Sunday, June 22, 2008


ECONOMIST Americans are increasingly forming like-minded clusters. Conservatives are choosing to live near other conservatives, and liberals near liberals. A good way to measure this is to look at the country's changing electoral geography. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 50.1% of the popular vote. Though the race was close, some 27% of Americans were in "landslide counties" that year, where Mr Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.

The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then. In the dead-heat election of 2000, it was 45%. When George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, it was a whopping 48%. As the playwright Arthur Miller put it that year: "How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?" Clustering is how.

County-level data understate the degree of ideological segregation, reckons Bill Bishop, the author of a gripping new book called "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart". . .

Americans move house often, usually for practical reasons. Before choosing a new neighborhood, they drive around it. They notice whether it has gun shops, evangelical churches and "W" bumper stickers, or yoga classes and organic fruit shops. Perhaps unconsciously, they are drawn to places where they expect to fit in.

Where you live is partly determined by where you can afford to live, of course. But the "Big Sort" does not seem to be driven by economic factors. Income is a poor predictor of party preference in America; cultural factors matter more. For Americans who move to a new city, the choice is often not between a posh neighborhood and a run-down one, but between several different neighborhoods that are economically similar but culturally distinct.

Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbors leads over time to severe segregation. An accountant in Texas, for example, can live anywhere she wants, so the liberal ones move to the funky bits of Austin while the more conservative ones prefer the exurbs of Dallas. Conservative Californians can find refuge in Orange County or the Central Valley.

Over time, this means Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views. In a book called "Hearing the Other Side", Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.

Intriguingly, the more educated Americans become, the more insular they are. . . Better-educated people tend to be richer, so they have more choice about where they live. And they are more mobile. One study that covered most of the 1980s and 1990s found that 45% of young Americans with a college degree moved state within five years of graduating, whereas only 19% of those with only a high-school education did.

Residential segregation is not the only force Balkanising American politics, frets Mr Bishop. Multiple cable channels allow viewers to watch only news that reinforces their prejudices. The internet offers an even finer filter. Websites such as or help Americans find ideologically predictable mates.. . .

"We now live in a giant feedback loop," says Mr Bishop, "hearing our own thoughts about what's right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear and the neighborhoods we live in."


At June 23, 2008 6:58 AM, Blogger Lars said...

I'm not overwhelmed by this self-segregation argument. It seems to me that economic factors, schools, and proximity to employment play a much larger role in people's residential selections than looking around at people's bumper stickers and coffee shops. But even if this is true, it's not the first time ever. There's a reason why we have places called Chinatown and Little Italy in this country. People like to mix with folks who understand them and that they can relate to.

At June 23, 2008 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We also have places called Chinatown and Little Italy because these ethnic minorities weren't welcome anywhere else.

At June 23, 2008 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We also have places called Chinatown and Little Italy because these ethnic minorities weren't welcome anywhere else.

At June 23, 2008 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Initially, that was true. However most of these communities have survived into times well beyond that point. People do tend to self-segregate based on cultural lines. That's a fact; get over it. It does not have to connote necessarily a totally negative state of affairs, if the people involved are doing it on a voluntary basis, and today, most self-segregators are doing just that.

At June 24, 2008 6:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ability to customize one's news sources on the internet wouldn't possibly be contributing to the problem?
How much diversity actually squeaks through the network of profiles, cookies, and personalized news pages?
Mobility may not be so much the issue as gullibility.
What are we really getting with:
"News as you like it.
You can personalize Google News to focus on what you want. This feature includes Personalized Search, which tailors your Google searches based on your web history and more.

Personalize your page.
Create and rearrange custom sections for the Google News front page.

Keep track of the news stories you've read.
Use Personalized Search to view and manage your history of past searches and news articles you've clicked on. (You can turn off Personalized Search or remove items from your Web History at any time.)

See news recommended just for you.
Get news headlines and search results recommended specifically for you, based on what you've searched for and clicked on.

Access your Google News from any computer.
Your personalized Google News is part of your Google Account so you can access it from anywhere by signing in."

At June 24, 2008 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because it's possible to do these things with Google doesn't mean that it's mandatory. The 10% of us capable of rational thought won't use these tools and the rest will be stupid whether Google makes it easier for them or not.


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