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Book Review: The Big Sort (part 2)

This is Part Two (of two).  Read Part One here.

While I’m a big fan of The Big Sort for all the reasons discussed in Part One of this review (among other reasons), I was disappointed by the author’s symmetrical depiction of the ways the left and right demonstrate his Big Sort theory, and by the book’s uncritical reinforcement of the story of the moderate center.  Sure, I see convincing reasons why author Bill Bishop wrote the book exactly the way he did – and not exactly the way I may have wanted him to. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that for The Big Sort to be seen as an objective commentary on political self-segregation and partisanship in the United States, the author surely saw the sense in giving equal attention and critique to how his theory plays out on the left and the right. He is, after all, a journalist.

Where this becomes a problem is when he gives the false impression that the right and the left, or Republicans and Democrats (and, no, I don’t think those labels are interchangeable) exhibit his theory in mirrored fashion.  He neglects to give adequate attention to significant qualitative differences.  These differences are, IMHO, indispensably instructive for how we approach the democratic crisis that Bishop is pointing us to.

Let’s start with the idea of compromise.  And let’s start with Democrats and Republicans inside the halls of Congress.  The lack of willingness to compromise in Congress, along with the resulting political gridlock, is one of the main problems that Bishop identifies with the Big Sort.  Now, he doesn’t come out and say explicitly that Republicans and Democrats are exactly equal in their unwillingness to compromise in exactly the same ways.  But he gives the impression of symmetry; that both sides are equally stubborn.  Democratic and Republican politicians are both pushing the “entire country into a choice between the far left and the far right.”

That narrative is crap.  Democratic politicians tend to compromise a great deal (and compromise and compromise and compromise until the cows come home) and Democratic voters actually favor politicians who compromise.  Republican politicians, on the other hand, tend to steamroll when they hold majorities and obstruct (and impeach) when they don’t, and Republican voters overwhelmingly favor politicians who “stick to positions” over ones who compromise.   To get specific, Pew found in early 2007 that 58% of Democratic voters “most admire politicians who make compromises” over 34% who “most admire politicians who stick to positions” – compared with just 36% of Republican voters admiring politicians who compromise, and 57% preferring those who don’t.  (See the Pew poll here (PDF), and I recommend Chris Bowers’ analysis here.)

That’s an asymmetrical equation.

And just look at the present Congress.  In one piece of legislation after another, Democrats have started out with moderate proposals aimed at preemptively appeasing Republicans.  The Democrats modeled much of their health care reform legislation on Republican former Governor Mitt Romney’s legislation for Massachusetts.  Progressives started by fighting for a compromise position – a public health insurance option, rather than a single-payer system that many of us strongly prefer.  But progressives ultimately got thrown under the bus, and Democrats barely passed health care legislation at all.  The path of compromise has been a one-way street that leads only further to the right (and to more concessions to big business).

I had to laugh out loud when I saw this in Bishop’s afterword, which he wrote last January:

Maybe the struggle to provide everyone with medical care will become one of those cross-cutting issues, urgent enough to put Republicans and Democrats in mixed company again.

Picture a bully and a nerd in a school playground.  The bully punches and kicks and trips and pinches and bites the nerd whenever possible.  The bully has no qualms about fighting dirty.  When the bully lacks the quickness to get his physical hands on the nerd, he then spews insults ceaselessly, doing everything he can to make the nerd look uncool.  The nerd believes in compromise and negotiation, and tries awfully hard to please the bully.  But guess what?  He just keeps getting his ass kicked. Enter a neutral observer who admonishes both bully and nerd to “stop fighting,” as if both share equal culpability.

To be fair, The Big Sort was written before the present Congress.  And Bishop certainly isn’t the only person playing the role of the “neutral observer” in the story of the bully and the nerd.  And he’s not as flagrant about it as many journalists.  I got the impression that he knows darn well about the lopsidedness of the problems he discusses.  In a footnote he points to Jacob S. Hacker’s and Paul Pierson’s contention in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy that “the primary cause of polarization in the United States was a move to the right by Republican officeholders.”  And then there’s this:

The second explanation [for the origin of polarization] – one favored by Democrats – holds that conservative activists built an interlocking structure of propaganda and money that moved the Republican Party, and the nation, to the right.  The aim of the New Right after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 was to exacerbate divisions in the country and then exploit them.

But he labels this the “conspiracy” explanation, and mostly brushes it off by arguing that Bill Bradley and other Democrats exaggerated the importance of the Powell Memorandum.  How does the influence or lack thereof of a single memo change the fact that conservative activists have indeed “built an interlocking structure of propaganda and money that moved the Republican Party, and the nation, to the right?”

He does concede that there’s “some truth to the conspiracy stories.”  And I have no argument with the point he’s leading up to:

…conservatives better understood the changes taking place in the country, and that is why, for a time, Republicans were more successful politically.  Republicans didn’t create a movement.  They recognized the cultural shifts taking place across the country – the Big Sort – and then channeled what was happening into politics, to their advantage.

But Bishop doesn’t go on to discuss the tangibles that Republicans gained – beyond political power – by successfully harnessing cultural shifts.  The Republican Party, to those steering it (and IMHO) is little more than a vehicle for a pro-big-business, unfettered capitalism, regressive taxation agenda – a vehicle that’s been successfully branded as something else entirely in order for the party to have a base.  Stoking cultural issues (particularly fears) is a matter of making a sideshow into the main event.  The Big Sort treats today’s culture and politics as “post-materialist” – that’s really the point of the book, and there’s immense value in looking through that lens – but the problem is that we live in a political system and media environment that prominently features cultural battles on the main stage while sneaking in an elephant through the back door.

And that’s exactly why I recommend reading this book.  I could whine all day about how unfair the story of the moderate center is – how it brands progressive change advocates as extreme, radical, far left, etc. to effectively inoculate the public, the media, and decision-makers against us and our positions.  And I think I would be right.  But right does not equal might.  The conservative activists who dramatically changed our country these past four decades know that well.  To succeed, progressives need an astute understanding of the cultural changes unfolding around us – and not just immediately around us.  We need an active analysis of the patterns of self-selection and self-segregation that have taken hold.  We can’t just wait for the self-selectors to be attracted to our progressive brand (or micro-brand: “Fuck off. We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”).

We live in a dauntingly enormous country of three hundred million people.  It’s no easy task to try to understand it – let alone to be ready to see and seize the openings.  Bill Bishop does a great job in The Big Sort of illuminating some of our blind spots.  I hope you’ll read it!

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