Our nation is becoming more polarized, demographics show

Joe B. Stevens /


Published Jan 19, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Last election night, a friend and I bet on which county-of-origin was the more conservative. With help from a New York Times map of the presidential vote by county (www.nytimes.com/2012/results/president), we found that my Yuma County, Colo., voted 26 percent for Obama, while Cowley County, Kan., gave him 34 percent. Letting the cursor slide over other counties in the Great Plains, the polarization was even more extreme, although the national vote was closer, 51 percent to 47 percent. West Coast, Upper Midwest, and New England states were blue; the others were red.

The red landslide was most obvious in a solid strip of counties extending from eastern Montana to the Texas Panhandle. These are rural and agricultural counties with aging populations. Most had an Obama vote under 20 percent. Many were less than 10 percent. The smallest I could find were 8.7 percent in Wallace County, Kan., and 3.4 percent in King County, Texas. In King County there were only five votes for Obama out of 145 votes cast.

They apparently think alike in King County, but that differs from the rest of us only in degree. Journalist Bill Bishop’s path-breaking 2008 book, “The Big Sort,” shows that not only are we divided in what we think and do, we are increasingly sorting ourselves into homogenous communities. In effect, we are creating lifestyle enclaves that are self-segregated. Thinking locally, the voting map in The Bulletin on Dec. 9 shows Bend as a blue dot in a sea of red.

In his 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind,” social psychologist Jonathan Heidt argues that we believe and vote the way we do because we have very different views about morality. His research shows that people see morality not as simple, one-dimensional, right vs. wrong. Instead, six “moral concerns” can be identified, and reds and blues have very different ideas about which concerns are most important. Blues tend to stress fairness, provision of care and avoidance of harm. Reds come down more evenly across the six, while emphasizing loyalty, deference to authority and conformity to norms.

Consider an issue that was raised at a Republican primary debate. Suppose an apparently healthy young man decides not to buy health insurance, then learns he has a life-threatening illness. Which aspect of morality trumps which other aspect? Blues might lean toward compassion and fairness, even if taxpayers have to foot the bill. Reds might lean toward rules and authority; no insurance, tough luck. In any event, a tough call.

We would hope that advocates of different aspects of morality will reason together, but Heidt believes that reason is a poor stepchild to intuition when it comes to the way we decide. This raises the problem of confirmation bias. If I want to learn about the impact of higher taxes on the rich, will I read liberal economist Paul Krugman or conservative economist Thomas Sowell? Heidt says we use intuition to decide, reason to justify. Krugman helps me justify my intuition that the rich deserve to pay more.

These are very pessimistic views: we are ideologically divided, we view morality through different lenses, we enclave with others like us, we decide from the gut rather than the head. To make it worse, Robert Putnam’s widely-read 2002 book, “Bowling Alone,” documented a decline in almost all forms of social interaction. It seems ironic that we are enclaving with those like us, but we are also less likely to interact with others.

Because of our like-minded tendencies, we need to think outside our comfortable boxes. I’ll continue to read Paul Krugman, but I’ll also promise to read George Will, Charles Krauthammer and even Victor Davis Hanson. You need to read David Brooks and E. J. Dionne. I’ll watch Fox if you’ll listen to Bill Moyers. If we walk a mile in each other’s shoes, it can’t hurt. And it may help.