The new politics and economics of the "Big Sort"
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray argues that the gap between elite Americans and working class Americans has grown since the the mid-1960s. In addition to the widening income gulf between these two groups, there is also a huge difference in values and cultural tastes. Murray argues that we are sorting ourselves out geographically, cocooned in neighborhoods of like-minded people. Wealthy people hang out with other wealthy people who listen to NPR, drink red wine, and vote for Obama. Working class people hang out with others who watch American Idol, drive a pick up truck, and like Santorum.
There are a lot of problems with Murray's methodology for this book, but let's just say he's right. We do live in communities of like-minded people. Does it matter?
In the March edition of the journal, PS: Political Science & Politics, Samuel J. Abrams and Morris P. Fiorina take aim at the claim that Americans are increasingly sorting themselves out geographically by political affiliation and this sorting out creates stifling consensus and stagnation. They are responding to Bill Bishop, who made similar claims as Murray in 2008 with his book "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart."
Abrams and Fiorina say that "The Big Sort" argument rests on three assumptions:
1) Neighborhoods are important centers of American life
2) The residents of American neighborhoods talk to each other.
3) Politics is an important topic of their discussions.
Using data from a 2005 Georgetown University survey of 1,001 individuals, the authors found that these three assumptions are entirely false.
When asked "how many neighbors do you know by name?," only 3.4% of respondents said they knew all of the neighbors' names. 65.3% of respondents knew none, a few, or some of their neighbors' names.
When people do talk to their neighbors, they don't talk about politics. When asked, "when you talk to your neighbor, how often do you discuss politics?," 54.5% of the respondents in the survey reported that they never talked about politics with their neighbor. Only 1.8% of respondents said that their conversations were usually about politics. Most respondents were not aware if they shared the same party affiliation as their neighbors.
Abrams and Fiorina conclude,
"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."
WHY WE REALLY SORT
Seven months ago, we moved to a split level in an upper-middle class, suburban community in New Jersey. My neighbors may share my taste in movies and books. They may vote for the same party. They may read the same newspapers. They may have attended the same college. I have no way of knowing, because I have never spoken to any of them.
Like the respondents in the Georgetown survey, I don't know the names of anybody of my block. In fact, I rarely see them. They drive by us on their way to work or to their activities. Or they dart out of their homes to pick up the newspaper from the end of the driveway on a Saturday morning, only to disappear for the rest of the day. Our neighbors are known to us only by the nicknames that we've given them. There's "Couple With Two Dogs," "Man Who Talks Rudely to His Landscaper," and "Old Korean Woman Who Walks With Her Arms Waving Around."
Perhaps people aren't organizing themselves so much by political ideology or religion or by taste in reality television. If we aren't talking to each other, then it hardly matters whether or not we all share a common love of red wine and the New Yorker. Perhaps we're sorting ourselves by highly practical matters - schooling for our children, access to cultural events, and proximity to highly paid employment. We make a huge sacrifice and take on enormous risk to relocate to Los Angeles or New York City or even Austin, Texas in order to get access to those commodities.
People move to my town with its sky-high taxes and tiny yards for its top ranked school system and its proximity to smart people in well-paid jobs and a diverse range of lucrative companies. While I may not know anything about my neighbors' political affiliation or tastes in TV viewing, I can assume that they put a strong value on giving their children the best education. People move here because we're 30 minutes away from midtown Manhattan and the unique -- and uniquely vast -- range of experience of the city that extend beyond paychecks to Broadway shows, and pasta dishes designed by Mario Batali.
What happens when all the good jobs and desirable schools are clustered in certain zip codes? Further income inequality. So, sorting is happening but for different reasons and with different outcomes than Murray envisions.