Questioning the “Big Sort”

Ryan Strickler (Colorado State University) discusses the "Big Sort".
Image by Siberian Art via Shutterstock

Does Partisanship Cause Political Segregation? Or Are Other Factors At Work?

By Ryan Strickler – Assistant Professor of Political Science, Colorado State University-Pueblo

For many scholars and political observers, civil war is on the mind. Some recent scholarship suggests that the United States is on the path to the sort of dissolution and conflict once seen in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and the Philippines. Others argue that while partisan acrimony and democratic backsliding are serious concerns, flares of violence akin to the January 6th, 2021 attack on the capital are isolated and sporadic events. 

Hyperbolic or not, the ‘civil war’ narrative implies an intense divide across geographic lines, and there is certainly truth to this. Partisanship and population density are inexorably linked as David Darmofal and I demonstrate. Throughout U.S. history, support for major political parties has always been clustered geographically, with urban areas being solidly Democratic and rural areas remaining solidly Republican. This urban/rural divide between the two parties has existed since the New Deal. Today, this division can be measured at very granular levels, tracking by county, zip code, and precinct. Partisans are even segregated within the cities and neighborhoods they choose to live in. But no matter what level of analysis one looks at, the correlation between population density and partisan vote preference has certainly hit a high watermark not previously seen in modern times. 

Non-Political Migration

What is driving these cleavages? The roughly 10% of citizens that move each year certainly play a role. News stories abound of liberals fleeing conservative cities, while companies such as Conservative Move work to find people locales that match their political preferences. But migration explicitly because of politics is not the major driver of geographic political sorting. While Democrats and Republicans do have a desire to live near co-partisans and move away from out-partisans, other factors such as career opportunities, good schools, racial makeup, and commuting time matter more. Migration patterns during the COVID pandemic provided an excellent case study for this phenomenon when significant movement from city centers to suburbs and exurbs could be documented. While an analysis of the political impact of this movement has yet to be done (this trend of “urban flight” has also recently abated), factors such as public health and the ability to work remotely likely played a much stronger role than political partisanship.

Moreover, to the extent that we do see Democrats and Republicans migrating to like-minded communities, “nonpolitical” lifestyle and culture choices (increasingly) tangential to partisanship, rather than partisanship directly, are bigger drivers. Democrats prefer locales with walkable amenities. Republicans prefer more open spaces. It is unlikely, however, that these are explicit expressions of partisan identity. What’s more, there are other factors, such as a community’s conversion to the majority political party or generational replacement, that play a larger role in producing sorted geographies than migration.

It is also important to note that increased sorting does not imply absolute homogeneity. There are Republicans in the “blue” boroughs of San Francisco and Democrats on the “red” Oklahoma plains. When one digs deeper than vote choice and looks at political attitudes and values, even “deep red” and “deep blue” communities still share a good deal of common ground.

Making Foreigners Out of Neighbors

But whatever the cause, geographic partisan sorting is at a high-water mark. In 2008, Bill Bishop’s popular book The Big Sort warned of “[B]alkanized communities whose inhabitants considered other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible,” and “a growing intolerance for political differences that have made national consensus impossible.” When he wrote this, only 5% of counties in the U.S. were “super landslide” counties, with over 80% of the two-party presidential vote going to one candidate. In 2020, over 20% of US counties were in the “super landslide” category. 

Sorting is having a significant impact on our elections and the responsiveness of our government. Legislators, both at the state level and in Congress, have long enjoyed significant incumbency advantages. These advantages will only increase as our local, state-wide, and national constituencies become increasingly “deep red” and “deep blue.” Indeed, as of this writing, FiveThirtyEight rates only 8% of 2022 Congressional districts as “highly competitive,” with an estimated vote share advantage of under 5% for either party. At the state level, nearly 30% of state legislators did not even face a major party challenger in 2020. Our politicians, thus, increasingly have less and less incentive to respond to the will of the public. If anything, they only need to appeal to the most ideologically charged faction of their base, because that is the segment that votes in primaries. This pushes our political class, and the policies they endorse, to become even more ideologically charged

It also has an impact on the way we interact with one another.  Geography is just one of the many ways Democrats and Republicans are “sorting.” In addition to the urban vs. rural divide, partisan divides are growing across race, religion, education, and even lifestyle choices. This all fuels the perception that our political opponents are not simply people with whom we disagree, they are wholly “other” and “alien” to us. And in completely “blue” cities and “red” towns, there are few people to disabuse us of that notion. As a result, we find increased anger towards, and a desire to socially distance from, out-partisans, even as partisan divides on the issues amongst the public has not increased to the same degree. We also find an increasing willingness for partisans to countenance authoritarianism and political violence.

Absent significant reform of the two-party system, it is hard to know what to do to counteract these trends. But mitigating the pernicious effects of polarization, and the geographic sorting that is part and parcel, is a project that academics and reformers must take up. Otherwise, the rancor, division, and talk of ‘civil war’ will only grow.



If you enjoyed this piece, you can find more Divided We Fall op-eds here

Ryan Strickler
Assistant Professor of Political Science, Colorado State University-Pueblo | Website | + posts

Ryan Strickler is an assistant professor of Political Science at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He is a scholar of U.S. politics specializing in partisan polarization, political psychology, democratic theory, and experimental methodology. He also has interests in public and nonprofit administration, informed by his MPA as well as years working in the nonprofit sector. His published research can be found in Political Research Quarterly, Perspectives on Politics, Politics, Groups, and Identities, Social Science Quarterly, and Springer Publishing. ​

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