Slate: The Big Sort

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Bill Bishop
Slate Blogger
Thursday, October 16, 2008; 12:00 PM

Slate Big Sort blogger Bill Bishop -- author of a book of the same name -- was online Thursday, Oct. 16 at noon ET to explain how the past 30 years have seen counties across the country become increasingly "red" or "blue"-- and what this and other demographic shifts mean for the 2008 election and the nation's future.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Past discussions with Slate authors

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Arlington, Va.: I didn't see any possible explanations for the lack of culturally creative men in your "Where Are All the Good Men" post yesterday on Slate. Why do you think there are fewer of them? Do you think contemporary society sends messages that creativity is not masculine? Finally, can you elaborate on the political implications of this gender imbalance in creativity?

Bill Bishop: Okay, here we go. Bill Bishop here from muggy Austin, Texas...

This is a good question, and I don't have a good answer. First, I think we need to make sure of the way we're defining "creativity." Ray and Anderson, I think, are talking about creativity in a different way from, say, Richard Florida.

Rich's "creative class" are people who are literally making new stuff -- music, computer programs, chips, games, literature. Ray and Anderson are describing people who are creating new cultural forms or norms. These are people who, for example, are choosing to seek out deep relationships rather than power.

Now, why are women more prone to be "creative" in that way? I've flipped back through "The Cultural Creatives," and I don't see that Ray and Anderson have an answer either...

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Slate's Fact-Checking Department in Palo Alto, Calif.: A fair number of marketers, including political marketers, clearly have taken to heart the lesson that traditional demographics don't work anymore, and they're trying out microtargeting based on things like purchasing data. (That guy who bought a Hummer and a Jet Ski probably won't vote Obama.) But it seems to me that your assessment that Obama "essentially copied the Bush approach" is dead wrong.

Obama's done Bush one better; he's mastered social network marketing, where the customer becomes the salesmen. Obama's success has hinged on the fruition of the Dean strategy -- get a million $200 donations. That happened because thousands of average citizens were persuaded to become advocates. See, for instance, the experience of FiveThirtyEight.com's Sean Quinn in Toledo, Ohio.

Bill Bishop: Where Obama has copied Bush directly is in the neighbor-to-neighbor approach to campaigning -- in making the the campaign about support for a community rather than simply support for a candidate.

I think you're right -- what Obama added to this is the Internet component, especially in fundraising. But the organizing techniques are straight from Bush.

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Cleveland: Do you find the sort to be more pronounced among Democrats than Republicans? This may sound counterintuitive, but if 30 percent of America is 85 percent Democrat and 70 percent of America is 65 percent Republican, that would lead to a roughly equal split overall. At the same time, more than half of all Democrats would come from areas where Republicans barely existed. Although more than 90 percent of Republicans would come from areas where Republicans dominate, those areas would not completely lack Democrats in the way the Democrat-dominated areas are devoid of Republicans.

Bill Bishop: What Bob found was that the sort was more pronounced among Republicans -- that, for example, when people moved from a bright red county they were very likely to go to another dark red county. Those moving from dark blue counties were not as likely to move to other blue counties.

Across a range of measures, it appeared that Republicans were growing more "sorted" and more partisan than Democrats. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson make that point in their book "Off Center."

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Alexandria, Va.: Could the Virginia Senate race be affecting the tilt of the state in the presidential race? Mark Warner's popularity seems pretty strong, and it seems to me that Jim Gilmore is just playing to the base and turning off moderates. I wonder if Tom Davis as a candidate would have resulted in a redder tilt right now. Any thoughts?

Bill Bishop: Which way will the coattails tug in this election? I don't know. I suspect Virginia will be decided more by who has moved into the state in the past four to eight years than by who's on the ballot. Bob Cushing is running some of those numbers now, so keep tuned to slate.

One story that has been overlooked, however, is a calculation done by the Dallas Morning News after the primary. The paper found that voters in precincts where Obama won by large margins were more likely to skip the rest of the ballot. In landslide Obama precincts in Texas, people were more likely to vote only on the presidential line. It's made me wonder if increased turnout for Obama will spread down ballot.

You are looking at this from another direction, and it's a good question.....

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Ukiah, Calif.: Do you see this trend of sorting reversing? If so, under what set of circumstances do you think that could happen?

Bill Bishop: I don't see people in my heavily Democratic neighborhood moving to, say, Lubbock, Texas. So I don't think the lifestyle sorting will reverse. There are too many advantages to living around those with similar tastes. (For one, you are more likely to see the kinds of foods you want in the grocery, the books you want at the bookstore, the movies you like at the cinema.)

What will change is is how these lifestyle preferences are aligned with political party. Sooner or later issues will arise that don't have a natural home with either party. I thought health care was one of these issues. After all, Wal-Mart and the Services Employees International Union have teamed up on this one -- an unlikely pairing to say the least.

Or, a new generation will have different sensibilities. One chapter in The Big Sort is devoted to the "emerging church," kids who are very Biblically oriented, but less concerned with Boomer notions of right and wrong. These were the most interesting folks I met in my reporting -- and the most inspiring.

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Fountain, Colo.: With the increase polarization between urban (Democrat) and semi-rural/rural populations (Republican) do you see a greater potential for the emergence of a more moderate (less polarizing) third-party?

Bill Bishop: I'm not enough of a political theorist to know when a viable third party can emerge. The split between rural and urban is of particular concern to me. (My wife and I edit The Daily Yonder -- dailyyonder.com -- which is devoted to rural life.) The misunderstanding between rural and urban America is particularly unhealthy.

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Washington: I ended up buying a house in Washington when I would have preferred to live in an affordable suburb with a white picket fence and sidewalk. One major issue I had was that when I'd visit co-workers for dinner parties in Fairfax or Loudon Counties, I'd hear comments like -- and all of these are 100 percent real -- "You live in D.C.? It's too dark for me over there!" Or "aren't you afraid of someone 'confusing you' in Dupont Circle?" Or "How can you stand living with so many people? I don't want to see anyone on my street or anyone from my back yard. My favorite time is August when I know I won't have to see anyone else on my block." Comments that either were directly racist or just too weird to be a part of. People who were normal in the office were filled with anger and hatred at their own parties.

The problem was that it wasn't just one or two cranks who talked like that after a few beers at a BBQ, it was everyone we met in Manassas or Chantilly or Reston. I never met a single normal person there. The people we met in the distant suburbs feared their neighbors. The close-in suburban towns like Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Old-Town were just way out of our price range. So we bought in Washington and we put up with people being more left-wing than us, if just to escape the people who joked about beating up gay people. It's not that I don't want to be around differing opinions, it's that the people we met espoused violence and conspiracy theories!

Bill Bishop: Yep. It's hard to find the place that values diversity these days. That's the big sort -- and one my wife and I are struggling with. We are convinced that our social lives were more diverse when we lived in a town of 3,500 than now, when we live in our hip neighborhood in a city of 1.8 million.

A Minnesota Republican told me that you could tell the difference between an Republican neighborhood and a Democratic neighborhood by measuring the distance between people -- just as you say. And now the distance is more than geographic, it's psychic, too.

And, yes, the conspiracies. Now we are worried what might happen in the election, who might steal the vote. My wife calls these "pre-spiracies."

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Chicago: I think your assessment that the red regions may be the driver here is dead-on. I'm a Northeastern over-educated elite, and now I live in another blue city. Sadly, I'm a lot more partisan than I used to be. But that's almost entirely a reaction to the venom directed at me, and others like me, from the right. For example, I had no idea I was a "liberal" until pundits and commentators I don't even know started calling me that. There's a whole discourse going on out there about how evil I am that I'm barely even privy to. All that's left for me is to try to not take it personally and make the best of my life that I can. Thanks.

Bill Bishop: Very interesting ... and I know exactly what you're talking about. There is a lot of research on group interaction -- most of which is not encouraging. The natural tendency is for groups to dislike one another, for no other reason than that they are different.

I do think a lot of this distrust would tone down if we had real-life acquaintances with different opinions. (Hearing all that stuff on the radio and television does sour the stomach.) But that rarely happens -- doesn't happen so much except at work.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I will grant that New England, New York and the West Coast have become bluer -- Chris Shays remains the only Republican congressman from New England, and Vermont (once the most Republican state in the country) even has an independent progressive senator. I'll also grant that the Deep South has become redder. But isn't this election changing that, as it seems now the whole country is becoming bluer? Obama is competitive in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Montana. Those are red states that, at least in this election, have become "purple" states.

Bill Bishop: The big sort is mostly about how we're clustering in communities defined by lifestyle, education and economy. This has been going on for the past 30 years. During that time we've elected Republicans and Democrats to the presidency. Some of those elections have been landslides. This may be one of those.

Yes, right now the whole country is shifting Democratic, but the underlying differences remain. My guess is these differences will reappear in a very familiar kind of partisan wrangling in Congress next year. The only difference will be that, for the time being, there will be fewer Republicans.

The lifestyle split remains. We've just run some numbers here at dailyyonder.com that show widening economic disparities by county -- in other words the economic divisions are growing from place to place. Austin, Texas, booms while part of my home state of Kentucky fall into a deep hole of depression, premature death and prescription drug abuse.

My neighbors are moving to Republican areas and Republicans are moving into central Austin. The divisions remain.

It's interesting that both Obama and McCain entered the campaign as post-partisan candidates. And now...

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Lenexa, Kan.: Do you believe the combination of the political sorting effect on America and the electoral college system exaggerates voter disenfranchisement? For instance, Kansas electoral votes have not gone to a Democrat since Johnson, and McCain is expected to take the state by 20 points or so. Strongly held states tend to be ignored by presidential campaigns, as only the electoral race matters in the end.

Bill Bishop: I know what you mean. There haven't been a lot of visits from the campaigns here in Texas.

I don't know how it would play out if the electoral college disappeared. Others probably have better guesses. If Kansas or Texas were less sorted then both would be getting attention now, and that's not a function of the electoral college.

Do others out there have thoughts? I know people have strong opinions on the electoral college, but I don't...

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Washington: Are there any communities you came across that were anomalies? Urban and conservative, or rural and liberal? Or better yet, quite balanced and heterogeneous? Also, what do you foresee as the future? Will we ever sort back?

Bill Bishop: Our unit of measurement is the county because it's the only political boundary that's stable from decade to decade. When Bob Cushing runs the presidential election numbers at the county level, he finds that two thirds have grown less competitive since 1976.

So, one-third are mixed. Dave Leip at the uselectionsatlas.org Web site tells us that Vigo County, Ind., is one of the most competitive counties. That's Terra Haute.

There are some interesting exceptions in Colorado. Some of those ritzy ski counties are both rural and very blue. I was just out on the Western Slope of Colorado, and the folks there were saying immigration from California (and elsewhere) was changing the politics of the region, making it more mixed. People in Bend, Ore., told me the same thing.

So that kind of mixing is going on constantly. Still, it seems to me that the sorting continues because that's the way we want to live. What will change will be how these lifestyle preferences line up with political party. Or, in the future, don't line up.

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Baltimore: I have never lived in a "swing" state. Any chance that the electoral college will be scrapped and we will move to direct election of the president in my lifetime? I am 45. I think the electoral college system has many pernicious effects on our system (why should I vote in my state, for example?) and has outlived its utility in a more modern world. Thanks.

Bill Bishop: More electoral college opinion -- everybody's weigh in...

I think there is some work also that the electoral college only matters in extremely close elections. Even a small percentage-point win and the Electoral College doesn't matter.

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Oviedo, Fla.: I'll see your theory and raise you ... Alaska. Hear me out: I did my master's research there in '88 and studied the state in depth. There are extreme hippies (grow their own veggie food, wearing hide garments they make, off the grid) and also a military presence and big oil. Call it "Guns 'n Granola." Many of these people and their subsets occupy similar space. Snow machiners and hunters near cabins where unmarried parents are home-schooling kids by lamp-light in Marxism. Maybe the "sort" would be withdrawing from the main world, not the political skew, but I have seen this and it lives. Sarah Palin is just part of it ... trust me, she has neighbors who commune.

Bill Bishop: Like Austin in the 1970s -- rednecks and hippies found weed together! And for a while there was this kind of kicker nirvana. Or, at least, that's the story...

I like the notion. When you have to create your own culture and your own fun, maybe these lifestyle differences disappear.

Our solution might be a retreat to rural Texas...

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Philadelphia: What a difference a bad president makes. Remember Karl Rove telling us just a few short years ago that a "permanent Republican majority lasting generations" was on it's way?

Bill Bishop: We know now that neither party is permanent. What is long-lasting is how we've divided by our own beliefs and cultural preferences. That's a heck of a lot more permanent than what Karl had in mind...

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Austin, Texas: How does public education fit into all of this? One of the reasons I'm a big believer in public schools is that for all their faults, they at least provide young people a chance to get to know people different from themselves. I realize that some private/parochial schools also value diversity, but at least in my experience here in the South, most don't. And one of the big reasons parents send their kids to private schools is so that they won't be exposed to "those people." (However you define "those people.")

Bill Bishop: A friend, Ian McDonald, describes this as the lack of shared experiences in our lives. We don't have 'em. When more people went to public schools, there was that shared experience. Ditto with the morning paper and the nightly news, and the war and the Depression.

Now, not much. Maybe this is another reason for a program of national service...

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New York: Living in Tribeca for more than 20 years, we have seen a diverse neighborhood move to the wealthy, white stroller-set, and it is difficult to take the homogeneous nature of it because stores, etc., cater to this ilk. Diversity is an excellent for growth on so many levels

Bill Bishop: Yes, monocultures die, just as you're saying. What we have with The Sort is greater diversity across the country. Places really are different from one another. At the same time, we have more conformity in the communities where we live. Not so much fun...

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Boston: I think that the biggest problem is that people don't know how to argue politely (I'm too young to know if this is a new phenomena or not). Having discussions with people of opposing views are fantastic, if you don't start screaming and are well-informed or willing to admit that you don't know much about a subject. Why can't more people do this, I wonder?

Bill Bishop: Diana Mutz wrote a great book on this, called "Hearing the Other Side." She suggests that we might have to relearn how to have disagreements. At the same time, marketing people tell me that Americans are less willing to accept compromise these days. We want our eggs cooked just the way we want them -- and now we are applying this consumer attitude to politics and democracy. Only democracy doesn't work that way, does it?

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Princeton, N.J.: Look I'm a Ph.D. in math and I live in liberal la-la land. I am part of the problem. I just can't imagine having conservative friends. The point is that they simply are factually and mathematically wrong in so many issues that it would be like walking on glass to be around them. Most of the conservatives I know use faith-based reasoning -- I don't mean just religious faith, but faith in almost anything.

For example you can show conservative physicians that large malpractice payments have no correlation with high malpractice premiums. You can show them that the premiums do (anti) correlate with interest rates. You can show them that the total amount of money involved in the high settlements is peanuts. They will not contradict any of your data, but they will just nod their heads and say "but everybody knows the the high premiums are caused by the enormous settlements." This scene is repeated over and over again with tax policy, evolution, health-care financing, Social Security, etc., etc., etc. It's just too much to bear.

Bill Bishop: This is the hard part. Bearing is part of the job. Democracy is all about getting along - listening to -- those who we think are dead wrong. Or at least it's about giving politicians the authority to cobble together deals with people we find too much to bear. We have to do one or the other -- listen to ourselves or give our politicians enough leash to do their jobs ... and, I agree with you, it hurts.

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New Jersey: A question I've been trying to figure out - there are dozens of books by liberals trying to "figure out" conservatives, their issues, their mindsets, how best to reach out to them (e.g. Thomas Frank). But there seems to be a complete lack of interest in liberals on the part of conservatives. Why aren't they trying to research my mindset, or trying to figure out what draws me to liberalism? I can't figure out the disparity -- it shows up on Web sites also, where liberals try to imagine the conservative mindset, but conservatives never spend any time at all on figuring out liberals.

Bill Bishop: This is a great question, and one I don't have the answer to. Probably because liberals have been on a bit of a losing streak. I think the new books by Mickey Edwards and Ross Douthat (do I have that right?) are probably the first wave of many of the kind of books you are describing. If Obama wins big, there'll be plenty!

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Bill Bishop: Thanks to all. Now I'm off for my noontime peanut butter and jelly and a walk around my neighborhood overrun with Obama signs! Take care.

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