Politics & Elections: Britain’s Big-Sort Moment

The Brexit vote in Britain looks familiar to folks who are watching the political divide in the United States.

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A map of the Brexit vote in Great Britain (on whether the country should leave the European Union) shows a pattern familiar to U.S. citizens. The cities voted one way (to stay) and the countryside voted the opposite (to Brexit).

Like the United States, Great Britain is a country that is divided politically — and geographically. The Brexit election was close nationally, within 1.4 percentage points. But in the communities where most British citizens live, the election wasn’t close at all.

More than 41 percent of all voters lived in a council area where the Brexit vote was decided by margins of 20 percentage points or more. (There are 433 council areas in Great Britain.) Nearly seven out of 10 voters lived in a council where the margin was greater than 10 percentage points.

And, yes, the division was often rural and urban. The most pro-EU parts of Britain were in the City of London. The most pro-Brexit councils were in the East Midlands and East of England.

We’ve seen a similar geographic divide for some time in this country. In the 2014 Congressional elections, Democrats had majorities only in counties that were part of the nation’s largest cities, metro areas with a million or more people. Outside those places, Republicans won by landslide margins.

Compare the map below (from this story) with the map of Great Britain above. The pattern of the vote, rural and urban is quite similar.



Both Great Britain and the U.S. are “sorted.” Retired statistician Robert Cushing and I wrote a book ages ago (The Big Sort) showing that Americans were increasingly living in communities that were politically homogenous. Republicans lived in some places and Democrats lived in others.

By the 2012 presidential election, more than half of all voters lived in a county where the contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama was decided by a landslide of 20 percentage points or more. The proportion of Americans living in these landslide counties has been growing steadily since 1976.

Great Britain is not as cleanly “sorted” as the U.S. If councils are roughly equivalent to U.S. counties, then Britain is as geographically polarized as this country was in the 1996 contest between Bill Clinton and Robert Dole. That year, 42.1 percent of U.S. voters lived in a landslide county.

Our contention in The Big Sort was that Americans were moving to be closer to others like themselves, who lived the same way, shopped for the same goods and believed in the same things. Politically, this would mean that people would vote the same way during national elections.

Practically, it would mean people were living in separate countries. People would see their own views reinforced by their neighbors. And they would not understand those who disagreed with them politically because they never knew the other existed. “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter,” New York writer Arthur Miller asked in 2000.

The same kind of shock and surprise was heard in Great Britain after the Brexit vote, in part, perhaps, because the people who lived in the media center of London were overwhelmingly for staying in the E.U.

“We’re sorted out,” political consultant James Carville said recently. “Democrats live in the cities, and Republicans everywhere else. We don’t interact anymore. We don’t live with each other.” The consequence is misunderstanding and dislike, here and in Great Britain.

Contributing editor Bill Bishop is a co-founder of the Daily Yonder.



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