Most Americans are not like Antonin Scalia

October 18, 2013

Are most Americans like Nino? No-no. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo)

When Antonin Scalia sat for an interview with New York magazine’s Jennifer Senior a few weeks ago, he described a life of cloistered conservatism:

We just get The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. We used to get the Washington Post, but it just … went too far for me. I couldn’t handle it anymore…It was the treatment of almost any conservative issue. It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning? I don’t think I’m the only one. I think they lost subscriptions partly because they became so shrilly, shrilly liberal.

And:

When was the last party you went to that had a nice healthy dose of both liberals and conservatives?
Geez, I can’t even remember. It’s been a long time.

This has produced a number of lamentations.  Dahlia Lithwick:

When Scalia suggests he doesn’t know anyone—especially “ladies”—who uses foul language, you can practically hear Senior’s eyebrows clang against the ceiling. Part of it is gender, to be sure. But at least a part of it is the absolute polarization of American life: the complete intellectual silos that are our neighborhoods, our media, our friends, and our intellectual sparring partners.

David Carr:

The polarized political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse. Justice Scalia and millions of news consumers select and assemble a worldview from sources that may please them, but rarely challenge them.

James Carville:

But perhaps as much as anything is the disturbing fragmentation of the media. Today, conservatives can get all their information from conservative outlets, and liberals can get all their information from liberal outfits. And you can spend your whole life never being challenged, never having to hear or think about or confront viewpoints that are different from your own.

And others.

Here’s the good news: things aren’t nearly that dire.  Antonin Scalia isn’t like most Americans because most Americans don’t live in little bubbles surrounded by viewpoints we agree with.

Neighborhoods. Let’s start with the neighborhoods that Lithwick mentioned.  In reality, most neighborhoods are at least somewhat politically diverse.  Here is a graph from Yale political scientist Eitan Hersh:


(Graph by Eitan Hersh)

In the 2008 election, most precincts in the country did not vote for Obama or McCain in a lopsided fashion.  Instead, they were somewhere in the middle.  Hersh’s point in making this graph is to illustrate that campaigns cannot easily target based on precincts.  They’re simply too heterogeneous.  What that means is that most of us actually live in neighborhoods alongside partisans of both stripes.

But aren’t neighborhoods growing more homogeneous?  That is the argument of Bill Bishop’s well-known book The Big Sort.  It has occasioned several subsequent analyses.  One of these, by Jesse Sussell, finds some evidence for growing partisan segregation in California between 1992 and 2010.  Another analysis by political scientists Samuel Abrams and Morris Fiorina — which I previously described here — examines a wider swath of states and does not find evidence of geographic sorting.  (See also the response by Bishop.)  A new paper by Stanford’s Clayton Nall and Jonathan Mummolo finds that partisans would like to live among fellow partisans, but mostly cannot and do not because other considerations — things like home prices and school quality — take precedence when deciding where to move:

Even though there are large differences between the parties when individuals are presented with hypothetical residential scenarios, the impacts of these partisan preferences are mitigated by reality. Communities that are generally considered desirable—with good schools, low crime, and suburban—are swing areas that members of both parties desire and move to, a fact supported by the generally high costs of real estate in these areas. If anything, partisan residential sorting appears to be governed, at least in the present, by mixing. A Democrat in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who wants to live in a nice neighborhood (even with a fairly loose definition of “nice” based only on home ownership rates) has no choice but to live in a mixed or Republican zip code, while a Republican hoping to live in a high-home-ownership neighborhood in the San Francisco-Oakland area has no options except to live in a mixed or Democratic zip code.

See also Maryland political scientist James Gimpel’s comments, which paint a fairly qualified picture about any geographic sorting.

The Media. The evidence is even clearer here.  Most Americans do not get their news from some ideologically congenial set of outlets.   First, most Americans watch very little partisan news at all.  People report watching partisan news in surveys but data on what they actually watch reveals that these surveys exaggerate. For example, Princeton political scientist Markus Prior found that about 18% of Americans call themselves “regular” viewers of Fox News, but only 5% actually watch at least an hour of Fox News every week.

Second, most Americans get news from non-partisan sources or a variety of sources.  They are omnivores.  UCLA’s Michael LaCour tracked media usage via devices that participants carried with them and that regularly recorded the ambient sounds around them.  Here is his graph of whether news consumption was skewed to the left- or right-wing.


(Graph by Michael LaCour)

A positive score means watching and listening to media that is conservative, and a negative score means watching or listening to media that is liberal.  But most people are clustered near zero.  They have a pretty balanced news diet.  LaCour’s findings are also consistent with the research of Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, who examined news consumption on-line and found that most consumers read ideologically diverse new outlets.  To be sure, if you isolate people who watch a lot of partisan news, their viewing habits reflect more skew.  The same is true of people who read political blogs: they are anything but omnivores, according to my research with Eric Lawrence and Henry Farrell.  But both groups are small.

None of this is to say that Americans haven’t become more partisan (they have).  Or that liberals and conservatives haven’t become better sorted into the two major political parties (they have).  Or that partisans aren’t more polarized in some respects (they are).

But these trends do not reflect much self-segregation into little red or blue bubbles.  Our neighborhoods and our news are pretty purple after all.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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