Mister Landslide’s Neighborhood

Red versus blue states isn’t the half of it.

In the Sept. 2003 Atlantic Monthly, the conservative writer David Brooks, citing the late liberal political activist James Chapin, observed the following:

[E]very place becomes more like itself. People are less often tied down to factories and mills, and they can search for places to live on the basis of cultural affinity. Once they find a town in which people share their values, they flock there, and reinforce whatever was distinctive about the town in the first place.

Quite true. But in the essay, Brooks suggested that this trend toward greater geographic self-segregation applied across the board, from race to economics to cultural affinity. That isn’t so. Racial geographic segregation—traditionally the hardest racial segregation to undo—has actually declined slightly. (Brooks paused briefly to acknowledge this, then speculated that the “new suburbs” of the Southwest would eventually become as segregated racially as the older suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest.) Between 1980 and 2000, geographic segregation between whites and blacks at the county level declined by 3.7 percent, according to figures compiled by John Logan of the Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research. But during roughly same period—1976 to 2000—geographic segregation by major-party affiliation at the county level increased by 47 percent. The change in neighborhood segregation between Democrats and Republicans is so much greater than the change in neighborhood segregation between whites and blacks that the latter scarcely seems worth mentioning, except to express outrage that geographic racial integration, one of the most important goals of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, has advanced so slowly. A young and hungry sociologist seeking a dramatic new fin de siècletrend to study wouldn’t give geographic segregation by race more than a passing glance before committing the next 10 years of his life to the study of geographic segregation by political orientation.

Chatterbox takes all this data from an excellent story by Bill Bishop in the April 4 Austin American-Statesman (and also from a brief phone conversation with Bishop). By crunching demographic numbers (in collaboration with the paper’s statistical consultant, Robert Cushing), Bishop has been able to demonstrate that the United States isn’t merely separated by Red (Republican) and Blue (Democratic) states; it’s also separated, increasingly, by Red and Blue counties. The likelihood that you will ever argue politics with your neighbor is diminishing rapidly, because it’s less and less likely that, politically, you and your neighbor will ever disagree.

Everybody (including Chatterbox) has blamed the blowhard nature of contemporary political discourse on talk radio and cable news shout-shows. But maybe Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and their aspiring opposite numbers on the new Air America have been framed. Maybe the vulgarization of the American political sensibility predated the media trend. Maybe it arose from people no longer having any friends who could challenge their political beliefs.

According to Bishop, from the end of World War II until the mid-1970s, the trend at the county level was toward ever more political integration (based on presidential voting). Voters became more tolerant of party-based political differences, and by 1975 Washington, D.C. was awash in collegiality. Even the 1960s, which we look back on as an era of political upheaval, were not, now that Chatterbox thinks about it, years of partisan upheaval; Vietnam war protesters hated Democrat Lyndon Johnson at least as much as they would later hate Republican Richard Nixon. The Watergate scandals of the early 1970s increased cynicism about government, but the congressional inquiries into Watergate didn’t have anything like the partisan rancor that hobbles far more routine congressional doings today. The scandal ended when one of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, Barry Goldwater, told his party leader that the jig was up. By contrast, Sen. Joe Lieberman, President Clinton’s most vociferous Democratic critic during Monicagate, never came close to calling for his party leader’s resignation. (If he had, Al Gore would have run as an incumbent in 2000 and Lieberman would probably be vice president today.)

The 1970s, which most of us remember as an era of high inflation, long gas lines, and malaise, were, in short, the Golden Age of Bipartisanship. Gerald Ford, the most boring man in modern memory to occupy the Oval Office, was its high priest.

Remember all the hand-wringing in the 1970s and 1980s about the decline of political parties? Bring back the political bosses, reformers cried. Bring back the smoke-filled rooms. In 1972, Bishop notes, the Washington Post’s David Broder published a book titled The Party’s Over. In it, Broder fretted that America was losing the “habit of partisanship.” It’s impossible to imagine Broder using that phrase today in anything other than a pejorative context. “What Broder couldn’t have known then,” Bishop writes, “was that voters were beginning to change the way they thought about politics and parties.”

Political parties, those laughably decrepit institutions, came back to life during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Even George H.W. Bush, a throwback to the earlier bipartisan era, felt compelled to turn vicious against his Democratic opponent in the 1988 election, attacking Michael Dukakis for his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union and his obedience to a Massachusetts state court decision prohibiting classroom recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. (And let’s not forget Willie Horton.) In Congress, mud-slinging partisan fights were waged over the confirmation of John Tower for defense secretary, over Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, and, eventually, over the sexual adventures of President Clinton. Today, the administration of George W. Bush is governed (in the words of one former employee) by “Mayberry Machiavellis” who scarcely even recognize that governmental decisions require anything other than the crude calculation of partisan advantage. The Bush fils style so appalled Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, a Ford acolyte, that he turned over 19,000 documents to journalist Ron Suskind.

Since 1980 we’ve been living in a golden age of party loyalty, which stands at levels “unsurpassed over any comparable time span since the turn of the last century,” according to Larry Bartels, a Princeton political scientist whom Bishop quotes. Be careful what you wish for!

Bishop blames this heightened partisanship on the proliferation of “landslide counties.” He defines a landslide county as one in which the presidential nominee of one party receives at least 60 percent of the vote. In 1976, 26.8 percent of American voters lived in landslide counties. By 2000, that proportion had nearly doubled, to 45.3 percent.

And it’s getting worse. The GOP has a lot more landslide counties where the partisan imbalance continues to widen (939) than do the Democrats (158). But because the Democrats’ landslide counties are much likelier to be more populous urban counties, the aggregate number of growing-landslide-county Democrats (15.2 million, or 14 percent of the national vote) comes out roughly the same as the aggregate number of growing-landslide-county Republicans (16.5 million, or 16 percent of the national vote).

What do all these numbers mean? They mean that within the universe of people who vote in presidential elections, nearly half of us are likely to be smug in our political views, while nearly one-third of us are likely to feel absolutely certain that the winds of history are at our back, rendering us utterly boorish. That’s quite a market for political candidates and radio talk-show hosts to tap. Indeed, they’d be fools not to.