Revisiting the Big Sort

A recent article posted to the website of the Niskanen Center  corroborated a depressing theory that I have entertained over the past several years.

The United States is not very united.

Americans have been sorting themselves along ideological lines into like-minded regions of the country, increasing polarization in congressional voting patterns, and creating a striking division in political preference and party loyalty between city-dwellers and the denizens of low-density exurban and rural counties.

Population patterns matter; they also defeat truly representative government. The United States has considerably more Democratic than Republican voters, but the Democrats are  concentrated in a handful of Democrat-heavy cities and states; Republicans, on the other hand, are spread relatively thinly but evenly across the non-urban regions of the country.

Add gerrymandering, and the Republican electoral advantage becomes overwhelming.

What does the urban/rural divide look like?

Because America’s highly-schooled creative, political, academic, and business classes tend to cluster in liberal cities, the town-and-country split corresponds to a rough class distinction between so-called “elites” and non-urban non-elites. Underline “rough” here.

People of color number heavily among urban non-elites, and tend to vote with (mostly white) urban elites, so it’s wrong to conflate the town-and-country divide with the elite/ordinary folks divide. Many, many millions of ordinary Americans aren’t white and live in big cities. That said, the United States will remain a white-majority, white-dominated country for another few decades. Populist anti-elitism, as it has manifested itself behind Trump, seems to me largely a reaction of non-city-dwelling whites against urban whites and the cosmopolitan, multicultural conception of American identity they affirm.

But let me repeat that “white people who don’t live in cities” is not remotely the same thing as “the people,” most of whom do live in densely populated metropolitan areas, and many of whom are African-American, Asian, and Hispanic. And it’s important to clarify further that “white people who don’t live in cities” is also not remotely the same thing as “the white working class,” as there are many millions of non-urban, white people with college degrees and upper-class incomes. The ruling political, business, and cultural classes in Republican-dominated places like to pretend that they’re “just folks,” too, but they aren’t. They’re elites.

The point being made is important, because many pundits continue to focus on economic distress as the reason for the urban/rural divide. The theory is that poor rural residents resent the comparative affluence of their urban counterparts. A number of studies conducted after the election, however, have reached the same conclusion as the author of this article–Trump voters actually were economically better off on average than Clinton voters. (They were not, however, from regions that were as economically productive–and as the article explains in the conclusion, that matters.)

The author notes a variety of efforts to explain the personality differences between liberals and conservatives, before concluding that evidence confirms the “big sort” first identified by Bill Bishop.

The upshot is that liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and that there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.

To make matters worse, as Cass Sunstein’s work on group deliberation shows, we tend to radicalize in the direction of our predispositions when we’re surrounded by people who already agree with us. In short, we’re moving into bubbles of people who resemble us and an echo chamber effect pushes our opinions to extremes.

If this were the whole story, America’s future would be grim indeed, but as the author notes, entire cultures tend to become more liberal in their attitudes over time. The content of conservative ideology has changed–liberalized–over my own lifetime, and the article delves into the reasons for that phenomenon.

It also explains how and why improving economic productivity liberalizes social beliefs and values–and notes that, in the U.S. at this particular moment in time, “Clinton” counties are far more productive than “Trump” counties.

The United States may be dividing into two increasingly polarized cultures: an increasingly secular-rational and self-expression oriented “post-materialist” culture concentrated in big cities and the academic archipelago, and a largely rural and exurban culture that has been tilting in the opposite direction, toward zero-sum survival values, while trying to hold the line on traditional values…For a certain group of Americans, liberalizing post-materialist cultural change has been ongoing. For another, it has stalled or reversed.

To (partially) sum up:

A shrinking number of counties is accounting for a rising proportion of America’s wealth. Partisan affiliation is breaking along this population/productivity divide in a way that suggests that America’s moral and political culture has been polarizing along this divide, as well. Given the specific counter-majoritarian mechanisms in the U.S. constitution, this is a recipe for political dominance of the less economically productive conservative white minority, who control most of the country’s territory, over the liberal multicultural majority who live in increasingly concentrated urban centers of wealth. To the extent that increasing economic security is liberalizing and stagnation and decline tend toward an illiberal, zero-sum survival mindset, this amounts to a recipe for the political imposition of relatively illiberal policy on increasingly liberal and increasingly economically powerful cities. This is not a stable situation, and bodes ill for the future of American freedom.

The rest of the (very long) article considers why this is happening, and a subsequent article by the same author suggests policies that might ameliorate the divide. Both are well worth reading and considering–although I suggest accompanying that endeavor with a stiff drink.


  1. Bottom line is the Constitution was written with major flaws and not designed for (as written) for the future as we’ve come to know it. To my knowledge, Its never in history worked out that a minority rules the majority for very long without violence or the country splitting apart, usually both. Republicans would do well to see the writing on the wall and govern themselves accordingly. Unfortunately, as history is our guide, I don’t have much hope that they will.

  2. I wonder if the divide would seem as great if we could get as high as a 90% participation rate in our elections.

  3. If I use Occam’s razor in thinking about Will Wilkinson’s long article I come away with the idea that what is occurring in the US and the world is a internal struggle in the transition between left and right brain dominance viewed in political terms.

    If that deduction is correct then Democracy is working fine and we are witnessing an evolution of humankind. The dominance of left lobe thinking has guided the rise of Western Civilization. That dominance of the left hemisphere is now being challenged as we begin to integrate the world view of the right lobe.

    If this reduction in the view of the complexity of this moment in time is correct then the objectification of the world and other people that we quantify in ‘The Big Sort’ has a source identified by Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann:

    ‘Since education is effective only insofar as it affects the working of the brain, we can see that an elementary school program narrowly restricted to reading, writing, and arithmetic will educate mainly one hemisphere, leaving half of an individual’s high-level potential unschooled.’

    The correction of this bias of our education is happening now. That correction is coming from a source we would never have imagined even twenty years ago. As we teach Code to children they are using this to integrate their emotions and feelings in a manner we did not anticipate.

    History is not a guide, evolution is a guide and what we are witnessing is an evolution in the integration of left and right lobes of the brain with the aid of technology.

    Watch the children as they learn and play, it is not about we vs them.

  4. I think it’s because people don’t travel or can’t afford to travel and if they live in the US, they are isolated. So, for example, living in Europe helped me see how the other people live which is very much similar to us. And we’re not military and didn’t live on a US base that actually brings the US to foreign countries. We lived among the locals unlike those in the military. They have different priorities and have different types of entertainment. They watch American reality shows (translated) and think that’s how we are which couldn’t be further from the truth! Right?

    Seriously, how many weeks of vacation do Americans get compared to other countries?
    How much money do they make?

    The US is a huge country so staying inside the border is easier for us than for other countries. Americans live in a silo and our news is mostly about us, the US, the states.

  5. When combined with a parochial structure for representation, this almost guarantees a tragedy of the commons with regard to our common good. We are suffering from the gap between the interests of our elected officials and the great majority of Americans. Closing that gap will require doing something about our institutional structures and practical incentives and methods. The Sortition Foundations offers a rebirth of an ancient idea that has been popularized yet, but one we use every day in America, in our jury system.

    Ancient Athens used something similar. It might be the only way to ensure that we have political equality and might negate the effects of sorting. The echo chamber might not ring so true, causing people to attempt to listen more closely to one another.

    See for examples of using the method to make policy.

  6. I think that liberal vs conservative is more marketing than truth. It’s really liberal vs authoritarian, those whose influence has been temporarily challanged by the too rapidly changing world fueled by a huge explosion of knowledge in every possible subject.

    People who are unwilling and/or unable to keep up, and who have an authoritarian personality, are digging their heels in to stop the change rather than have to keep up with it. To them the world is a simple place where power not knowledge determines culture.

    Of course it’s easy to rely on history to suggest how this will turn out, not good for anybody, but it’s not our father’s world. As the great experiment in DC demonstrates daily, power no longer gets things done in a liberalized world. Trump and Pence and McConnell and Ryan and Trump’s Cabinet are impotent in our world. Their bluster has become our entertainment. They are playing to each other.

    Unfortunately the net result of these times is that power as become ineptitude at solving problems. So enjoy the circus until events conspire into situations where we need governance and none is available.

    I don’t think we are going to like the results but we can hope for damage limited to what we are able to recover from.

  7. I think we try to analyse the divide more deeply than we should. I live just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee and see both sides in my neighbors. More and more It seems to come down to those who embrace change and look forward to the future and what it will bring and those who fear they are being left behind and don’t have the skills or ability to adapt to a more technological society. I think it is that simple.

  8. From Facebook: first, a wonderful description of a truly transformative book.

    Profound observations on a profound bit of prose.

    We are not in the end times but the transition times. It will be a very rough ride as those who feel entitled to power come face to face with impotence. A Viagra moment. The end of an era to make room for a new one.

    These initial skirmishes are fought between armies of knowledge and armies of power. Armies of the future vs armies of the past.

    I predict a long and costly war that will forever define humanity.

  9. AgingLGrl, I hear what you’re saying about those in the US who do not travel for whatever reasons, whether reasons of claiming poverty or whether indirectly self-imposed reasons because travel holds no real interest. I’m not a person of wealth but I am a person who can travel on a shoestring and who’d rather spend any discretionary monies on travel than on country club/golf club memberships, than on upper six-figure homes in the Indianapolis Meridian/Kessler neighborhood, than on luxury automobiles to cruise before my Hoosier neighbors, than on cocktail-enhanced political fund raisers with the ‘correct’ people, or on purchasing 2nd homes in Florida gated communities.

    Working from most recent international travels and going back, I last visited: 1) London and points surrounding London in the UK in 2015 – including Eric Clapton’s concert in Royal Albert Hall, 2) Germany including Frankfurt from the north to Garmisch in the south and into Austria, 3) Turkey from Istanbul to Cappadocia, 4) China from Beijing to Xian, 5) Mexico (2 times) from the touristy Cancun to Isla Mujueres, 6)London then onto Paris via the Chunnel, 7) Vancouver and Vancouver Island, 8) Reykjavik, Iceland for 4 wks on a house exchange then on to London for another 4 wks, and 9) the Grand Tour with my uncle where we visited Lisbon, Portugal, Madrid and Toledo, Spain, a bit of Switzerland, spent a week in Amsterdam, then moved onto Germany where we spent another week in Hamburg before heading to Denmark (both Copenhagen and Odense) shortly before entering Stockholm, Sweden on July 4th where we attended the 4th of July Party at the American Embassy and later spent time in the Millesgården. After Sweden, it was off to Helsinki, Finland for a couple of days before boarding our Aeroflot flight from Helsinki into Leningrad (this was pre-St Petersburg) where we were met by our Russian Intourist Guide who accompanied us for the next 7 days while in the old Russia. After the old Russia, we journeyed onto to Oslo where we traveled via the fjords from Oslo to Bergen. From Bergen it was NYC.

  10. So much to ponder upon. Thank you, Shelia, and commenters for all your thoughts. Anthony Hinrichs and Pete have given me cautious hope.

  11. From above – > Because America’s highly-schooled creative, political, academic, and business classes tend to cluster in liberal cities, the town-and-country split corresponds to a rough class distinction between so-called “elites” and non-urban non-elites. Underline “rough” here.
    This statement is a giant crock of manure. Triangulation, triangulation, and slice and dice. What the hell is an “Elite” supposed to be? Am I “Elite” because I live in Marion County, Indiana and have a 4 year degree with a major in finance. Is “Elite” determined by educational attainment, income or attitude?? Is the “Elite” the members of the DNC?

    The Democratic Party (what a misnomer or oxymoron) had the “Elite” Super Delegates and still do for that matter to veto any Progressive Candidate or Movement within the Democratic Party.

  12. Terry Franzman is right. We who have been steeped in democratic institutions rightly resent being governed by a minority, a minority who govern because of what our forefathers feared in their day but fears which have little relevance to today. The Redcoats are gone, and so should a vote count by geography go with it if we are going to honor one of the pillars of democracy – rule by majority vote – not rule by geography. The Constitution in this connection seems to be at war with itself. The rural-urban divide between liberals and conservatives is well-documented but farmers have almost always been of a conservative bent (other than for an interlude during New Deal days). Conservatives live in a cocoon, too, a cocoon much nearer the Norman Rockwell era than urban residents, who live in busy congested areas where, unlike in rural areas, one might not know his/her next-door neighbor. Republican strategists prey on that rural view by playing the good old days theme, but as rural areas continue to empty into urban metropolises, the Republican ploy is not going to work. Rockwell has gone the way of the Redcoats, and with the present political trajectory, I expect to see Democratic national rule (despite the 2016 anomaly) and Republican rural rule for the foreseeable future. It would help accelerate the process of majority rule if the electoral college and gerrymandering were history, but that is not presently within the cards, and we have to go from where we are, so in words of the street, let’s go with what we got.

  13. At this point it is literal-minded, judgmental, authoritarian people vs. abstract-thinking, empathetic, equality-oriented people. That these groups tend to fall into geographical areas has less to do with personal choice and more to do with demand for labor of different sorts. That our constitution favors disperse populations and thus the authoritarians is an accident of history. We should be clever enough to change this without violence, which at this point seems likely.

  14. There are liberals and authoritarians. All other labels are insignificant details.

    Liberals see the world as knowledge based, authoritarians as power based.

    Progress always depends on knowledge. Keeping the world in the past is the authoritarian way to maintain past entitlements for longer.

    We will either break loose from the chains of the past and continue forward or we will be slaves to it.

  15. BSH – It’s per your request and Sheila’s consent. GES

  16. As Max Weber put it, the ultimately decisive means of political action is always violence. If this division is pushed far enough, it’ll be settled by killing not voting.

    Now, is that fight going to be won by Team Blue or Team Red?

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