Why Trump Isn’t to Blame for the Nation’s Toxic Political Tribalism
In 2008, in an increasingly politically polarized country, both presidential candidates attempted to present themselves as post-partisan choices. John McCain was seen as a “maverick,” less beholden than others to the dogmatic demands of the Republican Party, while Barack Obama offered the possibility to bridge not only racial divides but the growing gullies between red and blue on the electoral map.
It was a nice idea. Bill Bishop knew it wasn’t true.
That spring, after all, Bishop had published The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. It put hard numbers and gave a catchy name to something people from coast to coast already were feeling: Americans were getting more and more divided — sorted, as it were, based on income, occupation and education, religion, lifestyle and worldviews. And that in turn was having drastic political implications.
The statistics backed him up. In 1976, 26.8 percent of voters lived in “landslide” counties — counties, that is, in which the winner in the presidential election won by more than 20 percent. In 1996, it was 42.1, and by 2004, it was nearing half. “Americans are increasingly unlikely to find themselves in mixed political company,” Bishop wrote — “pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred,” as he put it, “that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’” who lived differently, thought differently, voted differently. People weren’t picking presidents — they were choosing sides.
At a moment when the country is contending with its bitterest and most intractable issues — reproductive rights and gun control — I called Bishop for his perspective on whether Americans are in any better shape to overcome the crippling tribalism he documented 14 years ago. He was not encouraging.
Bishop is 68 now and retired from a journalism career that took him from Kentucky to Texas, where he helped found and still is a contributing editor for The Daily Yonder, which covers rural issues. Five or so years after his book came out, he moved from blue, cosmopolitan Austin to red, rural La Grange — a conscious effort to follow his own advice (“Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes,” he wrote in The Big Sort) and re-sort himself onto the other side of the divide. That decision is part of the reason he managed to end our conversation on a somewhat hopeful note about the ability of communities to transcend national politics and act cooperatively on tough problems.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Kruse: Is there any way in which the Big Sort has gotten better? Or has the country just gotten more and more “Big Sorted”?
Bill Bishop: The numbers that we use show that it’s just increased. Twenty-six percent of the electorate in 1976 lived in one of those 60-40 counties. And that’s only looking at Republican and Democratic voters. And by 2016 it was 60 percent. Rhodes Cook looked at super-sorted counties — that gave 80 percent or more of its two-party presidential vote — and found that 20 percent of the nation’s counties gave 80 percent. All the numbers point in that same direction.
Kruse: The Big Sort is now the Bigger Sort.
Bishop: There you go. I could have said that.
Kruse: Rereading The Big Sort over the last few days, it made me think about the 2004 election in a new way and made me wonder: Is it fair to look at that election in some sense as the first election of the rest of our political lives?
Bishop: Our conclusion was that we’re sorting in all kinds of ways, so it’s not primarily political — we see it in politics because we can measure it that way. But when people look at what church you go to, some churches become bluer, some churches become redder, and people will change their church or change their religion in order to be with their political group. And clubs will go that way. So, when we began looking at all the different aspects of life, they all began to show the same sorting into like-minded groups — based on essentially identity. And so the underlying engine of all this is identity and expression. It’s who I am.
People just know when they get to the place where they’re around people who are like themselves. And so when James Gimpel at the University of Maryland showed people houses — would you want to live in this neighborhood or live in that neighborhood? — Republicans like the big houses with more yard and Democrats like the Jane Jacobs-y houses with the front porches and close to one another. And that is replicated over and over and over and over again. All this is about lifestyle and about identity — and, oh, every four years, it’s about politics.
Kruse: There is this section, though, in which you sit down with Matthew Dowd, the George W. Bush strategist, and he outlines the ways that he and the Bush campaign that year took advantage of this reality, saw the political utility within this reality in a maybe new way. Is it fair to see that as something of a shift in that presidential election cycle?
Bishop: Yeah. Except what they did was copy the megachurch.
Kruse: Right. They took what worked socially and in a religious context from a flat-out messaging standpoint, a marketing standpoint, and applied it fairly directly to a political campaign.
Bishop: You could see that people don’t come to a big church necessarily because of the preacher. They come because their friends come. And so what Dowd and those people figured out was you get the local person who becomes the local organizer. And they did that within the church. They would have a person in charge of each church to be that because it wasn’t about the head of the campaign. It was about the social group that people belonged to. And then Obama and Democrats and Republicans from then on realized they could do the same thing online.
Kruse: It’s interesting though, because in 2004, when Dowd is doing what he’s doing for the Bush campaign, Obama, pre-President Obama, pre-Senator Obama, is standing on a stage in Boston at the Democratic National Convention saying essentially there are no red states or blue states, there are only the United States, and then he runs for president and takes advantage — perhaps even better than the Bush campaign did in 2004 — of the big sort. Or am I wrong?
Bishop: I could see that they had organizers within Facebook, so that friends would bring friends into the campaign, just like friends brought friends into the church. It’s just the way people organize themselves. It’s just another example of how in the big picture identity has become — I mean, politics now isn’t about dividing stuff up. It’s not about, as it was in the old days, getting roads in Kentucky. Now it’s about identity. All the other ways that people develop their identity or have developed their identity since time began in groups and in communities and in families and at work — all those have lost meaning. People are given the task of creating their own identities every day, which is what Facebook and Twitter are all about. A bunch of European sociologists describe this breakdown of community and how the individual has become the artist of his own or her own life and is given this daily task of creating a self. And so politics now plays that role. People use politics to create identity, not to divide up stuff. The policy that is in place under Trump is hated by Democrats. If the same policy remains under a Democratic president, then Democrats like it.
Kruse: This is why Joe Biden has had such trouble with Build Back Better. People actually don’t care about that stuff as much.
Bishop: Not apparently. It used to be that’s what it was all about: Can you get my road paved? You’re delivering a good that is no longer valued in a society where identity and expression are paramount. The most important cultural capital that you can have these days is to be singular. So the most outrageous, the most indignant, the most this or that — they become our leaders.
Kruse: Do you think Donald Trump read The Big Sort?
Bishop: No, no — no. I think it’s what he sees.
Kruse: Right. Let’s just stipulate that Trump did not actually read The Big Sort. But does Trump understand The Big Sort?
Bishop: I think he understands what identity means and how to use that craving that people have for identity and for expression to his advantage. So it’s gone from splitting up the goods of society to: Is politics giving me an opportunity to express my identity?
I gave talks all around. One of the best discussions I had was with the chamber of commerce, I think, in Oklahoma City, and the people who most wanted to deny that a lot of this stuff was happening were our liberal friends. It’s somebody’s fault, it’s Trump’s fault, it’s right-wing Christians who are creating this — and it’s, like, no, really, we’re all in this, it’s a social change. And they didn’t like it.
Kruse: I wonder if those liberal people you just referenced would see it more clearly if you were back giving that talk to the same group today.
Bishop: Good question. But would they see themselves? I mean, the interesting thing about the guy who looked at the 80-percent counties: Most of the counties were Trump counties. But Biden got more votes out of 80-percent counties than Trump got out of 80-percent counties.
People talk about, “Oh, it’s rural this or that.” Of course, I moved to a rural county.
Kruse: Why did you do that, by the way?
Bishop: We had lived in the heart of Austin. I had a picture of this dog in my little group of slides [for presentations]. You would go up to the polls, and there was somebody with their dog. Of course, city people take their dogs everywhere. And I said, “Oh, what’s the name of the dog?” And the woman said, “Oh, my dog’s name is Che.” And it’s like, OK, I know where I am, you know? The diversity of small towns is more interesting than the sort of mono-politics of the big city.
Kruse: So that’s been a conscious decision on your part at various points in your life to not live in those monocultures?
Bishop: Well, I live in an 80-percent Trump county.
Kruse: The anti-Austin.
Bishop: The anti-Austin. But we know everybody. People in Austin would be horrified, but it’s more diverse than Austin in that sense — in the way people live. It’s more diverse racially too.
Kruse: And how is it more diverse politically if it’s just sort of Austin flipped on its head from a voting standpoint?
Bishop: Because everybody knows everybody. Everybody goes to the same church. Everybody goes to the same clubs. The town isn’t big enough to have a liberal club over here and a conservative club over there. If you’re working on X problem, you work with everybody, and so the size of the place mitigates against segregation.
Kruse: Which is why it’s beneficial, perhaps, to be in a place like that rather than a bigger neighborhood in a bigger city where everybody thinks the same stuff?
Bishop: It’s just more interesting. I mean, the mayor checks out groceries. We have a Black woman mayor in La Grange in an 80-percent Trump county who checks out groceries. Which is why she got elected. Everybody knows her, and everybody trusts her.
Kruse: If nothing else, living in a smaller town almost by definition makes you less likely to be virulently anti-government?
Bishop: There are some people …
Kruse: So they’re virulently anti-government, but they still like seeing the mayor bagging their groceries?
Bishop: Right. But we have our fair share of people who think Texas should secede and all that other business.
Kruse: Would she still be the mayor?
Bishop: She would still be the mayor of La Grange.
Kruse: You wrote an afterword [to a new edition] in January of 2009 — the month Obama was inaugurated. And at the time there was a chunk of the country that thought here is a chance to sort of lessen some of the implications of the big sort, to come together, quote unquote, as one country again. Looking back, it seems ridiculous how wrong we were. But you literally right there at the beginning of that afterword said so: “America came out of the recent presidential election more divided than it had been in November of 2004.” And then at the end of that afterword — the last sentence — I just want to reread the last sentence: “The message people living in a democracy must understand more than any other message is that there are Americans who aren’t just like you, they don’t live like you, they don’t have families like yours, and they don’t think like you, they may not live in your neighborhood, but this is their country, too.”
Bishop: Not much has changed.
Bishop: We’re just stuck in this. It’s depressing.
Kruse: I was hoping…
Bishop: I get around it by — in a small town, you can help other people. We help one another. We had a flood here, Hurricane Harvey, that was almost five years ago now — 80-percent Trump county and we needed our Saint James Episcopal Church room [for a meeting]. And most people who got flooded out were Hispanic, and the Catholic priest got up and said, “We need to help these people. But if you ask them for their names, addresses, Social Security numbers, all that stuff, they won’t come because a lot of them are illegal. So don’t ask.” And there was no discussion. People just agreed: We’re helping — we’re not asking. And so people just came in. They got helped.
When you’re working on a problem that’s right in front of you and it’s not abstracted and it’s not about identity, it’s about somebody’s hungry and doesn’t have any clothes, then all those other issues begin to go away. They go away and you deal with people as they are and not as an ideologue. And it’s a great feeling. It is the greatest there is. You solve this problem not by talking about it, but by doing stuff. So don’t talk about it — do something. We’re not going to become good people and get over this modern problem because of a great leader. We’re going to get over it because we work with others who aren’t like ourselves.
Kruse: So really more of us who live in cities, and not just Washington, D.C., New York, LA, San Francisco, but Louisville and Austin and Charlotte and Nashville — we need to move to the country.
Bishop: It’s not an answer — but at least it doesn’t make you crazy.