The Rise of Partyism and What to do about the Big Sort?
Cass Sunstein and David Brooks are very concerned. They are very concerned about the rise of Partyism and the fact that about half of Republicans and a third of Democratic voters would be upset if their progeny married someone from the other party. Sunstein further writes that people are getting apt at picking up on written clues in picking out fellow Democrats and Republicans for scholarships or jobs according to psychological testing. FWIW, Jon Chait is not so concerned about Partyism.
Partyism like so many things in America these days is being blamed on the Big Sort. The Big Sort is the idea that Americans are moving to areas where they can be surrounded by like-minded people with similar interests instead of moving for work-related issues and economic opportunity. This like-minded clustering is driving us apart and a horrible, horrible thing.
I am skeptical of the Big Sort thesis. I don’t think it is true that this is really a recent phenomenon. The history of Greenwich Village is the history of people moving from other places, usually in the Midwest, to be with like minded artists, bohemians, radicals and other freethinkers. Most people from the Bohemian demimonde came from other areas: Willa Cather, ee cummings, William Carlos Williams, Margaret Anderson, Hart Crane, John Reed, George Cram Crook, and many other leading artists of the 1920s downtown bohemian scene were not native New Yorkers. Most were the children of well-to-do Midwesterners (Hart Crane’s dad invented Life Savers candy in Ohio) who really did not want to be Babbits. There are also plenty of left-wing academics who take positions in very conservative areas because the first rule of academics is that you go where the positions are. This is one of the reasons I decided not to enter academics.
I also can’t think of a moral reason why people should not want to live among like-minded people whether they are liberal or conservative. I get why it makes sense to be considered about the Big Sort on an intuitive level because if you don’t know anyone in the opposition than it becomes easy to demonize the opposition. Familiarity can breed tolerance and showing that people are people. Familiarity can also breed contempt so a mixed-area can end up backfiring.
Liberals seem to be more concerned about the rise of partyism than the Big Sort than conservatives. Though it is one of the things that people like to worry about without coming up with reasonable solutions for. I’ve never seen anyone at the NRO or the Weekly Standard raise concerns about partyism and the Big Sort. The only right-of-center people I’ve seen talk about are McArdle, Brooks, and Norm Orenstein, and they are all rather moderate as Republican politics go. They might as well be the last of a drying breed in many ways.
What is unspoken about the Big Sort is that there is a collective action problem. Maybe it makes sense for all of us to overcome our issues and live in more ideologically diverse communities but it does not make sense for any individual to do so because he or she would likely stick out very badly.
I’ve written before about how it is very important for me to live in an area that is culturally Jewish or at least liberal enough that religion is a forbidden topic of open discussion. I know many Jewish people who grew up in areas that were not culturally Jewish and where the Jewish population only amounts to a few hundred people. All these people have stories about being called a “good Christian” because good Christian in those Evangelical areas is simply synonymous with good person. Or they have stories about going to lunch with co-workers and suddenly seeing everyone bow their heads for grace or a prayer before eating. I think that the people who worry about the Big Sort hope that more ideological and cultural mixing will result in a broader understanding but I have very limited evidence that such things happen. It seems more like Jewish people in not-Jewish areas will continue to be called “good Christians” because it is inconceivable in Evangelical land for someone to be good and also believe that Jesus was not the Messiah. I don’t necessarily think that a Jewish person should always respond to being called a “good Christian” with grace, charity, and humor. A Jewish person who wants to be recognized as Jewish should be recognized as Jewish. The same is true if someone is Atheist, Agnostic, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, Shinto, Buddhist, or anything else.
People often complain about New Yorkers being unfriendly and not very talkative. What a lot of non-New Yorkers fail to realize is that New York operates under a very tense social contract. The social contract is because you have a lot of different cultures that live and sometimes work in close proximity to each other and these cultures have very different world views and attitudes. Williamsburg in Brooklyn is home to ultra-Orthodox Satmar Jews, Latinos, Eastern European Catholics and Orthodox Christians, upper-middle class professionals, and sleep-all-day and party-all-night hipsters. There are many other neighborhoods in NYC that made up of equally different groups and they deal with each other by talking to each other as little as possible. There is not necessarily a moderating effect from different ideologies or worldviews living close to each other as there is something like detente.
Issues like the rise of Partyism and the Big Sort seem like problems without a solution especially in a country that ostensibly sees itself as a representative democracy devoted to individual civil liberty. It is an individual civil liberty for a person to move to where they want to move to and for whatever reason even if that reason is pure tribalism. The idea that someone should move to an area to be next to people who are different to them is a moralist prescription and one of the kind that has never sat well with Americans.
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