Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tribalism in a wealthy society

More talk about growing ideological segregation and polarization in the American body politic -- this time from the Los Angeles Times.
As many of the 10 million Americans who move from one county to another each year chose to live in narrowly defined "communities of interest," the nation's counties became more politically segregated and increasingly less politically competitive. In 1976, only 38% of counties had a partisan spread larger than 20 percentage points; in 2004's astonishingly close election, more than 60% of U.S. counties saw landslides.

And homogeneity breeds more homogeneity. Political minorities in landslide counties tend to vote less and even withdraw from other forms of civic life, while political majorities vote more. In any given lopsided locale, the triumphant majority opinion hardens -- the blues become bluer and the reds redder -- and cross-party communication stops. And when communication stops, each side begins to view the other as more extreme. According to one study, fewer than 25% of Americans have regular discussions with people they disagree with politically. The more educated Americans become, the greater the distance. Americans who hold graduate degrees live the most homogenous political lives.

To a certain extent, this is to be expected in a country with increasingly diverse cultural and media outlets -- despite the popular-in-some-cynical-quarters counterfactual nonsense about "media concentration." Perhaps New York City of the 1920s, with its horde of newspapers and newborn radio media, enjoyed something approaching the explosion of voices that cable TV, satellite and, especially, the Internet have introduced to the world. It's only natural that people should gravitate to the outlets that share their interests and values, the way my grandfather huddled over the Brooklyn Eagle.

But the geographical apect of ideological segregation is something new. Only in a highly mobile and extremely prosperous society could large numbers of people afford to move from state to state, not for economic reasons, but to find political homes. That suggests that people are not just tribal (which we already knew), but that they'll use growing resources that come with relative wealth to reinforce tribalism. That's interesting.

Will the process continue? I expect that people will continue to gravitate toward media and cultural outlets that share and reinforce their views. Whether they'll continue to divide geographically -- perhaps in more refined form in the future than simple red/blue -- is something we'll have to wait to see.

Even more interesting would be if that ideological segregation led to increased decentralization and more political experiments.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bring it on. Point me to And if it leads to low taxes, school choice, and for-profit public transportation in certain communities, then let's see how well those ideas pan out. We've tried big government. Let's try microgovernment. Just show me where to move.

May 28, 2008 8:35 AM  

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