In 1976 Jimmy Carter ran against Gerald Ford for the presidency of the United States. In that election 26.8 percent of voters lived in a landslide county.

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By 2004 that percentage almost doubled. About six of every 10 counties in the 2004 election were won by landslide margins.

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In California, right now, 13 counties are becoming more Democratic, while 30 counties are becoming more Republican. Only 11 counties are becoming more competitive. That type of political clustering is happening all over the country and has been happening consistently over the past thirty years.

According to Bill Bishop, author of the blog and book, The Big Sort, geographic clustering isn’t just happening around political ideology. Between 1970 and 2000 we also clustered more based on those who have and don’t have college degrees. We have also clustered around married and single households. And due to the success of megachurches, we are also clustering more based on religious affiliation.

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Our neighbors are now more likely to vote, shop, pray, dress, and live just like we do. Bishop takes us through a photographic tour of the United States which draws out some of the fundamental differences between clusters of communities. Unless the trend is somehow purposely reversed, it is likely only to accelerate. Bishop cites a study in which a group of French students who had moderately hostile feelings towards the United States were put into the same room and upon leaving the room their hostility for the US was even stronger. This is exactly what is happening in American communities. And that change is reflected in congress: from 1970 to today the percentage of political moderates in both the Democratic and Republican parties in the congress has been continually declining.

Bishop says that the only way to reverse accelerating homogeny is by forcing yourself to interact (or, better yet, live) with people who aren’t like you. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience to look around and take notice of just how homogenous of a group we are.

My Thoughts

In the question and answer period Bishop was asked if it’s just how people vote and how they respond to surveys which is becoming more geographically clustered or if people actually behave differently in different geographic questions. Both, he says, citing research about parents who do and do not spank their children.

I didn’t get a chance to ask my question, but I was surprised that Bishop didn’t mention race or class. Especially with home prices over the last 20 years, I would think that the number one indicator of which community you choose to live in is how much money you make. Are we merely seeing a consolidation of class values? And how does ethnicity factor in? If we are clustering based on politics, education level, and religion, then why aren’t we clustering based on ethnicity too? In fact, our communities are becoming more ethnically diverse, not less. (Which some researchers say leads to less happy communities.) If politics trumps ethnicity in terms of how we cluster, is that a trade-off that we should perhaps celebrate rather than disparage?