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What happens to political debate if we live only among like-minded people?

A conversation with author Bill Bishop

Journalist+and+author+Bill+Bishop
Journalist and author Bill Bishop

Journalist and author Bill Bishop

The Big Sort

The Big Sort

Journalist and author Bill Bishop

Lars Gesing, CU News Corps Assistant Director

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Logo final_highBOULDER, Colorado – Ask yourself this question: When you go knock on your neighbor’s door, when you see your friends in a café in town, when you pick a new place to live – how much diversity do you encounter?

Not very much, argues Bill Bishop. The journalist and author wrote “The Big Sort,” an observation of how Americans cluster in communities of the like-minded. We don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb in a conservative neighborhood if we fall into the liberal camp. Instead, people avoid confrontation and look to lead their lives in places where their friends, neighbors and classmates share the same overarching values.

But what does that mean for the political landscape in the U.S.? Is this clustering the death knell for true debate? And how does it impact the states in play? We asked Bishop all these questions – and more.

How do presidential campaigning and The Big Sort go together?

Campaigns are not so much ideological or issue-oriented but they revolve around finding these places where people are connected socially. The use of social networks to move groups of people who have personal connections into the voting booth is analogous to the megachurch movement. You move groups of like-minded people into the church by allowing them to see that the people in the church are just like them. It is more a social rather than an ideological phenomenon.

What does The Big Sort mean for political discourse in this country? Does such a thing even still exist?

It’s much rarer. If discourse means people having to work democratically with people with whom you disagree than that is less likely to happen because every day you are less likely to be surrounded by people who disagree with you. That is true from the church to the neighborhood. The one place where political scientists found people actually have to rub up against those who disagree with them is at work. Otherwise you are sort of in a zone where you can go along and not have to confront disagreement.

What do you tell people who read this and lose even more faith in the political system? 

There is an advantage to apathy – you don’t care as much. That allows your elected leaders to compromise. The worst thing that could happen in a democracy is to have everybody care about everything. If they do, it doesn’t allow your leadership to do the kind of messy deal-making that legislatures and democracies demand. They need a little dark of the night, smoke-filled room cover to get things done. And the reason that we don’t compromise is largely because we won’t allow our people to do it. We punish them if they do compromise. Maybe we need less caring rather than more.

If all politics are national, what does that mean for the battleground states?

It used to be if you wanted votes, you spread money around, you hired people, you did politics the old-fashioned way. Now, with identities being the most important thing in politics rather than policy or anything else, those sorts of local campaign techniques don’t work. It then becomes a question of who can turn out their people. Basically, 5 to 10 percent is the number of truly undecided voters. That’s all they are fighting over. The real question is, ‘How do we turn out the 90 percent of the people who have already decided how they are going to vote?’

How do states develop their political identity?

I don’t think states have a political identity. People try to say that they do. Individuals have political identities.

If states don’t have a political identity, does that mean it is easier for safely Republican or Democratic states to get into play again?

It depends on who is moving in and who is moving out. The state boundary is just happenstance now. It’s not a boundary that means anything to anybody. What means something to people is what political tribe they belong to as an individual, and what tribe their friends and neighbors and the people they hang out with belong to. What the state does is probably not that important to them. Except people know whether their state is in play or not and as their vote becomes more important, maybe they are more likely to vote.

What does it mean that there are fewer states in play than there were a few decades ago?

The campaigns aren’t as active in many states. It’s really how people view themselves more now than anything else. If you think about it, an individual’s vote in terms of changing a policy means nothing. What’s one vote? But if your vote is a description of you, than your vote means everything. The expressive value of the vote far surpasses the policy value of the vote. In fact that is what people are voting on – they are expressing themselves and their tribe.

What are the consequences of this change in voting behavior?

It makes it tougher for policy changes to occur. It just winds back into the failure to compromise problem. It is not a question of whether someone comes up with a better solution. It’s whether they are being good members of the group as elected leaders. And if you are not a good member of the group, than you can lose in the primary. It takes changes in policy out of the equation.

Let’s apply your clustering theory to the relatively new swing state of Colorado, with its conservative Eastern Plains and Western Slope and the fairly liberal Front Range communities today… 

When Bob Cushing (Bishop’s co-author on “The Big Sort”) looked at who moved in as Colorado became more Democratic, the biggest contributor was L.A. County of all the counties in the United States. L.A. County is largely Democratic. The people who have moved in to some of these eastern counties came from Republican counties across the country – except you just had a lot more Democratic Californians move into Colorado than conservatives.

So electoral politics really is a numbers game of where people come from or move to…

There is a German political scientist who has looked at Madison, Wisconsin, in Dane County and Waukesha County right outside of Milwaukee, which is very Republican. Two-thirds of the people who have moved into Dane are Democrats. Two-thirds of people who moved into Waukesha are Republicans. Why would you want to move to some place where you stick out like a sore thumb?

Is this clustering a good or a bad thing? Or both?

The good side is that you have different experiments going on among these like-minded communities who can get things done. The bad thing is people are giving up on the democratic experiment of getting along with neighbors with whom you disagree. It’s also an expression of how the older ways of political division such as what kind of job you had, how much money you had, what class you are in – all those are breaking down. What we are left with is the cells of individual identities. That diminishes the ability for the country to do much collectively. Because we look at politics not as something the group does but something that reflects our individual proclivity.

This interview has been condensed and edited. If you are interested in Bishop’s book, go to www.thebigsort.com

UPDATE, July 28: The Colorado Statesman has re-published this interview.

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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
What happens to political debate if we live only among like-minded people?