Tracking News That Oozes

Throughout this election season, Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman has focused on numbers — not polling data or horse race odds — but real data from decades of voting patterns and demographic changes to paint a portrait of the American electorate called The Great Divide.

In the last installment in the series, published over the weekend, Bishop sets out to look for “the thug who kidnapped compromise” in the 2004 campaign, and finds a half-dozen likely suspects:



The South.





Repeating a theme he has explored in earlier stories, Bishop concludes that while all of the above have played a role, Americans themselves, segregating into like-minded communities, churches and social settings where divergent views are a rarity, bear much of the responsibility for the decline of discourse. Republicans and Democrats no longer exchange ideas, says Bishop; we’ve become a nation of “Us and Them.”

“The two Americas are divided by more than just party and culture, however,” writes Bishop. American-Statesman statistical consultant Robert Cushing and Bishop examined counties around the U.S. that have become more Democratic or more Republican between 1976 and 2000, and found “dramatic differences” between the two:

Counties growing more Republican were older, poorer, whiter and less educated than those counties growing more Democratic.

Counties growing more Democratic were far more likely to have high-tech economies. The percentage of adults with college degrees in counties that switched from Republican to Democrat between 1976 and 2000 was more than 50 percent greater than the percentage in those counties that switched from Democrat to Republican.

Consequently, Bishop and Cushing found, the average per capita income of those counties that have switched from Democratic to Republican between 1976 and 2000 was $19,375, according to the 2000 Census, while the average income in counties that were Republican in 1976 but are now Democratic was $27,550.

Bishop suggests, “[i]t’s as if the country is separating into different tribes, groups based not just on ideology, but on demography, education and economics.

If Bishop is correct — and his thesis is buttressed with a ton of data — it may be that historic patterns are being reversed, with a Republican party that appeals to the less educated and less affluent who work in low-tech fields and a Democratic party that attracts more educated and better-paid voters who live and work in higher tech areas. We may be watching the natural progression of a trend that began in 1980 when southern and blue-collar voters defected to Ronald Reagan in droves, and that gained impetus in 1992 when Bill Clinton attracted millions of well-to-do voters whose parents most likely voted Republican.

It’s just the sort of massive, protracted shift — “news” that oozes, instead of breaks — that the myopic press is always late on, even as it plays out, over several decades, under our collective noses. If so, future historians may well call Bishop a prophet.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.