Americans increasingly cluster geographically by political views

You might have seen recent reports about groups of rural counties in Colorado, California, and Maryland where the locals want to secede from their respective states in order to form new (very tiny) ones. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo suggests allowing all these disgruntled counties to form a rather scattered 51st state to be called Whinyassistan. (See his short articles here and here.)

Josh is of course joshing, and the proposals popular in those various counties are jokes as well even if the people making them don’t realize it, but there’s something of underlying importance going on here:

Americans seem to be segregating themselves more by political views than in the past. There have always been regional differences, of course — the Deep South and the Northeast have long looked at one another as alien — but this phenomenon is more related to population density than to variation between major regions of the country.

You might recall that when Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 (and as the post-inauguration recount in early 2001 verified, would have won the electoral as well had the Florida vote not been miscounted), a number of commentators pointed to maps colored by county showing vast areas of the U.S. Republican red. A conservative friend of mine even insisted that this was actually more important than the popular vote. (The principle of one acre one vote?)

There’s a lot of statistical information about this trend toward geographic sorting by political attitudes in a New York Times opinion piece by Tom Edsall from September 10.

The article references a book, The Big Sort by Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing, that I haven’t read but sounds interesting. Their thesis, quoted by Edsall, is that Americans

have been sorting themselves over the past three decades into homogeneous communities — not at the regional level, or the red-state/blue-state level, but at the micro level of city and neighborhood.

This is an interesting development with some unfortunate implications. Living and working with people who think like you politically is likely to make you more rigid in your views, and greater geographical sorting would presumably make partisanship even stronger. We see the same thing on the Internet, where it’s easy to join discussion groups and read blogs that you already agree with. Dissent when present at all tends to be in the form of comments, where differences of opinion are far more characterized by angry insults that sober discussion. I’m starting to think that eventually everything will start to look like Game of Thrones.

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