Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Big Sort: A Paradigm for Our Polarized Times?

I read a book recently which seems to describe what Animal Liberation Front bombers have in common with the man who killed two people at a Unitarian Church in Tennessee.

They're domestic terrorists rooted in the same phenomena that have destroyed political discourse and consensus in American politics. Those roots would be:

  • The refusal of individuals to compromise their personal concepts of right and wrong in order to further the common good.

  • Insular, intellectually segregated groups of people who create and self-confirm extreme beliefs and their entitlement to act on them regardless of the impact on others.


Like many people, I have puzzled over the vicious, polemical extremes that dominate politics today. Discourse about differing opinions has been replaced by demonizing those who disagree. Both Left and Right, Democrats and Republicans resort to rants rather than persuasion.

The lack of moderation, and the permission granted by political leaders for their followers to engage in scorched earth tactics, inevitably incites the mentally unstable to acts of violence.

A newly published book, The Big Sort, sheds some light on why all this is happening now.

According to the book, "In the 95th Congress (1977-1979), 40 percent of the 435 members were moderates," Bishop writes. "By the 108th Congress (2003-2005) this moderate bloc had be whittled down to 10 percent."

Further, the book states that, "In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide." The authors define "landslide" as winning by 20 percent or greater. "By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties."

Nothing illustrates this schism better than the county-by-county maps of presidential voting from 1976 to 2004.

Along with this, the book documents how, over the past three decades, Americans have chosen to segregate themselves in ways that avoid contact with people who might disagree with them politically.

Now, the match that ignites all this gasoline: <The Big Sort presents numerous studies proving that people isolated from differing opinions become more extreme, especially with regard to political issues. In effect, people in homogeneous groups trend toward political extremes as they try to prove they have drunk the common Kool-Aid. They do not tolerate dissent or discussion. Moderates then must decide whether to comply with the group or allow themselves to be driven away.

A study published in 2006 by Penn political scientist Diana Mutz found that only 23 percent of Americans have regular discussions with people they disagree with politically. And the more education a person has, the worse this gets.

Moderates willing to work together for a common goal despite their differences have been replaced by tinhorn demagogues trying to stir up hatred and intolerance for anyone they disagree with.

The self-sorting polarization of the electorate is why both political parties have abandoned any attempt at trying to sway moderates -- there are damn few left. Instead, campaigns focus on inflaming their supporters' passions, encouraging them, to intimidate the opposition and make sure they go to the polls.

This is how both the Nazis and Communists came to power. It invigorates the ideological psychos on the fringes and gives them permission to burn, bomb and kill.

The political "leadership" of America is responsible for extremism that leads to death and violence.

Buy this book. Read it. Study it. It has no answers of its own, but knowledge is power and acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving it.

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