Category Archives: the big sort

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.”

We ‘want’ diversity, but live increasingly in segregated communities

The Pew Center has an interesting research report showing this contradiction both for political diversity and for socioeconomic and religious diversity.

Politics: Americans profess to want political diversity in their communities — true of all Americans, especially for Democrats, Liberals, Whites and Blacks and more wealthy Americans: Note: for conservative Republicans it is almost a tossup with 49% wanting to live in a diverse political environment and 43% wanting to live around others who share their views.  That said, more and more Americans are living in politically segregated communities.  Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing, whose interesting book “The Big Sort” showed how Americans are self-segregating politically note that these trends continued apace in 2008.  Nearly half of all votes (48%) cast for President in 2008 were in counties that sided with Obama or McCain by a margin of at least 20 percentage points (i.e., at least 60-40).   Ironically, even a clear majority of Democrats living in these landslide counties want to live among a mix of political views (62%) and by a razor thin plurality Republicans in landslide counties prefer to live among political diversity (46% to 44%).  [Note: Bishop believes that people choose to live among people who share their backgrounds, tastes and lifestyles, and that these preferences are increasingly correlated with political views.]

thebigsortThe Pew authors note it is unclear what is causing what: people who have moved more recently into landslide counties do not have statistically significant different views about diversity.

Race, Religious and Socioeconomic Diversity:

Patterns here are similar as with regard to political diversity.  Most Americans want to be among a mix of races, religions, people of varied socioeconomic classes.

The big divergence comes with attitudes towards immigrants.  Most Americans (other than liberal Democrats and Hispanics) prefer to live in a community with few immigrants rather than many immigrants, despite the research of Rob Sampson that shows that immigrants are more law-abiding than Americans on average.  [The researchers note that the form of the question had to be different for immigrants since just one in eight Americans are immigrants, and thus they did not ask whether you want to live in a community with a mix of immigrants and non-immigrants or not.  It is possible that the wording form influenced the responses.

So what’s going on?  The researchers note that it could be a “talk-is-cheap” phenomenon with people giving answers that they think interviewers want to hear or “saying the right thing”.  Political correctness held that the increases in answers among Americans of their attitudes toward race were just cheap talk, and then we find with the election of Obama that a majority of Americans ARE willing to elect a president who is black, so we should be wary of asserting that people are always lying about their feelings.

With regard toward racial attitudes we find that comfort levels are very different with regard to diversity among blacks and whites.  Whites prefer to live in communities that are say 15-20% non-white whereas Hispanics or Blacks often have an ideal *diversity* rate of 50% white and 50% black.  Part of what is going on in white flight is non-whites moving into neighborhoods and the percentage of non-whites rising above most whites’ comfort levels.  As the whites leave, the percentage non-white rises higher and higher, causing more whites to move out, and the community winds up becoming predominantly non-white.

The report notes that black/white segregation has declined significantly since 1960 (when 70% of blacks lived in predominantly black neighborhoods), “but immigrant segregation as well as Hispanic and Asian segregation has increased in recent decades.  [Some of these measures are sensitive to what measures one uses to measure segregation — the so called dissimilarity index or the  isolation index: as the population of groups rises or falls in percentage terms, their isolation indices can change formulaicly without them actually moving across neighborhoods.]  “Even with this increasing spatial isolation of the well-to-do, however, blacks are still nearly three times as segregated from whites as are affluent Americans from those who are less well off.”

Read the Pew Report “Americans Claim to Like Diverse Communities but do They Really” here.