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Maybe “The Big Sort” Never Happened

- March 20, 2012

Many readers will remember the book The Big Sort by Bill Bishop.  It argues that Americans are increasingly clustered in like-minded political communities.  If one categorizes a county by how its residents voted in presidential elections, as of 2004 nearly half (48%) of Americans lived in “landslide” countries where one presidential candidate got at least 60% of the vote.  In 1976, that number was 27%.

A new article (currently and graciously ungated) by political scientists Samuel Abrams and Morris Fiorina challenges this account, however.  Abrams and Fiorina argue that presidential voting is not a reliable indicator of partisanship, as voting may depend on idiosyncratic features of candidates.  Better, they argue, is party registration, which more reliably measures people’s underlying partisan preference (if any).

When landslide counties are identified using party registration and this same 60/40 threshold, the trend is the complete opposite of a Big Sort.  The fraction living in such counties was 50% in 1976; in 2008, it was 15%.  This same conclusion emerges using thresholds lower than 60/40.

Abrams and Fiorina conclude:

bq. Do the preceding analyses prove that political residential segregation is not occurring? No. That is not our position…The simple fact is that it will take much more detailed research to settle questions about geographic sorting one way or the other. In particular, to examine the subject of residential polarization in a systematic manner requires data at a much lower level than the county level. One of us lives in New York County, New York, where neighborhoods range from the Upper East Side and SoHo to Harlem and Washington Heights. The other lives in San Mateo County, California, where neighborhoods range from the Woodside estates of Silicon Valley billionaires to the Redwood City bungalows of Mexican immigrants. No county-level figures can capture the disparate political textures of these areas, as well as thousands of others in the United States.

There’s another interesting point.  Abrams and Fiorina argue that, even if political segregation in neighborhoods has increased, it may not have negative consequences.  Citing the work of Robert Putnam and others, they argue that a decreasing amount of interaction — political and otherwise — takes place among neighbors.  And so they conclude:

bq. In sum, neighborhoods are not important centers of contemporary American life. Americans today do not know their neighbors very well, do not talk to their neighbors very much, and talk to their neighbors about politics even less. And they do not see themselves as swimming in a sea of like-minded people who have intimidated or cast out anyone who believed otherwise; they are aware that their neighbors differ politically. Even if geographic political sorting were ongoing, its effects would be limited by the preceding facts about contemporary neighborhood life.

I know Bill Bishop from my time in Austin, and he’s also a regular reader of this blog.  I’ve invited him to comment if he sees fit.  Other comments welcome, of course.