Tag Archives: residential sorting

The Dangerous “Big Sort”

Ben Bernanke wrote an interesting article for the Brookings Institution recently, exploring public sentiments about the economy. Overall, he found little support for the thesis that the public anger and frustration that are thought to be important to Donald Trump’s campaign are rooted in economic issues. Instead, views of the economy seem to be correlated with political ideology.

I suspect that greater social and political polarization itself has a role to play in explaining reported levels of dissatisfaction. To an increasing extent, Americans are self-selecting into non-overlapping communities (real and virtual) of differing demographics and ideologies, served by a fragmented and partisan media. We see, for example, a sharply widening partisan gap in presidential approval ratings (Figure 5). As the figure shows, to a greater extent than in the past, people tend to have strongly positive views of a president of their own party and strongly negative views of a president of the opposite party.

As Bernanke notes, our “echo-chamber media” and shrill political debates give commentators and advocates strong incentives to argue that the country’s future is bleak unless their party gains control.

In this environment, it seems plausible that people will respond more intensely and negatively to open-ended questions about the general state of the country, while questions in a survey focused narrowly on economic conditions elicit more moderate responses. Without doubt, the economic problems facing the country are real, and require serious and sustained responses. But while perceptions of economic stress are certainly roiling our national politics, it may also be that our roiled politics are worsening how we collectively perceive the economy.

Bernanke’s observations are yet another data point in the thesis–first highlighted by Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort–that Americans are moving into enclaves of the like-minded. This movement is both physical and informational, political and ideological. We are increasingly walling ourselves off from contact with people who do not share our values, opinions and lifestyles.

It may be comfortable to walk my neighborhood and see the other “Pence Must Go” signs; to log into Facebook and read posts with which I agree; and to go to parties where we all shake our heads over the same news items. But living in a voluntary ghetto does not prepare anyone for reality.

When we don’t need to defend our points of view against different perspectives, we get intellectually lazy. When we don’t consider ideas we may not have previously encountered, we  can remain lodged in narrow perspectives.

Actually, my own lack of experience with people who don’t share my worldview gives me a recurring nightmare: what if there really are more people than I think–more people than the polls reflect–who will vote for Donald Trump? ( I remember the law school buddy who was absolutely convinced that McGovern would win easily; he lived in Greenwich Village.)

Tribalism may be tempting, but it isn’t good for our souls or our intellects. And taken too far, it’s terrible for democracy.