Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Big Sort

Seattle is a happy city today. People danced in the streets last night. I exchanged words of jubilation with total strangers...and that's RARE. Northwesterners are normally a reserved, standoffish lot. Closest thing to this was the M's run in 2001, and even that happiness wasn't quite so joyous or universal.

Most of my friends' Facebook statuses and LiveJournal comments were in the same celebratory vein. But for some of my relatives and old, old friends--we're talking high school here--last night felt like the end of the world. They feel, well, pretty much like I did after the Bush v. Gore verdict in 2000, or on election night in 2004. They're my fellow Americans, but I don't understand them. Sometimes I feel like there's no overlap at all in what we love about our country or in the future we desire for it. And if it weren't for the fact I grew up in their world before leaving for college in Philadelphia at 18 and gradually adopting most of the politics and worldview you'd expect from someone who went to an elite college and chose to spend her adult life in liberal cities, I'd have no contact with people like that--people on the other side--whatsoever. (And, boy, was that a long and convoluted sentence.)

It wasn't always this way. Thirty or forty years ago, communities weren't so segregated by ideology. Close elections were close all over the country. But now, prosperity has enabled greater mobility, and we as a nation have self-sorted into communities who think like we do, worship like we do, play like we do...and vote like we do. It's a natural phenomenon--it's human nature to want to be part of a group that shares our values. But it's become so extreme that it's threatened the fabric of our democracy. Even in those close elections, most counties are landslide counties, where the winning candidate has a margin of victory or 20% or more. And so our politics have become more contentious, because politicians and their constituencies are so divided and tribalized that there's no desire for compromise. At least, that's what Bill Bishop contends in The Big Sort (2008), and I confess I recognize myself in its pages. Obama's victory seems to run counter to Bishop's theories to some degree, however, so I'll be watching Bishop's blog to see how he analyzes it.

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