FLORIDA, October 16, 2012 — People talk about political polarization a lot these days.
While it surely is a problem, there is far more to the story of divisive politics than the obvious. Over the last several decades, those of similar partisan persuasions have clustered in certain areas.
This has created a geographic division that is as much about personal philosophy as it is economic opportunity and educational attainment.
In 2008, journalist Bill Bishop co-authored The Big Sort, a book which details how and why America has become such a divided country. In this candid interview Mr. Bishop shares his views about the effects of political polarization, whether or not extremism is a problem on the left and right alike, as well as what politics means today.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is a very polarized time in American politics. Why do you think that moderate policies and politicians have become so maligned?
Bill Bishop: Moderation simply isn’t very attractive because, I think, the nature and function of politics has changed.
As older institutions have collapsed — family, community, church, occupation — everyone has been given a new job: perpetual self-definition. Politics has become, first and foremost, a way people define themselves, and that has changed the function of elections and government
French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg writes, “Political action is now less an issue of resolving conflicts between adversaries and more an issue of collectively facilitating individual action.” He finds, “This is a new political constraint.” Well, it’s more than a “constraint.” The purpose of public life is no longer to solve society’s problems. Politics has become just another arena where people express themselves.
When politics is about self-expression, then moderation becomes a very weak draw. Who wants to define themselves as in the middle, a moderate, a ‘tweener? Moderation is unattractive. We live in a society where people are told they need to stand out, be themselves, to tell their story. Politics becomes just another area where that is the first priority.
Cotto: Why, in your opinion, have people chosen to reside in politically homogenous areas over the last few decades?
Bishop: We’ve (and by we, I include my co-author, sociologist Robert Cushing) always contended that people aren’t moving to be next to people of the same political party. They are moving to find people with similar lifestyles. People who do the same things, buy the same things, think the same way.
Today, lifestyle defines our politics. So when people move to a place that “feels right,” it also means that people vote the same. You don’t have to see a precinct tabulation to know how a place votes. You can tell just by looking.
Cotto: How has the rise of mega-churches impacted our country’s political landscape?
Bishop: In The Big Sort, we have a chapter on religion. In particular, we trace the history of how mega-churches were formed — how a generation of preachers came to understand the ways Americans were forming new communities and then capitalized on those insights to build very successful churches.
Remember, in 1965 all denominations began losing members. As ministers and “church growth” theorists looked for a way to stem these loses, they happened upon Donald McGavran, a missionary in India who wrote The Bridges of God. McGavran promoted what he called the “homogenous unit principle” of church membership. Churches needed to be built for a certain type of person, McGavran said.
“Men do not join churches where services are conducted in a language they do not understand, or where members have a noticeably higher degree of education, wear better clothes, and are obviously of a different sort,” McGavran wrote. “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”
When Rick Warren set out to build a church, he devised it according to McGavran’s homogenous unit principle. (Or, so he writes in his book, The Purpose-Driven Church.) Other ministers did the same and now almost every church is built to appeal to a certain type of person. There is the liberal Episcopal church in town and the one where parishioners are aching to leave the denomination. Members move to get with their ideological tribe and before long the notion of the church as a meeting place of different kinds of people has been lost.
The importance of the mega-church in America is that its organizational style has been adopted by everyone else – social clubs, civic organizations and the news media. We are all settled into our homogenous unit from dawn until dusk.
Cotto: Today, people with college educations tend to cluster in select communities. Is this due to economic concerns, or rather for social reasons?
Bishop: A lot of this is economic. Place matters now more than ever in terms of economic development. Having highly educated people living close to one another, working together in industry groups is the way economies develop. I heard a guy from a big foundation in Miami tell a group that place didn’t matter these days because, on the Internet, we could live everywhere.
That is exactly wrong. Educated people cluster because the economy demands it.
There are other reasons, of course. Here’s one: People with college degrees want to marry people with college degrees. The dating pool of college graduates is bigger in Austin than it is in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Cotto: Has the popularity of cable news and talk radio increased political polarization? Or, are these the result of an already polarized electorate?
Bishop: Fox/MSNBC etc., simply found the advantages of the “homogenous unit principle” that the megachurch preachers exploited in the 1970s.
Cotto: From your experience, do most contemporary voters care about objective facts? Or, has political homogeneity opened the doors for unchecked emotionalism?
Bishop: It’s self-expression. See the Ehrenberg quote in the first answer. Politics is about self-expression, about the process of politics not the content of policy.
Did you get a load of the speeches at the two conventions? Everyone was required –it was an absolute mandate! – to “tell their story.” They didn’t talk about what they wanted to do for the country. It was more important to talk about their lives and the lives of their parents, grandparents and on back into the misty past.
This is because we look to biography to solve our social problems.
Cotto: Some might say that political homogeneity is a positive development as it promotes community cohesion. What is your opinion about this argument?
Bishop: That’s the phenomenon in the country. Locally, as cities become more homogenous, they are able to enact more diverse policies. Here in Austin we buy every kind of alternative energy production available. Out in West Texas, a school district has elective courses on the Bible and teachers can pack heat.
Nationally, however, the misunderstandings between these increasingly unconnected communities multiply. And government becomes a problem.
The same phenomenon is taking place in the states. Some of the communities that have moved the most toward both the right and the left can be found in Wisconsin. In one respect the division in that state is a function of the increasingly segregated way its people live.
Cotto: In your opinion, is extremism an equal problem on both sides of the political spectrum?
Bishop: There are some very good political scientists who have done a lot of work on this question. I believe they find – in Congress and in the electorate – that the right has moved much more than the left.
My concern is more in terms of social and political isolation. On that score, I’d say that both sides are equally ill-at-ease in the presence of the other. My wife and I used to live in a small town in Central Texas and we often go to an incredible group of counties between Austin and Houston for church picnics and polka dances. When we tell people in Austin that we’re headed to, say, Hallettsville, for a dance, the response is often bewilderment. Why would anyone do that?
Cotto: Do you think that moderate politics might make a comeback during the years ahead? Are there any solid indications that this could happen?
Bishop: We know for a fact that predictions are almost always wrong, right? So I don’t really have any.
The expected course of events would have a number of “cross-cutting” issues arise –social problems that demand solutions, but have no natural party constituency. I thought health care might be one of those. At one time, Walmart and the Service Employees Union agreed on the basics of a health care plan.
Well, we’ve seen how quickly that issue found its partisan base.
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering about your life and career. What inspired you to write “The Big Sort”?
At heart, I’m a weekly newspaper writer, a country editor. I worked at a small weekly in Eastern Kentucky out of college, The Mountain Eagle. My wife and I owned and operated a community weekly in Smithville, Texas, in the 1980s. And now we run The Daily Yonder, a web-based publication covering rural America.
Bob and I wrote The Big Sort based on newspaper stories we had done about the national economy and the nature of politics. We had a good story and Bob produced dynamite quantitative measures of a major change in the nation’s political dynamics that nobody else had noticed.
For a journalist, that’s all the inspiration you need.
Thank you for your time, Mr. Bishop. The Big Sort can be found at Amazon.com
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