Robert Samuelson takes a look at Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort”:
It’s not red and blue states so much as red and blue counties. Bishop — a recovering newspaper columnist — collaborated with Robert Cushing, a retired professor of sociology from the University of Texas, to examine voting patterns in presidential elections. They classified counties as politically lopsided if one candidate won by 20 percentage points or more. Their findings are stunning. In the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election, a virtual dead heat, 33 percent of counties qualified. By 2000, also a dead heat, that was 45 percent. In 2004, it was 48 percent.
Bishop, like many others, has exaggerated the extent of the polarization. Evidence of growing differences of opinion among the general public — as opposed to tinier political elites — is slim.
Consider two decades of polls from the Pew Research Center. On many questions, there was little change. One question asked whether “government should care for those who can’t care for themselves.” In 1987, 71 percent agreed; in 2007, 69 percent did. Or take immigration. In 1992, when the question was first asked, 76 percent of respondents favored tougher restrictions; in 2007, 75 percent did. On some cultural issues, opinions converged. In 2007, only 28 percent thought school boards should be able to “fire teachers who are known homosexuals,” down from 51 percent in 1987. In 1987, only 48 percent thought it was “all right for blacks and whites to date each other”; by 2007, 83 percent did.
The “Big Sort” of residential segregation is still reshaping the political landscape, though more indirectly. With fewer competitive congressional districts, the real political struggles now often take place in primaries, where activists’ views count the most. Candidates appeal to them and are driven toward the extremes.
What Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the vital center” is being slowly disenfranchised. Party “bases” become more important than their numbers justify. Passionate partisans dislike compromise and consensus. They want to demolish the other side. Whether from left or right, the danger is a tyranny of true believers.
Now consider this Q&A:
Mohler: Now you are affiliated with and a priest of the Diocese of Central Florida, that’s known as more of the conservative of the regions of the Episcopal Church. I would compare that to San Francisco, or Washington, or Los Angeles. In what sense are you really part of one church at this point?
Conger: We’re not part of one church in the sense that I could not function… A priest from, say, San Francisco who was a gay man or had been divorced and remarried, for example, could not come to where I am near Orlando and function as an Episcopal Priest. I could not get a job or license because of my theological views in many parts of the Episcopal Church. There is no interchangeability of clergy. It’s become Balkanized along doctrinal and theological views.
Has the Episcopal Church lost its vital center?