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:
- 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.
- 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;
- 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.”
Posted in Americans Elect, Barack Obama, big sort, bill bishop, Chris Ellis, CID Survey, Citizenship Involvement Demcracy Survey, congress, congressional approval, conservatives, critique, david brooks, Dietlind Stolle, divided government, elections, elites, Independents, Intrade, James Gibson, James Stimson, landslide counties, Marc Howard, Mo Fiorina, moderates, morris fiorina, partisanship, polarization, political elites, Sid Verba, Solomon Asch, sorting, Stanford Prison Experiment, summary, synopsis, Tea Party, the big sort, The Two Moons
Tagged Americans Elect, Barack Obama, big sort, bill bishop, Chris Ellis, CID Survey, Citizenship Involvement Demcracy Survey, congress, congressional approval, conservatives, critique, david brooks, Dietlind Stolle, divided government, elections, elites, Independents, Intrade, James Gibson, James Stimson, landslide counties, Marc Howard, Mo Fiorina, moderates, morris fiorina, partisanship, polarization, political elites, Sid Verba, Solomon Asch, sorting, Stanford Prison Experiment, summary, synopsis, Tea Party, the big sort, The Two Moons
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These are unprecedented times for our economy (at least since the Great Depression). No one would have predicted several years ago that we’d see the federal government forced to take over the two largest mortgage holders (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae), the largest worldwide insurer (AIG), and 3 of the 5 largest investment banks forced either to sell at bargain-basement prices, declare bankruptcy or get government assistance (Merrill Lynch; Lehman Brothers; Bear Stearns, respectively).
Underlying the well-working of the whole economic system both at the micro and macro level is trust. Other scholars have written about this before, most notably James Coleman in his 1988 discussion of Jewish diamond merchants in New York (“Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital“); the merchants’ interconnecting networks and interpersonal trust allowed them to freely lend diamonds to each other for examination and ensure that the bags were honestly returned. The social networks helped ensure that any short-term gains to be made through dishonesty would be swamped by being shunned in the future when one’s poor reputation spread through these networks.
But at the macro level, our economy also depends on trust: Trust that the banking systems will continue to work. Trust that the U.S. government will be in a position to pay back all the money it borrows for Treasuries. Trust that stocks will go up or are a good place to park retirement assets. Trust that one’s money market fund that has nominally had an unguaranteed $1 per share price will continue to be so valued. Trust that funding will be available in the future at reasonable rates.
When trust starts to dry up, these well-oiled financial systems can become remarkably rusty and liquidity and access to capital can dry up amazingly fast. At the same time on Tuesday that AIG was trying to get billions pumped into their operations, they had a remarkably hard tapping credit; the benchmark inter-bank LIBOR rate (used to peg many variable rate mortgages) literally nearly doubled in one day.
One of the spectacular ways in which one sees trust underlying our economy is in bank failures. While some bank runs are driven by fraudulent activity by the bank that suddenly cause everyone to question whether their assets’ security, normally we live with the fiction that our assets are there for us. In reality of course, our bank deposits aren’t sitting in the bank, but the bank has lent out our money to make more money and to be able to pay us interest, meet their expenses and make a profit. The banks keep some small reserves to cover the expected levels of daily withdrawals, but these are desperately inadequate when we all decide to do this at the same time and the banks can’t get our cash back fast enough from borrowers. As “It’s A Wonderful Life” styled it, ‘Don’t Look Now, but there’s Something Funny Going on at the Bank, George.’
There was an interesting commentary on bank panics by Jane Kamensky (Brandeis) and this one (LA Times Op-Ed) and a talk show where she discusses the importance of trust to banks.
The FDIC tried to help create trust after the Great Depression by insuring our deposits up to $100,000, hoping that this would avoid runs on banks, although we are learning that this too depends on trust. There is some mounting evidence that the amounts FDIC maintains are not really adequate for a big financial meltdown. The FDIC used up one sixth of their total reserves just paying out to IndyMac depositors when that bank went under this summer. While the FDIC can raise premiums that banks pay for this insurance, at some point they run the risk that these higher payments will in turn make more banks unprofitable and force them to liquidate as well.
The economy is becoming like the veritable sausage axiom, don’t pay too much attention examining how it’s produced.
[For good background on what is going on with the economic woes, see “Diamond and Kashyap on the Recent Financial Upheavals”, these NY Times posts, or “Worst Crisis Since ’30s with No End Yet In Sight” (WSJ), likening crisis to doctors treating a patient in intensive care.]
Note: HybridVigor has an interesting post that concludes from the financial meltdown in 2008 that “Markets depend on trust, but self-interested egoists don’t engender trust.” More specifically, “When it comes to social trust, free markets are freeloaders. Free markets are most efficient when a high degree of social capital exists, but the “flaw” Greenspan alludes to is simply the friction between egotism and trust. It turns out that trust, not egotism, is what keeps a market in check. But markets today encourage risky, self-centric, and flamboyant behavior. The Laws of Relation predict that relationships set up in this way result in everyone being worse off.”
Note also that David Brooks has a related article 4-5 months after this post called “An Economy of Faith and Trust” (1/16/09)
Posted in AIG, An Economy of Faith and Trust, banking system, Bear Stearns, david brooks, economy, Fannie Mae, financial crisis, financial system, Freddie Mac, government, Great Depression, HybridVigor, IndyMac, James Coleman, jane kamensky, Lehman Brothers, Merill Lynch, new york times, trust, US Treasury, wall street journal
Tagged AIG, An Economy of Faith and Trust, banking system, Bear Stearns, david brooks, economy, Fannie Mae, financial crisis, financial system, Freddie Mac, government, Great Depression, HybridVigor, IndyMac, James Coleman, jane kamensky, Lehman Brothers, Merill Lynch, new york times, trust, US Treasury, wall street journal