Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sorting Our Polarized Politics

Note: This post was originally on WFAE's The Party Line website until the site underwent a change and was deleted. I'm reposting it for folks who are interested as we get closer to the election (thanks to Rick Short who asked for a repost).  

We read all the time about how “polarized” our nation is, and we see it in the “red versus blue” categorization, the way that the U.S. Congress behaves, even the animosity that seems to be driving the two parties at the local level against each other.

Over sixty years ago, the American Political Science Association released a report that said that the two major parties needed to be more “responsible” in the governing process.  In fact, the report argued that an active opposition is “most conducive to responsible government” and that “when there are two parties identifiable by the kinds of action they propose, the voters have an actual choice” (page 19).

So now we have parties that are truly different, and is it any surprise that we have the polarization now?  But there has to be a starting point—a foundation—for where that polarization begins. 

Some scholars of our nation’s politics believe that it starts from the top down—that the elites within the parties have sorted themselves into ideologically coherent divisions, and that the masses have followed right along with them.

But what about at the grassroots level?  Can we see the impact of two very different political parties at the local level?

In running some analysis on the recent redistricting of Mecklenburg’s County Commission districts, I came across an interesting analysis of the various precincts in the Great State of Meck: out of the county’s 195 precincts, only thirteen could be considered “toss-up” precincts, ones that could potentially go either Democratic or Republican when voting for president.

For the vast majority—137 precincts in Mecklenburg—the analysis showed that the one political party tended to dominant in those precincts: 72 precincts were “likely Republican” in their presidential voting patterns, while another 65 were “likely Democratic.” 

The way that I arrived at this analysis was to take the past two presidential elections in the precincts and look at the differences between the two party’s votes, in comparison to the county average’s for both party’s presidential candidates.  So, in 2004, John Kerry won Mecklenburg with 52% of the vote, while four years, Obama won with 61% of the vote—there’s your baseline. 

Then, I took each precinct and compared the performance of the presidential candidates against the county baseline; for example, in Precinct 56, Kerry won with 97% of the vote, and Obama captured 99% of the vote.  

Taking the differences between the precinct’s performance compared to the county  (45 and 38) and then averaging the two years together, you come up with a Partisan Voting Index for that precinct: for Precinct 56, it was 41% for the Democrats, or D+41.

Using a classification of anything over +10 on either side as “likely” to vote for that party, those between +3 and +10 as “lean” and anything below +3 as “toss-up” precincts, you can assign each precinct into one of these categories to see the voting behavior of Mecklenburg County by its various precincts:

What stands out to me is the sheer number of “likely” precincts that are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican, based on presidential voting patterns.  With so very few “toss-up” precincts, Mecklenburg voters seem to have sorted themselves into politically segregated areas.

So what does this tell us?  Several years ago, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” They argue that, even though the nation is becoming more diverse, where Americans live is becoming more homogenous: that we live in areas where our neighbors think, live, and vote like we do. 

By looking at this phenomenon from the ground up, Bishop contends that Americans have “sorted” themselves into like-minded communities, and that by doing so, we have found ourselves in our current polarized state: “mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes” (page 68).

As North Carolinians head into the primary electoral season on May 8th, it would be worth remembering that when we have conversations with folks of the opposite party, ending with people shaking their heads and saying “why don’t those folks just understand where I’m coming from,” it could be because they don’t live in a like-minded precinct as we do.

And therefore, voters have no reason to understand where the other side is coming from—and that we are shocked when we complain that our politics is so polarized.