When Jimmy Carter was elected, fewer than one in four Americans lived in a place where the vote was almost predetermined. Voting mattered because the outcome was uncertain. Now, half of all voters live in these so-called “landslide” counties. That stat was a fundamental finding of a book entitled The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.
In our inaugural 100 Best Places to Live list, we surveyed 2,000 American adults and asked them if the political landscape of a town was a factor in relocation. Overwhelmingly, they say it was lowest on the list of considerations – far behind housing, transportation, jobs, crime, weather, schools and health care. Politics matted slightly more to men than women, but for both genders, it seemed like an afterthought. As we prepared our 10 Best Cities for Liberals, Conservatives and Moderates, we chatted with Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort. We were curious if his research meshed with ours, or if people say one thing (it’s not important) but do another thing.
Livability: Do people move for political reasons?
Bill Bishop: I know when they move, they tend to move to places where other Democrats or Republicans live. When we first did this, we thought we’d find that people don’t do that – they just move to places where they feel comfortable, and that results in that agglomeration, but anecdotally when I talk to people in my hometown of Austin, they want to move to Portland because the whole state is democratic.
It’s inefficient to vote to get what you want. But as places get more different, it becomes very efficient to move to get what you want. If you want certain marriage policies or protections or environmental actions or public transportation options, it’s inefficient to vote for those. It’s very efficient if you want public transportation options to move to Portland. Voting is a self-expressive activity, but moving actually changes policy. It seems there’s an incentive to move as opposed to an incentive to vote. Now whether people actually act that way, I don’t know.
Is it more an unconscious thing when they move to places that are seemingly like-minded without necessarily directly planning to do that?
Our assumption always was that the lifestyle characteristics tend to line up with political characteristics. When you find that people have certain ways of life in common then they tend to have their politics in common, too. All the other markers of politics began to lose power – class, religion, and community and family – then lifestyle characteristics tended to mean more. Which I think is why the urban/rural division tends to remain strong because that’s largely a lifestyle kind of characteristic.
That is certainly one of the strongest divisions left.
I remember visiting with some local officials outside of Minneapolis. The national party wanted to do some polling and they said, “We don’t need to do polling. We just measure the distance between houses. The farther away the houses are from each other, the more republican.”
If people are naturally sorting themselves, do we even need gerrymandering?
The people who do the research say people gerrymander themselves. There are a bunch of papers on this. Democrats have packed themselves so efficiently into these city areas that gerrymandering hasn’t produced the results people say it has.
In reading the chapter on advertising, it seems people aren’t naturally polarized, but a lot of work has gone into making us that way.
Maybe people are polarizing, and the advertising identifies that or plays to it. I think that’s true for the TV networks. I don’t think Fox made a republican audience, it just found it.
But it’s made them angrier. And same with MSNBC on the other side.
With people talking to themselves that generally, that would be true. Like-minded people, when they’re talking to themselves, become more extreme in their like-mindedness. It helps that the groups were there and discovered by the people at Fox, but the phenomenon you’re describing has to be true.
(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)