans by ideology. In McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948), a case involving the “set aside” of time in public schools for “voluntary” religious instruction, Justice Felix Frankfurter declared that such “voluntary” instruction was not truly voluntary because, “The law of imitation operates, and non-conformity is not an outstanding characteristic of children.” 

Frankfurter was surely right. But maybe his grand conclusion was too narrow. Maybe non-conformity is not an outstanding characteristic of people. As Bill Bishop states in his groundbreaking book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, “As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics.”

Indeed, as recently as 1976, 27 percent of Americans lived in counties where the Presidential election was a landslide (defined as a margin of 20 percent or greater). In 2012, over 52 percent of Americans lived in these counties.

The political effects of this clustering are stark. As David Jarman wrote for Daily Kos in 2012, “Even without considering the pernicious effects of gerrymandering, the clustering of more and more Democrats in fewer and fewer places creates a lopsided map of fewer dark-blue districts and more light-red districts,” making it harder for Democrats to win the House of Representatives even as they continue to triumph in national races, as detailed here….and here.

While the effects on the fortunes of political parties continue to generate significant debate (not to mention consternation in many circles), what is most troubling to me as a citizen is the potentially devastating long-term effect of this division on the strength of the American Republic.

From the beginning of our great experiment in democratic self-government, we have recognized that a spirit of cooperation—of common values and principles (even within an otherwise diverse polity)—is essential to our success. In a letter to publisher Hezekiah Niles in 1818, President John Adams famously wrote, “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

What happens to a society when those “principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” are no longer common to all who pledge allegiance to our flag? And what, if anything, can we do to mitigate the effects of the “Big Sort” and prevent the Nation’s foundations from being eroded by division? (if you think this is hyperbole, take a look at the recent rise in secessionist movements in the U.S.).

We’ll tackle those questions (and try to find some solutions!) in tomorrow’s post.

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