What Big Sort?

Political scientists Mo Fiorina (Stanford) and Sam Abrams (Sarah Lawrence College) have done work analyzing and ultimately critiquing Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s popular Big Sort.

Synopsis of Big Sort: Bill Bishop claims that we are increasingly self-sorting ourselves into neighborhoods politically and only associating with like-minded political neighbors with all kinds of horrible consequences.   Much of Bishop and Cushing’s evidence about the corrosive effect comes from psycho-sociological experiments like Asch‘s where group pressure causes people to behave immorally (a la Lord of the Flies or the Stanford Prison Experiment), or to censure their own dissonant voice even when they originally believed those views to be  correct. [Note: Fiorina has made quite a name for himself on how the political elites in America have become ever more polarized and the masses have over time sorted themselves out more reliably into political parties but the masses views' have not become any more extreme, so obviously the Big Sort doesn't square with his other research that uses ongoing surveys like the General Social Survey, the American National Election Studies, etc.]  There is a wonderful cartoon that the New York Times did about the Big Sort.

While Bishop and Cushing try to look a wide variety of evidence, among them voting records, patent applications, IRS income data, advertisers’ data, etc., Fiorina asserts that the backbone of Bishop’s evidence compares two closely fought presidential elections — 1976 where a moderate Republican Gerald Ford took on a moderate southern Democrat Jimmy Carter vs. 2004 when a Texas born-again Republican George W. Bush took on a liberal northeastern Democrat John Kerry.   Bishop observes that there was an increase of 22 percentage points in the number of “landslide” counties from 1976-2004 (defined as a county that went for a candidate by more than a 60/40 margin).

Fiorina thinks that this comparison in and of itself is skewed since presidential campaigns are all about personalities and one can’t simply compare one against another and assume that one is witnessing changing behavior of voters.  Furthermore, he thinks because of the contestants in those contests, there are many reasons to expect more landslide results by county in 2004 when voters were faced with a starker choice.

Nonetheless, he and Sam Abrams have searched for a measure that proxies well for voter preference but measures against a more steady yardstick than votes.  They look at partisan political registration by county (which they say predicts voter choice according to other scholarly work).    Comparing counties in 1976 and 2004, even if one dramatically lowers the threshold of “landslide” counties to ones where a simple majority of registered residents are one political party (e.g., Republicans), there has been a drop in such counties from 75% of counties in 1976 to 40% in 2004.  This doesn’t show sorting at all.  For sure, there has been a significant increase over this same time in voters registering as independents, but that itself is an undermining of the “Big Sort” hypothesis, since independents’ vote choice is much more volatile according to Fiorina. Fiorina is doing another project on independents:  they are almost never just weak identifiers with a party, but either break with a party over one significant issue or have a much more esoteric alignment of political values.  He says that looking at independents over time one sees that there may be as low as 35% of Independent voters from one presidential election to the next consistently saying they are Independent, voting Democratic.

Fiorina also says that even if there were a “big sort” going on, and the data found increasing polarization at the neighborhood level (his data show nothing like this happening at the county level), he’s not convinced it would have a big impact on politics for three reasons:

  1. Neighborhoods aren’t such an important center, especially in the age of media and blogs and where 2/3 of Americans only know at most 25% of their neighbors’ names.
  2. Neighbors don’t talk to each other all that much: a Howard, Gibson and Stolle 2005 CID study found that 55% of Americans never talk about politics with neighbors and Putnam’s Bowling Alone showed how interactions with neighbors has sharply declined over last generation;
  3. Politics is simply not that important a topic of discussion or way in which we identify ourselves.  The three most important ways in which people identify themselves are family (51%), occupation (16%) and religion (10%).  Even if you go down to people’s third most important factor, politics only registers 2.7% of people listing that as the third most important factor.

Questions: one person asked Fiorina about the Bischoff-Reardon study showing increased income residential segregation over the last generation (at the census tract level); since income itself predicts being Republican, she wondered how those findings are consistent.  Fiorina hadn’t seen the study so didn’t want to comment.

Another asked how one knows whether Americans really are moderate or like to portray themselves that way. Fiorina said that any survey data is subject to such doubts but that highly volatile results, like the recent contrasting results in Ohio criticizing Obamacare while supporting the rights  of unions, with many voters voting yes on both are consistent these data.  Fiorina also noted that one has to look back to the late 1800s for 4 consecutive elections that show the level of political instability that exists today.  [2004: All Republican control of president and both houses of government; 2006 Republican president, democratic control of both houses of Congress; 2008 democratic control of President and both houses of government; 2010 democratic presidency, republican House and Democratic Senate.]  We’ve had four elections each with a distinctive result, and the next election, if current Intrade predictions pan out could show a 5th result and a flip from 2006, with a democratic President (Obama) re-elected and republican control of both houses of Congress.  See also David Brooks’ interesting related column “The Two Moons.”

Fiorina who is working on Americans Elect, believes that the way this could change is for things to get bad enough that a “younger, saner Ross Perot emerges” as a third party candidate (quoting David Brooks).  While this is not predictable, Fiorina cited Sid Verba who noted that before the Berlin Wall fell, no one saw this coming, and afterwards everyone could identify the reasons why this was inevitable.

He thinks Obama’s most promising re-election strategy is to assert that he’ll be the bulwark against likely control of both houses of Congress by the extremist Tea Party-led Republicans and a bulwark against the political extremism among political elites.

Fiorina believes that although trust of Congress is at all all-time low of 9%, turnout is not down because the political parties are providing a much stronger ground game and a much higher percentage of voters now indicate they’ve been contacted by the political parties.   [It may also be a function that more voters see an increasing difference between the two political parties and the media and others may make stronger appeals that the stakes are ever more consequential.]

Fiorina also commended the recent research by Jim Stimson and Chris Ellis  and a forthcoming book that indicates that most liberals truly are liberals whereas white conservatives are a blend of different things.  26% of conservatives are movement conservatives who really do have conservative values (what Ellis/Stimson call “constrained”); 34% are traditional-symbolic conservatives (like Mike Huckabee), many of whom are recruited through churches but don’t necessarily know the conservative party position or have consistent conservative beliefs (what Ellis/Stimson call “moral” conservatives); slightly less than a third are what Fiorina calls “clueless” conservatives (what Ellis/Stimson call “conflicted” conservatives), many of whom are younger, who actually hold liberal positions but think that the conservative label conveys greater respect (like a military official in uniform); and 10% of conservatives are libertarian (just wanting less government in general, whether it is for making marijuana legal and eliminating an army, or doing away with food stamps).  Fiorina agrees with the book that when one says that 40% of Americans are “conservative” it is misleading since a far smaller percentage of them uphold conservative positions across the board.

See also this earlier post about the “Big Sort.”

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3 responses to “What Big Sort?

  1. I am a high school student who lives in a predominately white and rich neighborhood. This past week i went around door to door asking my neighbors questions so as to identify the social capital of my community. What i have found out i found rather interesting and amusing. I have 26 houses on my street and about 65 people who live in those houses, my neighbors. 24/26 of the houses i went to have attended a political meeting in the past year, 10/26 have attended a political event in the past year, 12/26 have said that they go to their regular grocery store and also probably see someone they know, 11/26 have said that they regularly attend church, 23/26 know the names of 1/2 of the people on my block, 5/26 play on a sports team or go to the gym, 13/26 are a member of a club/organization/volunteer group that meets regularly, 18/26 go out more than one night a week, and 24/26 say if their car broke down on a typical Wednesday, they could have a ride home in half an hour. In the above passage, it is stated that only 2/3 people know 1/2 of their neighbors name, and this was very contradictory to my interview of my neighbors. My information shows that almost all of my neighbors know the names of 1/2 my other neighbors and have moderately to very high social capital.
    - J Money

    • Your neighborhood is completely atypical of the country as a whole so you should appreciate just how socially connected they are!

  2. While your neighbors may know the names of one another, the fact that they don’t run into each other at the grocery store or go to regular religious services demonstrates they are missing out on the very benefits having social capital. Social capital isn’t JUST knowing someone’s name. It is a network of human beings that rely on an underlying system of positive externalities.

    I know the name of the guy who lives above me in my complex, but he annoys me and I have very little respect for him. If he has a flat tire in the parking lot on a rainy day, I’m NOT going to help him change the thing. I’ll walk by and say, “sorry Carlos!”

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