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A Conversation with Bill Bishop, author of THE BIG SORT

Q. Okay, what do you mean by "The Big Sort"?

The quick answer is that most places, most communities in the nation, are growing more politically one-sided — either more solidly Democratic in presidential elections or more reliably Republican. The "red" and "blue" maps of the states are totally misleading. The real differences in American politics today are found at the level of the community. We're increasingly sorting into communities that reliably vote Democratic or Republican in presidential elections.

But our political differences are really just the tip of what has been a social and economic transformation. The nation has sorted in nearly every way imaginable. Young people have congregated in some cities and left others. People with college degrees have increasingly clustered in particular places. Not only have demographic groups sorted themselves into particular places, we've also constructed our social lives so that we spend more time around like-minded others. Over the last thirty years, our civic clubs, our neighborhoods, and our churches have all grown more politically homogenous.

Q. So, "birds of a feather," right? What's new about that?

Nothing. From the first day we're alive, we learn that there is safety among those who are like ourselves — and danger in disagreeing with others. Birds of a feather flock together because that's the way birds survive. This has always been true and America has at times been extraordinarily polarized geographically. (There was the Civil War, after all.) What was remarkable to us was that the country is growing more politically and culturally polarized now. We live in a time when day-to-day survival for most Americans is assured; when social safety nets reduce the need to depend on family; when Americans have unprecedented choice about where and how to live — but given all this freedom and opportunity to live where and how we like the rates of political segmentation are increasing. Why are our communities growing more segregated now ? That's what the Big Sort is about.

Q. Oh, so this is another one of those books about political polarization — the culture wars?

Bob Cushing and I didn't go looking for political division. We started by trying to understand why some cities were doing so much better than others economically — why some places were producing loads of technology and patents while others seemed to stagnate. Bob was recently retired from the University of Texas sociology department, but he was a statistician at heart, a computer wizard. Bob went through dozens of calculations and what he saw over and again was that while different places in the country were busy converging after World War II, beginning in the 1970s, they began to diverge. The country was sorting and that was causing certain places to boom economically. The places where educated people moved were getting richer. The places where young people were moving were producing more patents.

But the sorting wasn't strictly demographic. We could see that basic beliefs varied place to place. The communities that had less traditional cultures — for example, places where people were less likely to submit to traditional sources of authority — were the country's most economically vibrant cities. And, we eventually discovered, these places were growing more Democratic in presidential elections.

Q. Isn't the whole lesson of the 2008 election that the country is sick of this "red" and "blue" way of thinking?

No question. People — especially Americans — hate disagreement. That's why they put themselves in churches, neighborhoods, and clubs where they easily find agreement. It's interesting, however, that when pollsters ask about compromise, most Democrats and Republicans believe their side has given enough — that it's time for the other side to see the error of their ways. We all seem to think it's the other side that's causing the problems. So, yes, there's a lot of talk about the end of partisanship. We just don't see anybody changing neighborhoods.

Q. Are you saying 2008 will be a repeat of 2000 and 2004?

There's no telling, of course. But already you can see The Big Sort at work in the primaries. The maps of Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and Missouri in the Democratic primary are all deeply marked by geographic segmentation. Senator Barack Obama won the traditional Democratic spanholds in the cities. Senator Hillary Clinton won the communities that voted Republican in the last several presidential elections.

Q. Some new states are up for grabs, though, right? The maps are changing.

Sure they are — largely because of the Big Sort. Colorado has been trending Democratic recently — but not all of Colorado. The parts of the state that are magnets for people moving to Colorado from other states are the places where Democrats are gaining ground. The Colorado counties with the least in-migration are actually growing more Republican. It's significant that the county that has sent the most people to Colorado over the last fifteen years or so has been deeply Democratic Los Angeles, California.

Q. Let's agree for the time being that we are segregating by political belief. What makes that such a bad thing?

There are advantages to the Big Sort. While the national government is stymied by disagreement between two intractable sides, local governments where majorities are span are engaged in thousands of policy experiments. Some open Bible classes in their high schools. Others adopt regulations aimed at reducing the gases that contribute to global warming. Federalism is alive, well and multiplying like dandelions.

America was established, however, to benefit from this national diversity. The Founders believed that when people with diverging opinions hashed out their differences face-to-face, the country would be better off. The clashing of opinions would produce a better result. It was a brilliant insight. The Founders sought to make diversity a creative force. Differences didn't have to end in hate. They could be wielded to craft the best answer to problems. The Founders sought to turn the vice of disagreement into the virtue of new understanding. Now that simply doesn't happen — in Congress, in our legislatures, or between our increasingly isolated neighborhoods. We've replaced a belief in a nation with an oversized trust in ourselves and our carefully chosen surroundings.

Q. So how did all this come about?

We trace this story in the book. Briefly, though, the country fractured in the 1960s — around 1965, to be precise. In that one year, trust in major institutions began to decline; membership in mainline churches started to drop; divorce and crime rates began to climb; allegiance to political party dissolved as people lost faith in traditional party labels; membership in long-standing civic organizations (the Elks, bowling leagues) started to drop, as did the percentage of daily newspaper readers. Society seemed to unravel all at once, and when it came back together, the broad-based institutions that had sustained this country were replaced by ones that were more politically homogenous.

For example, as mainline churches — Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans — lost members, independent and evangelical churches gained. Preachers coming through seminary in the 1970s and '80s, such as evangelist Rick Warren, were taught to build their congregations by catering to like-minded groups. This technique was literally called the "homogenous unit principle" of church growth and it was wildly successful in this new, post-'65 world. Similarly, just as the broad-based clubs like the Elks lost people, more targeted groups, like Common Cause, formed and found a following. This shift in association — from general to specific — happened across society. For companies, there weren't mass markets any longer, only individual consumers to be targeted and then supplied with just the product they wanted. The country sorted into separate groupings of lifestyle and belief. We left behind a country that was striving to be whole in 1965, with the passage of civil rights laws and universal health care coverage for the elderly, and we began to sequester ourselves into tribes of like beliefs, images, neighborhoods, and markets.

Q. And where is this going — in, say, November 2008?

Remember, the Big Sort isn't at heart a political phenomenon. It's the way we've come to live over the past thirty years. Still, the 2008 campaign will be played out on this landscape. The Bush campaign in '04 was the first to figure out that the way to win the presidency wasn't through persuasion, but by mobilizing the social groups defined by church, neighborhood, and communities of interest. So far, Senator Obama has done the best job building a political campaign among these local social networks.

There are a couple of question for the fall campaign. Has there been enough migration to change the statewide totals in states such as Colorado, Nevada, or Virginia? Will those living in the inner suburbs continue to shift toward the Democrat? Will either side be able to recreate the social network campaign Bush devised in '04?

Of course, the question the country ought to be trying to answer has nothing to do with one election. It's whether the nation can adequately function if we've lost the democratic tradition of accommodating difference through compromise and a shared understanding of a way of life. That may be one of the most important issues facing the man or woman who wins the presidency.