Intellectual balkanization

Time to step away from the looming crises of Peak Oil, Peak Food, Peak Everything (the theme of our annual July conference in Vancouver; there's still a handful of slots remaining) and examine one of the demographic/psychographic trends that will also shape our future in the decade to come.

"Intellectual balkanization" is one way to describe it.  "The Big Sort" is what author Bill Bishop labels it in a new book of the same name.  "Americans are increasingly forming like-minded clusters," reports The Economist. "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 26.8% 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 45.3%. When George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, it was a whopping 48.3%. 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.

A society that's grown ever-more mobile in the last three decades has made it possible for like-minded people to congregate, and concentrate.  "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."

“We now live in a giant feedback loop,” Bishop tells the magazine, “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.”  The subtitle of his book is "Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart."

The Economist finds this a bit overwrought.  So do I.  How many people in the early days of the American republic read both Federalist and Republican newspapers?  Not many, I suspect.  How harmful was it?  Not much.  Bishop is pining for a day that's come and gone, when Walter Cronkite told a huge cross-section of Americans, "That's the way it is," a day that in some sense never really existed, since Cronkite said that even in the summer of 1968, when the country was, well, rather less than united.  (At least in that year, our political extremes had vivid voices that spoke eloquently for large constituencies, from Gene McCarthy to George Wallace.  This year, it's all mushy middle as McCain makes threatening noises about "oil speculators" and Obama sells out on the Fourth Amendment.)

Bishop would have less to worry about if the nature of U.S. politics still weren't so laser-focused on one-size-fits-all solutions from Washington.  And to be sure, left and right's shared fixation on this poses a not-insignificant threat to American political stability, especially as we careen down the road toward Peak Everything.  (What happens when conservative exurbanites have to give up their 40-mile one-way commute and start living closer to liberals again?)

The folly of this approach was an underlying theme of Ron Paul's campaign.  Had he hit on decentralization more directly, he might have struck a chord with even more people than he did.  As it is, genuine unity can still be found at gatherings like the one last year bringing together granolas from Vermont and unreconstructed Southerners.  Let us hope the meme spreads.