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Sunday, June 15, 2008

What I learned about blogging from Bill Bishop's book on polarization & geographic sorting

It is still early to be picking favorite books of 2008. But I think it unlikely that anything in the Non-Fiction/Popular Poli Sci category will beat Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin 2008). The essential theme of Bishop's book is that there has been a remarkable increase in county-level sorting based on ideology since 1965, and that this sorting is leading to polarized politics and culture. Aided by Robert Cushing, a Professor of Sociology and Statistics, Bishop has assembled a striking array of data showing that inter-county migration based on ideology has increased precipitously in the last 43 years: Republicans and Democrats are both seeking out counties where their preferred candidate is likely to win by a landslide (i.e., 20% or more). Liberals head for Travis County (Austin), TX; Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), MI; San Francisco County, CA. Conservatives head for Lubbock, TX; Grand Rapids, MI; Orange County, CA; etc. Bishop also provides a powerful argument that, contrary to some recent claims by respectable political scientists (e.g., Morris Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America), this geographic sorting has made Americans far more ideologically polarized than they were prior to the 1970s. Indeed, Bishop shows that we Americans are now ideologically segregated in our basic consumption choices -- the news shows we watch (Fox versus NPR), the beverages we drink (micro-brews versus, well, macro-brews), even the pets we own (yes, there is a significant correlation between owning a dog and being a resident of a Republican-landslide county).

There is much one could write about this remarkable and accessible book. Despite its being essentially a popularization of existing academic literature, The Big Sort may even eventually join the ranks of classics on local spatial economies -- a literature that has blossomed since Wallace Oates based an entire economic literature on Tiebout's now-classic A Pure Theory of Public Expenditures. Best of all, Bishop transcends his own identity as an Austin, Texas liberal by dispassionately -- even hilariously -- describing the paranoia of both Left and Right.

But I would like to focus on the book's relevance to (of all things) blogging, a topic that Bishop does not discuss. The Big Sort sheds light on a mystery (at least, to me) of this medium: viz., the touchiness of bloggers, Left and Right, and their willingness to invoke the alleged bad faith or stupidity of their opponents as an explanation for ordinary ideological disagreements. Here's the explanation that Bill Bishop might offer: Blogs allow geographically segregated groups to interact. According to Bishop, this sort of trans-county and trans-ideological interaction is unfamiliar to the participants. They predictably use the medium as a cathartic outlet to lambast unseen ideological opponents with whom they lack daily dealings.

Hence, the hyper-ventilated tone of blog comments on ideologically coded topics like free trade, habeas writs, or "hate speech" regulation. Judges who read Article I, section 9's protection of the habeas writ are not merely mistaken about the best reading of the law: They are corrupt, rent-seeking ideologues. Politicians who want to restrict "hate speech" are not merely misguided or over-zealous: They are the stooges of Left-wing commissars of political correctness. Advocates of tariff protection for American labor are not simply making a poor policy decision: They are xenophobic or economically illiterate. (I myself am a fairly doctrinaire free-trader -- but I was taken aback by the snide or strident tone of my fellow free-traders in response to one of my own posts).

(Of course, I am not exempt from deploying polarizing rhetoric. Sadly, my own ideology is the lonely one of being a booster for decentralization of various stripes -- in particular, localism and federalism. (Hence, my irate post on Riley v. Kennedy). I have yet to find a county where we decentralizers form a majority: When I do, I'll move there and contribute in my own little way to Bishop's Big Sort).

In such an atmosphere, one cannot write in a ironic vein on any topic on which the "Reds" or "Blues" have passionate feelings without inviting a cascade of savage -- indeed, sometimes apparently hate-filled -- invective. Of course, angry comments are harmless: It is not as if Sumner is being caned by Butler on the Senate floor. But one does detect an oddly similar level of intense hatred, even though the practical stakes are exactly zero. Moreover, there is an apparent eagerness to sniff out the author's hidden ideological agenda even when such an agenda is hard to imagine. For instance, if one hazards a guess that Canadian politicians and press will ultimately put the kibosh on over-enforcement of Canadian "hate speech" regulation, one must be a fan of censoring conservative speakers. (I was accused of harboring such a desire to see conservatives censored by the Canadian Human Rights Commission even though I described Canadian constitutional doctrines as "appalling" and Canadian bureaucrats as "petty Robespierres" and "thought police." Incidentally, I was a registered Republican until I moved to NYC, where such a party affiliation prevents one from voting in the only contest that counts -- the Democratic Primary -- and I am undoubtedly to the Right of most of my colleagues at NYU Law School).

What lesson should one take away from this ideologically over-charged atmosphere? If one had an earnest and reforming bent, one might use the geographically boundless blog to transcend ideological divisions that, according to Bishop, are increasingly mapping on to geography. If one wanted to undertake such a worthy mission, one would have to adopt an unctuously cautious tone, phrasing every statement in the most qualified subjunctive to avoid driving off Reds or Blues. One could imagine that a blog, run along these lines, might be a sort of United Nations, binding together Red and Blue counties

Sadly, I lack such a reformer's zeal, so I shall continue writing in my usual sloppy way, oblivious of the ideological land-mines that I explode as I blunder about. And if you, Gentle Reader, are moved to obscenity by what you take to be my hidden agenda, please feel free to let fly your most eloquent hyperbole. But pick up Bill Bishop's book after you relieve your desire to vent your ire. You might have a moment of shocking self-recognition -- but, in any case, you certainly will be in for a good read.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 15, 2008 at 03:52 PM in Books | Permalink


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Tracked on Jan 7, 2010 6:15:40 PM


Isn't it intrinsically unlikely that decentralists would coalesce into a single county? Relocation appears unlikely, Rick.

I'm not entirely convinced the primary underlying cause of such hyperventilated hyperbole is that entertainment and information options have become fragmented and blogs are, indeed, the only place for ideological cross-pollination. If that's true, however, instead of a blog so devoid of zeal, perhaps greater exposure to blogs as a primary medium for community-building is a solution?

Admittedly, it may be an unduly positive perspective on blogging and the promise of the technology. But if one aspect is powerful enough to bifurcate, perhaps another is powerful enough to put the pieces back together again?

Posted by: Aaron Munter | Jun 16, 2008 1:15:44 AM

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