Monday, May 19, 2008

Are We Too Divided?

Yesterday's New York Times Book Review reviewed a very interesting book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, that argues that we are living in many quite homogeneous communities, and that this is hurting our political life. Here is how the reviewer describes the Book:

Over the last decade, as 100 million Americans have moved from one place to another, they’ve clustered in increasingly homogeneous communities. This is where “The Big Sort,” which grew out of a series of articles that Bishop, formerly a reporter at The Austin American-Statesman, wrote with Robert Cushing, a retired sociologist and statistician from the University of Texas, is both wonkiest and most original. Working with a team of collaborators (including Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class”), Bishop and Cushing swam around in different sets of data — voting records; I.R.S. income figures; patent filings; poll numbers from advertising firms — to figure out how thoroughly, and in what ways, Americans had sorted themselves. Their conclusion: “By the turn of the 21st century, it seemed as though the country was separating in every way conceivable.”

Americans have always moved around restlessly. But whereas in earlier times large flows of people — the “great migration” of African-Americans to Chicago in the 1950s, for instance, or the “hillbilly highway” that took white Appalachians to the Midwest after World War II — were motivated primarily by the quest for economic opportunity, American migration is now inspired at least as much by “lifestyle” choices as by economics. “We have built a country,” Bishop writes, “where everyone can choose the neighbors (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”

. . .

Gerrymandering — the redrawing of political districts by partisan legislation from above — partly accounts for increasing polarization. But the more significant force, Bishop argues, has been movement from below. In 1976, the year in the postwar era when the average American was most likely to live alongside people of the opposing political party, barely 26 percent of us lived in counties that went in a landslide for one presidential candidate or another. In 1992, nearly 38 percent of us lived in a “landslide county.” By 2004, nearly 50 percent did.

Does this balkanization matter? Bishop argues convincingly that it does. Psychological studies suggest that the mere fact of division, even when there is no substantive content to it, can be corrosive: in a series of experiments in the 1950s and ’60s, groups of similar people arbitrarily divided into subgroups quickly exploded into conflicts of “Lord of the Flies”-like intensity. Other studies have shown that when relatively like-minded people are grouped together, they don’t settle around the average point of view of the individuals in the group but rather become more extreme in the direction toward which they’re already inclined. This gives clustering a powerful self-reinforcing quality, and helps explain how American counties have hardened into such immovable political clumps. “It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a frat boy, a French high school student, a petty criminal or a federal appeals court judge,” Bishop writes. “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”

read it all here.

Certainly rings true, doesn't it? (Although, I would appreciate a longer political perspective--I would suggest that there were periods in our history were our politics was even more divided.) To me, however, this study suggests the real danger in the schisms now appearing in the Anglican Communion. Until recently, one of the very stengths of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communions was the diversity within them: we were Anglo Catholics, Evangelicals, Charismatics, High Church, Low Church, liberal, conservative, progressive, orthodox and everything in between. Diversity is tough to live with (as recent events have made very clear), but I fear what we lose as we appear to divide into groups of like minded people.

Perhaps a place to start is with the blogoshere. The orthodox read Stand Firm and Titus One Nine. The progressives are reading the Lead, Mad Priest and Father Jake. With only a few exceptions, dialogue (if it occurs at all) on all of these sites quickly degenerorates into juvenile name calling. Is there a forum where we can really listen to each other>

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