“The Big Sort” and Anti-Dialogue

In his 2004 book written with statistician Robert G. Cushing, journalist Billy Bishop described a phenomenon he called "the Big Sort." Demographic data made apparent a national trend: not only was the United States polarized politically between regions and states, but down to micro-demographic levels. Political divides clustered starkly around state and county lines—and came down to the smallest of divides between neighborhoods. Analyzing demographic shifts such as migration, Bishop concluded that there was a self-selecting process occurring by which Americans had been and continued to sort themselves into highly segmented communities of like-minded people. “We’ve built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood and church and news show—most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs,” says his website summarizing the book, The Big Sort. “And we are living with the consequences of this way of life segregation. Our country has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live just a few miles away.”

A recent study by economists Brian Bailey, Racheal Cao, et al. used anonymous data drawn from Facebook friendship links (first-degree connections to friends) to determine the extent of “social connectedness” among Americans. The results are compelling, and harken back to Bishop’s argument, made fourteen years prior: “even in the age of the internet, distance matters immensely in determining whom — and, as a result, what — we know.” This fragmentation of society fosters a spirit of tribalism and anti-dialogue that has driven our politics into a dead-end.

A transition to the national popular vote could go a long way in breaking that tribalism down. Savvy candidates for president would run on platforms with appeal to members of both parties as well as non-party affiliated voters, recognizing mass appeal as the shortest path to victory. Candidates would have to wage campaigns that appeal to voters not just in the handful of states that currently pick the president, but also to voters in every state.  Politically self-segregated America would be pushed into a shared arena with all the citizens of the entire nation—and each and every vote would matter equally. With regional divisions made irrelevant, at least in presidential elections, it is likely that a more productive dialogue would emerge.

Stop anti-dialogue; endorse the national popular vote.

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