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.

44 thoughts on “The Dangerous “Big Sort”

  1. Professor; do I detect tongue-in-cheek when you mention your school friend lived in Greenwich Village? What is the significance of that?

  2. What Bernanke says is redolent of Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart: White America, 1960-2000 ( In an interview on C-SPAN, Murray mentioned that he’d chosen that subtitle to avoid charges of racism; he knew better after his experience with The Bell Curve).

  3. “…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.”
    And how else are Democrats supposed to feel when they have lived through 8 years of Dubya and nearly 8 years of Obama? May I suggest there has never in our history been two such contrasting people to occupy the White House within a 16 year period of time?
    And I know Republicans feel the same way. So the issue revolves around exploring the “whys” of this. And THERE we’ll get in understanding that we are divided along educational lines — in short, the ability to look at an issue only on the surface, as opposed to understanding them in depth.
    And to take it one further step — maybe it’s the difference between fundamentalism and pragmatism.

  4. Excellent,
    As I read conservative papers (with my liberal ones) daily, I get much more information and ‘feel’ for the gap between the two.
    Thanks

  5. Honestly, I wished we had an echo chamber media but all we have now are 6 corporations that own the media and from what I understand, all by conservative executives. If all you watch is Fox Spews, how can you possibly know what’s going on in the world? And if you watch what is supposed to be liberal news, how do you get 3 hrs of Morning Joe (GOP) on MSNBC? Or Meet the Press which seems to highlight only conservatives? It’s more like Meet the Republicans. Where’s the liberal media that used to be? Gone but not forgotten.

    I truly believe that bloggers like this Professor have such a following because there is a lack of diversity in Media. (I would love to see your hit counts Professor. Would you share that with us?)

  6. And on the eve of the national conventions, both parties seem to be trying to shuffle the decks, moving the aces to the bottom and the asses to the top. Tribalism at it’s worst!

    Politics and politicians must be at their lowest rating in the polls – if we knew which poll to believe – with the highest level of publicity while total frustration over the economy is a given but little said about solutions. What will they spring on us next from their lofty positions of control?

    I viewed my first “Bayh for Senator” TV ad this morning; so professional and well done I can’t help but wonder when it was filmed – and where? Front page of the Star with it’s Trump and Pence “SURPRISE, SURPRISE, SURPRISE” headline with no surprise (other than some “illustrious” talking heads visiting Indy) or news (except where the Trumps and Penses ate dinner) to report. The Bayh front page headline was smaller but the article longer and more informative…if repetitive in its politicalese.

    I’m ready for political news blackouts until the opening of the conventions.

  7. At age 59, I have dreams of escaping Indiana to a more like-minded state. I have always been a blue fish in a pond of swarming red fish. Lived here since I was three and at least escaped Lafayette to Indianapolis which is a slight improvement. Our friends are liberal, but many are conservative Christians and we get along great as long as we don’t discuss politics or religion. My husband listens to Rush and Trump to get both sides. He has more stamina than I do. I know isolating ourselves is not healthy, but I feel I have paid my dues and long to live in a blue state with mountains. I always felt that I wasn’t prejudiced and could accept people with different views, but since the GOP turned into the Tea Party I find myself being very judgemental and disgusted with anyone who supports Trump or religion in our government. Creationists? Sorry, but I just shake my head at folks who believe the Bible is more accurate than science. Rationally, I know this attitude is detrimental to society, but in my golden years I just want to turn off the media, FB and move to a cabin in the mountains away from the craziness. I feel hopeless and our world is returning to a Puritanical culture. Where have all the intelligent people gone? Professor, your column is a ray of hope, thank you.

  8. I live in a bastion of right wing conservatives. If we discuss individuals or parties, there is a lot of disagreement. If we discuss ideas, there is a lot of agreement. It seems that labeling is the real problem.

  9. Sheila, this is such an important insight. I will read the entire article but am grateful for your synopsis. I have a dear friend who has very different political views from mine which pushes me out of my echo chamber. I want to understand his views and get a sense of his assumptions because I respect him. We learn from each other and stretch each other’s thinking . The best response I know when someone says something that confounds me is “tell me more about why that is important to you ” or ” I hear you AND…”(not but).
    Thanks as always.

  10. We are picking and choosing our information – looking for confirmation of our beliefs. However, who is happily providing this to us? We have six media corporations dictating all the news we watch, listen to and read. It’s called demographics and they are feeding the masses what they want – confirmation.

    They work along a political spectrum (right-center-left) which is meant to divide the populations.

    They tell folks on the left that the GOP is the problem and those on the right are told, liberals are the problem. The more extreme media uses coded language to incite racism, sexism and bigotry.

    Again, the whole purpose is to divide us, and it works wonderfully. If you refer to the political spectrum, than you’ve subconsciously subscribed to “Divide & Conquer”.

    Remember, the role of our “free press” is to hold the powerful in government accountable while the role of government is to hold the powerful in our private sector accountable. The goal is accountability through truth-seeking. Period.

    The truth could care less about political spectrums. All media should be truth seeking, but it’s not. Therein lies the problem.

  11. Thank you for the good article. This has been going on for decades… white flighters leaving Marion County for example. Now, people are being encouraged to live in their little “voluntary ghetto”, by the government through the use of school vouchers and heavy regulation of traditional public schools.

    When I was a precinct committeeman, I and my counter part would share and discuss our beliefs. It was okay to disagree, there was respect, or at least the appearance of respect. It seems to me many people the right believe that: shock has more value than content, having the last word is more important than sharing ideas, and their religious views “Trump” my civil rights.

  12. Sheila,

    “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.)”

    Your problem is that you’re locked into the narrow perspective of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Your nightmare is only your reality speaking to you through your dreams. The SPLC and the ADL were quick to blame Donald Trump for the outbreak of anti-Semitism. As a matter of fact , the SPLC put him on their “Hate List” month ago, and a few days ago their spokesman blamed Trump ALONE for the epidemic of anti-Semitism we’re now experiencing.

    But why hasn’t the Southern Baptist Convention been on their “Hate List”? As I remember they represent around 12,000,000 people. They’ve been preaching HATRED against the American Jews while SUPPORTING aid to Israel non-stop since 1980. What about the Tea Party, or the Christian Coalition, or the Moral Majority? Are they on the SPLC secret “Love List.”

    JoAnn, please accept my apology for criticizing your “untouchable.” If Sheila can be criticized on this blog, why can’t Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center be criticized? is he more important than Sheila?

    The Southern Poverty Law Center and their partner, the Anti-Defamation League, control the organizational framework for responding to anti-Semitism and racism in America. This FRAMEWORK is deficient for the task at hand. However, I must admit, the FRAMEWORK is just perfect for amassing close to 200 million dollars in the bank.

    Check out the internet and see who else is also deeply concerned about the activities of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It’s not just the holocaust deniers and the KKK.

    This is tough to take. When you have been “royally screwed,” it takes awhile to admit it. I can understand it very clearly from my own past experiences.

  13. Morris Dees is not Jewish. He grew up picking cotton alongside his mother and father. He understands the problems of race. And in the beginning, he did much to expose the problems.

    But he then aligned himself with the Anti-Defamation League and Abraham Foxman, who knew that the aid to Israel was continuing on the condition that the anti-Semitism in America would not be challenged. If it was by anyone, Jew or otherwise, then it would be cut off.

    That’s called……a modus vivendi. Unfortunately for me, I witnessed it come into fruition in 1970.

  14. Again, this assumes the false equivalence that is the staple of political-segregation-fed media. The liberals have not really segregated themselves, have they? But the “conservatives,” whether herded or voluntarily, have. The reality is that the Democrats, if anything, prior to the rise of Bernie Sanders, had become more conservative, and the Republicans had become MUCH more “conservative” (I put the word “conservative” in quotation marks because it is their label, but not in fact used appropriately — they are not conservative but reactionary). There is a rather large segment of Jesus-fueled backward, racist irrationality in this country, it has always been there (see mid-1800s for examples), and it has been successfully controlled by a relatively benevolent elite (think Progressives in both parties followed by a war/national security state bent on unity) for over 100 years. Then, sometime in the 1970’s, a much less benevolent cohort assumed control of the Republican Party and proceeded to exploit irrationality in this country until we we became nearly fully divided as a people into educated urban modernists and the rural backward religious. It hurts me to be so cynical and negative, but what we need now is less democracy and more benevolent elitism. We need to utterly destroy the GOP as it exists today and force politics back into a progressive vs. very progressive paradigm. This is war, and we will fight now through the relative civility of politics or our children will fight for real.

  15. We now have two potentially catastrophic problems in America…..runaway Anti-Semitism and Racism. The opaque, un-treated, virulent Anti-semitism has mutated over into the African-American community. That’s why it’s so difficult to come up with a root cause analysis of the out of control racism in America, which will eventually turn into an out of control POLITICAL TSUNAMI.

  16. News is the reporting of facts.

    Rush Limbaugh began a completely different industry that’s much, much closer to entertainment than news, the issuing of opinions. Murdoch and Ailes made an empire out of it.

    In the beginning they influenced only those who resonated with the opinions that they issued. The Tea Party. I believe the hardening of the rest of us came largely as a reaction to the Tea Party not necessarily to their passion but to the fact that they were almost completely wrong about everything; first in theory then in practice.

    What we are now wondering about is the trajectory of the disease. It is, as Marv reminds us, epidemiology. Is this an infection that Democracy has immunity to or the doomsday virus? We honestly don’t know.

    There are many academics trying to study the disease by weighing the sides assuming that both are rationally held world views but that’s like defining normal as the balance between Schizophrenia and rational.

    I don’t believe that Rush ever considered himself a political scientist and for sure none of us should. He’s Garrison Keillor completely devoid of humor, talent, and empathy. His business was making money pure and simple. He is to that as Hiltler was to power.

    Is there a rational informed passion that resists the spread of the infection? We have always blamed the Germans for employing no more than that and losing to irrational passion.

    Is the only resistance to the spread of the disease unrestrained fight or flight? That’s certainly a possibility.

  17. Over it,

    “This is war, and we will fight now through the relative civility of politics or our children will fight for real.”

    That’s what we’re faced with. You’re absolutely right in your foresight. But time is about to run out. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow it will.

  18. It appears that our options are to succumb to irrationality or to defeat irrationality, but there is a third option, one which we all hope never to see. If a country renders itself incapable of self-governance, inevitable those who are stronger will take control of it. I see the increasingly obvious trappings and technology of a police state controlled through near-oligarchy and wonder if the authoritarian impulses of the uneducated will result in a less than benevolent autocracy.

  19. Marv; criticize Morris Dees, the SPLC and ADL all you want. There is a difference between “criticize” and “ostracize”. Please explain what you mean by the SPLC “Hate List”; does this mean they state we are to hate Donald Trump or that Donald Trump hates? I have found only references to Hate Groups as listed in the SPLC “Intelligence Report”. Trump’s well known hate speeches are primary issues in SPLC, ADL, The Nation magazine and other publications. The Indianapolis Baptist Temple has been on the SPLC list of Patriot groups for years; residents here are familiar with them.

    Donald Trump has become the “poster child” for spewing hatred; he does this proudly. As for asking if he is more important than Sheila; I do not understand that connection or your question and I certainly disagree that Sheila is “locked into the narrow perspective of the SPLC”. She has always spoken her own mind loud and clear; one reason I voted for her years ago. I cannot remember when or why you responded to another of my messages upholding SPLC for the good they do (I don’t agree with all issues they uphold) you agreed that they did accomplish good in some of their endeavors. You just don’t agree with some issues…or their stand on some issues…but you appear to condemn them totally. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater! Check out the Internet and see who is deeply concerned with the activities (comments) by Ruth Bader Ginsberg; an issue far more important than who is deeply concerned with the SPLC. Apparently the GOP Congress is now demanding her resignation from SCOTUS due to benign (and true) comments she made about Trump.

    The section of the article I copied and pasted below makes a straightforward connection between the SPLC, Donald Trump and hate SPEECHES…which should be the issue. Deny her words if you can regarding Trump’s hate speeches and “political discourse causing social and political polarization”.

    Authored by Jessica Glenza of The Guardian
    “This article is 5 months old

    The Southern Poverty Law Center anchored its annual report on hate in America with a picture of the leading Republican presidential candidate: Donald Trump.

    The image underscores a theme laid out by the report’s author, about how hate speech has invaded mainstream political discourse in a way that might have shocked many even a year ago.”

  20. Why haven’t the SPLC, ADL, and the Nation Magazine attacked the Tea Party? Donald Trump didn’t create them. Do you believe that Donald Trump is more “hateful” than the average Tea Party member? I know you don’t. So get off my back for awhile.

  21. JoAnne,

    “Marv; criticize Morris Dees, the SPLC and ADL all you want. There is a difference between “criticize” and “ostracize”.”

    Try to make it a little clearer next time. I recommended “ostracizing” the SPLC from participating in a ROOT CAUSE ANALYSIS of the hatred in America, especially anti-Semitism, and probably for the same reason that the German chancellor refused to have Jewish representation in dealing with the rampant anti-Semitism they are experiencing.

    You need “clean hands” in order for an equitable resolution. Because of the difficulties involved in Israel’s survival, the Jews have lost much of their credibility. It’s not about fault, it is about political reality.

  22. I’ve always found Ben Bernanke a fascinating person as he’s the product of a very small rural southern town, Dillon, SC (population between 6K and 7K) where he grew up in a Jewish home and attended the Dillon public schools from K-12. If you’ve ever lived on the East Coast and traveled on I-95 from the North to the South, as in to Florida for the winter, you’ve driven by ‘South of the Border’ at the Dillon, SC Exit, truly one of the tackiest roadside venues and fireworks stands in the US. Ben Bernanke worked every summer at ‘South of the Border’ saving his money for his Harvard tuition.

    When Ben Bernanke speaks about self-selecting communities or sorting, I listen because he understands the various communities and comprehends the foundational reasons supporting the self-selection, all done without bashing any community.

  23. Marv, I can’t speak for JoAnn but I think some of us are first trying to understand your position before agreeing or disagreeing with it. The fight for Civil Rights is a proud American tradition and it’s hard for us to understand how a leading organization in that fight could be also a force in denying Sametic rights.

    Can you help us understand?

  24. BSH, your description of South of the Border was as cheritable as I can imagine possible, however their nearly infinite number of billboards do pass the miles on a long trip.

  25. BSH,

    I don’t believe Ben Bernanke has ever had anything to do with racism or Anti-Semitism as I can remember. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  26. I think the political minefield, divorced from the economic, will provide no solutions with endless discussion. When poor people are making $20 an hour and have some of the goodies routinely provided in the Nordic countries, I think many of the political problems we are arguing about will evaporate.

  27. Marv,

    As far as I know or understand, Ben Bernanke has never been involved or associated with espousing racist or anti-semitic viewpoints. Consider that Bernanke’s hometown of Dillon, SC has an approximate 50/50 demographic split between Caucasian and African-Americans, it’s likely young Ben grew up in a diverse community.

  28. Pete,

    The roadside signs for ‘South of the Border’ are more entertaining than the old ‘Burma Shave’ signs. Pedro and the giant sombrero are real eye-catchers.

  29. Well, that makes this a completely black and white election. A choice between burn down everything American, all that made the country great for 250 years, and rebuild, versus running the country like a world leader and bastion of Democracy.

  30. Pete,

    “Marv, I can’t speak for JoAnn but I think some of us are first trying to understand your position before agreeing or disagreeing with it. The fight for Civil Rights is a proud American tradition and it’s hard for us to understand how a leading organization in that fight could be also a force in denying Sametic rights.

    Can you help us understand?”

    Spelling isn’t important. I didn’t bring this disturbing subject up for you to agree or not to agree. I did it as a warning. It’s based on my “tracking this problem” for over 45 years. It’s called “warning intelligence.” I was a member of the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) Advisory Committee in 1970 in Dallas. Fortunately, at that point in time, all my senses were in tack. That’s when this mess first started.

    I’ve participated in the blog for almost a year. I’m trying to limit my time. Sheila’s post this morning reflected a deep concern that she might be missing something. I’ve been trying to warn you about this problem for some time. I have credibility with some of you, but surely not all. This isn’t the venue to go too much further.

    I’ve known for many, many years that this issue would be paramount in the future of American democracy. As many of you know, my companion and I jointly published “Democracide” in the early nineties. See http://www.Democracide.info

    We’re just continuing to follow in the footsteps ( or maybe better…by the playbook) of Nazi Germany. The following is from Professor F. W. Foerster’s “Europe and the German Question” (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1940) 281:

    “In 1925, shortly after the campaign of passive resistance had broken down, I discussed the entire question of the relations between Germany and the rest of Europe with the German Ambassador in Paris, von Hoesch. I was introduced to him by a German officer of hight rank who shared my views. But it required courage on his part to receive a German who, because he had publicly condemned the passive resistance at that time, was the subject of most violent attacks in the national press. [sound familiar]”

    “The Ambassador alluded to my position in the matter when he remarked, “It is said that you have cut yourself off from your fellow-countrymen.” I replied, not in jest but with deliberate purpose, “So much the worse for my fellow-countrymen.” He almost fell flat at such conceit. But I hastened to add in the most serious tones, “an individual may be in the right aganst his entire nation, if the protest he makes is based upon a great and venerable tradition and on an INTIMATE KNOWLEDGE of facts inaccessible, under present circumstance, to the vast majority of the Germans.” There are few Germans who know as I do the extent and willful malice of the devastation ordered without any military necessity by the German High Command.”

    A few years later, Professor Foerster armed with a massive intelligence report, prepared by a close personal friend in German military intelligence, appeared in front of a special session of the League of Nations and warned that the Germans were rearming through the help of the Soviets at the time. His exposure of the violations of the Treaty of Versailles, set back the arming of the Nazi regime for many years.

    I’ve recently alluded to the dangers of the Christian-Zionist Alliance and the activities of the ADL in my website at http://www.EthicalFront.net.

    The SPLC and the ADL are partners. The ADL wasn’t going to fight Anti-Semitism, since their main concern is aid to the State of Israel and not the future of American Jews. This has a terrible effect on Civil Rights since the uncontrolled Anti-Semitism has mutated into virulent racism against the African-American community.

    How would you expect for the SPLC to act otherwise. Much of the finacial support for the SPLC comes from Jewish donors. I’m not saying they’re stupid.

    Do I need to get any clearer?

  31. For every complex problem there’s a simple solution that’s usually wrong.

    Donald Trump appeals to those who want simple solutions to complex problems.
    While we’d all like a less complicated world, most of us also appreciate that it’s
    complex and the dangers implicit in failing to understand the nuances that can
    trigger nuclear annihilation. I don’t want Trump’s finger on the nuclear button
    but neither do I want his loose lips triggering a nuclear attack from some other
    itchy-fingered, volatile leader who’s as macho as Trump.

  32. OMG

    Everyone in the Village at that taime would have thought McGovern would win. East Village or Talbot Village!

  33. Hoosierland will be rid of Pence if things go Drumpf’s way (German spelling, likely some immigrants in the circus peanut’s background?), and they usually do, I am sad to say. Now, if that questionable team of misfits is elected, at least Indiana can share the Pence misery with the rest of us. Gee! T’anks! OMG! This is all just too much!

    The choice is so very clear now. The last thing any of us needs to do is stay home on Election Day. You just can’t stay home that day.

  34. Correct, Earl. There was a very funny piece published about this a while back – I think it was about Mary McCarthy, and I think it was in the New Yorker, but both details could be off (but still in the right direction).

    The main point was the complete intellectual/political isolation of the Greenwich Village crowd, and the punchline was the quote “But I don’t know a single person who wasn’t going to vote for McGovern.”

    Well, then you need to know more people . . .

  35. Marv, from random reading on the web there is some confusion and concern by various groups and individuals between missions to enhance civil rights vs promote tribal supremacy. I think that it’s a fine line between “freedom at all is freedom for all” and entitlement and privilege.

    Knowing where the ADL and SPLC stand relative to that line is way beyond my knowledge of either group. I’m sure that your experience with them is way beyond mine.

    From a political standpoint to me it’s clear that our government has to represent all who call themselves Americans without prejudice. I’m not sure the legal status of NGOs. Is a white supremacy NGO legal if they follow all other laws? My guess would be yes.

    That doesn’t imply though that they would not be disruptive to democracy.

    Thanks for the clarification. It’s a good topic for ongoing research.

  36. Pete,

    “Marv, from random reading on the web there is some confusion and concern by various groups and individuals between missions to enhance civil rights vs promote tribal supremacy. I think that it’s a fine line between “freedom at all is freedom for all” and entitlement and privilege.”

    Thanks for the deeper clarification of the issue. It will be a big help for me in finalizing my efforts to organize the Ethical Forum down here in Jacksonville in the next few days. The Ethical Forum is about “freedom for all” and definitely not about entitlement and privilege. See http://www.EthicalForum.net

Comments are closed.