Whenever congressional gridlock is discussed, you’re likely to hear complaints about gerrymandering. And to be sure, that is a problem. But there’s reason to believe that self-gerrymandering — sorting ourselves into geographic locations filled with like-minded individuals — is becoming a much bigger problem than artful line-drawing. When a whole community shares the same ideological priors, you’re going to end up with some epic groupthink. And when two groupthinks collide with each other on the national stage … well, have you watched cable news recently?

J.D. Tuccille recently pointed out that the news is not all bad, however:

How is this a problem? If people with common preferences and values choose to live near one another, shouldn’t that reduce friction? At least, this seems like an excellent way to minimize conflicts over policies, so long as most policy choices are made at local levels by all of these like-minded people clustering together.

On the other hand, centralizing decision making defeats much of the purpose of clustering together, since people inevitably get unwelcome policies foisted on them by those awful people who live incomprehensible lives elsewhere.

Political sorting is actually a solution to deep ideological divides — if that sorting lets people live the way they want. But if people go through all of that trouble of moving away from the opposition, only to find alien rules, laws, and taxes jammed down their throats, you can see why “partisan antipathy” might get a little heated.
If we’re going to have a more partisan geography — and it does seem as if we are — then what we also need is more federalism. Push as many decisions as possible down to the local level — not whether Colorado can pollute rivers that run through California, but decisions about taxes, social spending, health care and regulation.

Unfortunately, the very process of sorting seems to make federalism less, not more, likely. Once you’ve got a good, strong, group consensus on health-care spending or abortion, then allowing those cretins over there to force their horrible views on the people of their benighted states seems completely intolerable. Nothing will suffice but to use federal power to keep their morally obtuse desires from ever being made into law.

And so, even nominal advocates of localism frequently end up trying to centralize issues, instead of pushing them down to the level where a genuine consensus exists. We may need federalism more than ever, but we’re going to get it less.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.