Politics: It's All In What You Hear Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, argues that Americans are segregating themselves into ideologically-homogeneous communities. The majority of Americans are so comfortable in their beliefs, says Bishop, that they can't even listen to opposing viewpoints.
NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95209118/95217393" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Politics: It's All In What You Hear

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95209118/95217393" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here are headlines of some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Republican presidential candidate John McCain urged the Treasury Department to intervene aggressively to limit damage from the financial meltdown. His Democratic rival, Barack Obama, called on Americans to support attempts to save the $700 billion plan. And on Wall Street today, the Dow Jones industrial average up 405 points right now. And the top U.S. negotiator with North Korea hopes to persuade that country to accept a verification system, an account for the communist country's nuclear arsenal. North Korea previously has rejected U.S. demands. Details on those stories and of course, much more later today on All Things Considered. Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, the Latino vote could be the key to this presidential election. The challenge for both campaigns is how to win it. We'll talk about the candidates' Latino strategy. Plus, Peggy Newnan on "This American Moment." That's all tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Governor Palin did not ban book from the Public Library as mayor of Wasilla. And Senator Obama was not sworn into the Senate with his hand on the Koran. Even so, plenty of people believe one or the other, but not both. Why? The reason is simple and once again, Psych 101 rears its head. Confirmation bias. In a moment, we'll talk with Bill Bishop about why voters hear what they want to hear and ignore what they don't. True or false? Have you ever gone out of your way not to hear something that might upset your existing political beliefs? Liberals, did you skip George Bush's state of the union? Conservatives, did you skip Bill Clinton's?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Bill Bishop is the author of the book, "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart." He recently wrote a piece for Slate called "In Politics, It's Not What They Say; It's What You Hear." And he joins us now from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. BILL BISHOP (Author, "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart"): Good to be here.

CONAN: Do voters really go out of their way not to hear what upsets existing beliefs?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, they really do that. You cited a really good example. One that Gallup picked up in the 1990s is that Democrats would flock to hear Bill Clinton give his State of the Union Address and Republicans would stay away. And then when Bush came into office, it just flipped and - but I think this is a long - people have seen this everywhere they look at it. In Europe, there are lot of towns with a liberal paper and a conservative paper. And when you look, you see the conservatives get the conservative paper and liberals get the liberal paper and people like to hear what reinforces their beliefs.

CONAN: And yet, you say this is not about ideology. Politics is not about ideology.

Mr. BISHOP: No. It's - you know, it's about joining a team. It's about - one political scientist described it as more a choice of music that you might like. Another one described a - this is how he said - Donald Green, how you choose a political party - you're going down a hall and there are two doors with parties going on behind each door and you look in and you sort of scope things out. You see how people are dressed, what they're wearing and if they'd be the kind of people you'd want your kids to hang out with or to marry their kids. And if they're like you, you go in and you join that party, and that's how we team up in politics.

CONAN: And you draw an analogy to a study done of two fans of two football teams. They were shown a tape of a game and said, how did you see the officiating, and the Princeton fans only saw the fouls committed by the Dartmouth players and the Dartmouth fans only saw the fouls committed by the Princeton players. And you argue that in fact, we react to politics very much the same way.

Mr. BISHOP: Right. And we view news - you know, the mainstream media is always the villain and you know, in the Middle East, there've been studies done where the, you know, Palestinians and Israelis watched the same news program and each come to the opposite conclusion about the bias of the reporter involved. And it's just - you know, humans are the way we are.

CONAN: Yet, going back to your music analogy. There are plenty of people who like renaissance music and country and western and the occasional AC/DC, too.

Mr. BISHOP: Yes, there are. But we're more an XM radio nation than anything else. We like to specialize and we like to hear our niche. But really, what we're talking about is finding a place where beliefs and surroundings express ourselves. And since politics is more about lifestyle now than about demographics or ideology, it's hard to change your mind or hear both sides about the way you live your life. And so our attachment to politics and to parties are stronger now, and so there are fewer undecideds as we come up upon the election in November.

CONAN: Yet, more and more people are registering as Independent.

Mr. BISHOP: They do. They like to think of themselves as Independents, but from 1970's on, there's been a decrease both in the number of split-ticket voters, people who vote for one party in one race and another party in another race, and there's also been a decrease in the number of people who are true Independents, people who really do switch from one election to another, from one party to another. People who say that they're Independents, if you press them - you can always do this at a dinner party because people are proud to say that they're Independent. You say well, when was the last time you voted for a Republican or when was the last time you voted for a Democrat. If you guess right, they'll kind of blanche and look down and say they can't remember.

CONAN: Yep. Either Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BISHOP: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us at talk@npr.org. Danny's on the line. Danny(ph) from Rockford, Illinois.

DANNY (Caller): Yeah, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

DANNY: I admit I'm one of those who kind of tunes out the other side, and as I was telling the gal who took the call, I listen as long as the facts and information is consistent with, well fact. I find so often that when it jive, it just infuriates me.

CONAN: So if - do you wonder sometimes though if you're not just in an echo chamber hearing the same ideas bouncing back and forth and that there might be another parallel echo chamber somewhere else where different ideas are rattling around.

DANNY: Yeah, well different ideas it kind of goes back to the statement you can have your own opinions but you can't have your own facts. And I'd like to think that I'm one who pays attention, and it gets to the bottom of things. And you know, when the talk is obviously not true, then that is really infuriating.

CONAN: So you still see yourself as a truth seeker.

DANNY: I think so.

CONAN: OK.

DANNY: You know independence, as the gentleman was saying also, that kind of strikes me as someone who's not paying attention. You either have, you lean along one philosophy, ideology or another and most of time, you align yourself with either party and be honest about it you know.

CONAN: Now, Bill Bishop, do you think Danny is a truth seeker?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, I think we all are truth seekers for our own truth, right? I mean there are a lot of facts out there and we pick and choose among those facts that support our beliefs. And I mean, you know, it's hard to disagree with Danny about that there are a set of facts, but I mean if you looked at the financial breakdown in the country and there are a lot of facts out there and how do we know? And so what we're affected by the people around us. And as communities have grown increasingly, homogeneous in the way we've chosen to live, both in our neighborhoods, and in our churches, and in our volunteer groups, then we, you know, just as you said our beliefs are echoed back on us. And are these the facts that we hear or we think are the most important facts we hear back from others? And our beliefs are reconfirmed.

CONAN: Danny, thanks very much for the call.

DANNY: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go next to Alister(ph). Alister, with us from Bend in Oregon.

ALISTER (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi there.

ALISTER: I was wondering to what extent do you think the average American voter is aware of this inherent sense of bias which seems to so pervade our political consciousness? Because I know from my end, at least, my political beliefs I realize are entirely my own and entirely ideologically-based, and I realized that I am extremely biased, and I find myself rather resentful of people of either my same political perspective or a different political perspective who say that they're only after the truth and the facts. I think that the political process is extremely biased one, and I've always thought that. And am I alone in that and the fact that I'm the only person who realizes how biased I am and don't think that I have any handle on some greater sense of truth?

CONAN: What do you think, Bill?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, sometimes when I look around America, I think Alister may be the only one who thinks that. I mean - it's Elizabeth Diaz Morris(ph) in Nebraska did a focus group with people, and they came from Nebraska, and they had generally agreed. And what they couldn't understand was why the rest of the country did not agree with them and they figured that, you know, it's those 20 percent out there - it's those people, those weirdoes, and they said who must live in California, who are screwing things up for the rest of us and I think that's how we feel. We look around, we see agreement, and we can't understand why the rest of the country doesn't come along with our way of thinking.

CONAN: And Bill, you described in the piece, it seems to be agreement on an entire set of issues as they break down on partisan political lines that one group tends to feel - lean all the same way on gun control, abortion, and all the other hot button issues.

Mr. BISHOP: Right. In fact, I talked to a country commissioner right next to Bend, Oregon, who told me that the anti-abortion people out there no longer ask him about his stand on abortion. They asked him his stand on property rights because they know that most likely his stand on property rights will determine...

CONAN: Will tell you his stand on abortion.

Mr. BISHOP: Exactly.

CONAN: Alister, you that predictable?

ALISTER: I suppose so. I suppose. I've just seen all of my political principles as well as everyone else as being almost like I've got reaction to which very little logical scrutiny is applied, and so that's how I've come to see it, and I've stopped trying to look for logic in politics. If anything, I look upon it as a grand and rather amusing game.

CONAN: A gut reaction. That's a pretty good - that seems to agree with your argument, Bill.

Mr. BISHOP: Right. I think so.

CONAN: Yeah. Alister, thanks very much for the call.

ALISTER: Indeed. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Patrick in Rockford, Illinois. As the executive vice chairman of the Young Democrats of Winnebago County, I am as a Democratic as they come. I am also a Cosacka(ph) that means he reads the Daily Coast blog. So I don't want for liberal cred. I have watched all of Bush's State of the Union Addresses. Granted I was playing the drinking games but I still tuned in. So that on the other side we're talking with Bill Bishop, the author of "The Big Sort" and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to David. David with us from Ellensburg in Washington.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAVID: Well, I might be the odd man out here but I have some very deeply held convictions and they do fall out in a partisan manner. But I listened to the other guy. I listened to Bush's State of the Union, I read the Conservative Columnist. I want to know what the other guys are thinking. I want my views challenged. I want to see if they hold up against the rational argument. At the same time, I'm looking for holes in the logic of someone who has opposing views to mine. So I want that out there. I want it banging around and see if it holds up in the rough and tumble of discussion, and you can't do that if you're only listening to your own cheerleaders.

CONAN: I think David's right but David may be the part of minority, Bill.

Mr. BISHOP: Well, actually what people find is that as if on the web, you know things are pretty much niche-oriented and that people do go to websites that disagree with their political point of view. But they go there kind of as spies and to bring back information about what the other side is thinking and I guess the interesting question for David is, have you ever been convinced by an argument on the other side that you were wrong?

DAVID: I have, I have. And I have adjusted my views accordingly. It doesn't happen often but it has happened and I find that - actually I find that rather gratifying and I've also had other folks change their views or say, gee, that's an aspect that I hadn't really thought of. But it requires a discourse where both people respect the other's opinion, respect the point where they're coming from, that we all have the good of the country or whatever the discussion is at heart. We happen to have different approaches. If you can start from there, you can have a rational discussion. But what percentage, I'm wondering, of the electorate - is that the opinion that I know the truth or the facts be damned. Don't bother me with it.

Mr. BISHOP: Well, I think the first part of what you're saying David is the most important and that is having those discussions with people who disagree, and Americans love to talk about politics. But when Diana Muddsipp(ph) at Penn looked, she found that Americans were the least likely among 12 industrialized countries to have discussions with those who disagree with them and it was interesting. The people who were most likely to have discussions with people with a different political point of view were those who had not graduated from high school. The people who were least likely to have a discussion with someone who disagrees with them were those people who had attended graduate school.

CONAN: This goes back to the argument in "The Big Sort" that in fact we have isolated ourselves into archipelagos where we only meet people of similar beliefs.

Mr. BISHOP: Right.

DAVID: How much does our willingness to engage with someone with another point of view is due to the fact that we only have two parties. In Europe and other countries, you've got a multiplicity of parties, so the person you're talking to may be closer to you but not quite there. You know what I'm saying - that's opposed to the divide we have in this country.

Mr. BISHOP: I think that that is an argument and that's an interesting discussion to have.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, David.

DAVID: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Christine. Christine is with us from Bay Village in Ohio.

CHRISTINE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi! You're on the air, Christine. Go ahead, please.

CHRISTINE: Hi! I find the guest thesis(ph) as rather offensive that the American public isn't putting more thought into their party affiliation. In my opinion, there are things that are absolute rights and wrongs, like discrimination against gays and lesbians, and I don't sign up for a team that has those points of views.

Mr. BISHOP: Yeah. That's I mean - and on the other side, and you know, I've got county away. They're a group of people that feel exactly the opposite and wouldn't sign up for that party and here we are...

CHRISTINE: And why should I listen to that hate mongering? Why should I listen to them spewing and think they are going to sway my opinion? In my opinion, that's an absolute in life, that you don't treat people unfairly. You don't discriminate against people. There were parties that used to think it was OK to do that against the African-Americans.

CONAN: And I was just going to ask Bill about that. I mean obviously, opinion has changed on that point of view; and as Christine suggests, opinions have also changed quite a bit on the question of gays and lesbians.

Mr. BISHOP: Right. And opinions do change, and one of the ways that those opinions change is through this democratic process we have of people who disagree, rubbing up against one another and finding some common ground on some issues and disagreement on others and coming through...

CHRISTINE: Well, how do you find common ground on an issue like that? In what (unintelligible) be ok?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, I think that you probably don't. I think that you probably don't but the problem we have in this country now is that we're enemies on everything. That as issues line up left and right, those people who disagree with gay rights and gay marriage also disagree about the war in Iraq and they disagree about free trade and they disagree about - and so there's no place where they find that common agreement, and at the same time, socially we're separated. So we don't go to our opponents' kids school play and we don't mix with neighbors who disagree with us and so it all just builds up and creates this kind of dysfunction that defines our Congress now in our country.

CONAN: Thank Christine for her phone call. Bill Bishop, thank you for your time today.

Mr. BISHOP: Thank you.

CONAN: Bill Bishop, author of "The Big Sort." He joined us from member station KUT in Austin. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.