WHY THE CLUSTERING OF LIKE-MINDED AMERICA IS TEARING US APART
THE BIG SORT
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The Economist: "The Big Sort"

SOME folks in Texas recently decided to start a new community “containing 100% Ron Paul supporters”. Mr Paul is a staunch libertarian and, until recently, a Republican presidential candidate. His most ardent fans are invited to build homesteads in “Paulville”, an empty patch of west Texas. Here, they will be free. Free not to pay “for other people's lifestyles [they] may not agree with”. And free from the irksome society of those who do not share their love of liberty.

Cynics chuckle, and even Mr Paul sounds unenthusiastic about the Paulville project, in which he had no hand. But his followers' desire to segregate themselves is not unusual. Americans are increasingly forming like-minded clusters. Conservatives are choosing to live near other conservatives, and liberals near liberals.

A good way to measure this is to look at the country's changing electoral geography. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 50.1% of the popular vote. Though the race was close, some 26.8% of Americans were in “landslide counties” that year, where Mr Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.

The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then. In the dead-heat election of 2000, it was 45.3%. When George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, it was a whopping 48.3%. As the playwright Arthur Miller put it that year: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?” Clustering is how.

County-level data understate the degree of ideological segregation, reckons Bill Bishop, the author of a gripping new book called “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart”. Counties can be big. Cook County, Illinois, (which includes Chicago), has over 5m inhabitants. Beaverhead County, Montana, covers 5,600 square miles (14,400 square kilometres). The neighbourhoods people care about are much smaller.

Americans move house often, usually for practical reasons. Before choosing a new neighbourhood, they drive around it. They notice whether it has gun shops, evangelical churches and “W” bumper stickers, or yoga classes and organic fruit shops. Perhaps unconsciously, they are drawn to places where they expect to fit in.

Where you live is partly determined by where you can afford to live, of course. But the “Big Sort” does not seem to be driven by economic factors. Income is a poor predictor of party preference in America; cultural factors matter more. For Americans who move to a new city, the choice is often not between a posh neighbourhood and a run-down one, but between several different neighbourhoods that are economically similar but culturally distinct.

For example, someone who works in Washington, DC, but wants to live in a suburb can commute either from Maryland or northern Virginia. Both states have equally leafy streets and good schools. But Virginia has plenty of conservative neighbourhoods with megachurches and Bushites you've heard of living on your block. In the posh suburbs of Maryland, by contrast, Republicans are as rare as unkempt lawns and yard signs proclaim that war is not the answer but Barack Obama might be.

At a bookshop in Bethesda (one of those posh Maryland suburbs), Steven Balis, a retired lawyer with wild grey hair and a scruffy T-shirt, looks up from his New York Times. He says he is a Democrat because of “the absence of alternatives”. He comes from a family of secular Jews who supported the New Deal. He holds “positive notions of what government actions can accomplish”. Asked why he moved to Maryland rather than Virginia, he jokes that the far side of the river is “Confederate territory”. Asked if he has hard-core social-conservative acquaintances, he answers simply: “No.”

GROUPTHINK

Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbours leads over time to severe segregation. An accountant in Texas, for example, can live anywhere she wants, so the liberal ones move to the funky bits of Austin while the more conservative ones prefer the exurbs of Dallas. Conservative Californians can find refuge in Orange County or the Central Valley.

Over time, this means Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views. In a book called “Hearing the Other Side”, Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.

Intriguingly, the more educated Americans become, the more insular they are. (Hence Mr Miller's confusion.) Better-educated people tend to be richer, so they have more choice about where they live. And they are more mobile. One study that covered most of the 1980s and 1990s found that 45% of young Americans with a college degree moved state within five years of graduating, whereas only 19% of those with only a high-school education did.

There is a danger in this. Studies suggest that when a group is ideologically homogeneous, its members tend to grow more extreme. Even clever, fair-minded people are not immune. Cass Sunstein and David Schkade, two academics, found that Republican-appointed judges vote more conservatively when sitting on a panel with other Republicans than when sitting with Democrats. Democratic judges become more liberal when on the bench with fellow Democrats.

Residential segregation is not the only force Balkanising American politics, frets Mr Bishop. Multiple cable channels allow viewers to watch only news that reinforces their prejudices. The internet offers an even finer filter. Websites such as conservativedates.com or democraticsingles.net help Americans find ideologically predictable mates.

And the home-schooling movement, which has grown rapidly in recent decades, shields more than 1m American children from almost any ideas their parents dislike. Melynda Wortendyke, a devout Christian who teaches all six of her children at her home in Virginia, says she took her eldest out of public kindergarten because she thought the standards there were low, but also because the kids were exposed to a book about lesbian mothers.
“We now live in a giant feedback loop,” says Mr Bishop, “hearing our own thoughts about what's right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear and the neighbourhoods we live in.”

SHOUTING AT EACH OTHER

One might ask: so what? If people are happier living with like-minded neighbours, why shouldn't they? No one is obviously harmed. Mr Bishop does not, of course, suggest curbing Americans' right to freedom of association. But he worries about some of its consequences.

Voters in landslide districts tend to elect more extreme members of Congress. Moderates who might otherwise run for office decide not to. Debates turn into shouting matches. Bitterly partisan lawmakers cannot reach the necessary consensus to fix long-term problems such as the tottering pensions and health-care systems.

America, says Mr Bishop, is splitting into “balkanised communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible.” He has a point. Republicans who never meet Democrats tend to assume that Democrats believe more extreme things than they really do, and vice versa. This contributes to the nasty tone of many political campaigns.

Mr Bishop goes too far, however, when he says the “big sort” is “tearing [America] apart”. American politics may be polarised, but at least no one is coming to blows over it. “We respect each other's views,” says Mrs Wortendyke of the few liberals in the home-schooling movement. “We hate each other cordially,” says the liberal Mr Balis.

The Wall Street Journal: 'Like-Minded, Living Nearby' (April 22, 2008)

The more diverse America becomes, the more homogeneous it becomes.

No, that's not a misprint; it is the thesis of "The Big Sort," Bill Bishop's rich and challenging book about the ways in which the citizens of this country have, in the past generation, rearranged themselves into discrete enclaves that have little to say to one another and little incentive to bother trying. "As Americans have moved over the past three decades," Mr. Bishop proclaims, "they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs and in the end, politics."

It is an idea that has all but obsessed Mr. Bishop since he began thinking about it years ago in his hometown of Austin, Texas. In his Austin neighborhood, he observed, there were virtually no Republicans. In another community of similar size nearby there were very few Democrats. Thirty years earlier, he was willing to bet, nothing like that uniformity would have been possible. Values, ideology and partisanship would have mingled more variously in even the most compact neighborhood, ward or district.

This hunch and others led Mr. Bishop to write a series of widely discussed newspaper articles, and now, finally, a full-length presentation of the argument. I have always been skeptical about the clustering thesis myself, but there is one simple statistic, rightly seized on by Mr. Bishop, that is difficult to explain away. It is this: In 1976, less than a quarter of the American people lived in so-called "landslide counties" – that is, counties in which the spread between the two major presidential candidates was 20 percentage points or more. By 2004, nearly half of us lived in this kind of politically tilted territory.

How could this be? Well, we know one thing: It isn't gerrymandering. Nobody redraws the boundaries of a county every 10 years; they often stay the same for a century. Nor does it have much to do with natural population increase, which might push one group or another into a new proportional dominance within a certain geographical area. As it happens, there has been relatively little population growth in most parts of the country. The longer one thinks about it, the more seriously one has to consider Mr. Bishop's claim: that the local landslide effect has been largely the result of demographic resorting.

Why in recent years and not before? In Mr. Bishop's view, resorting is what happens when individuals in a society become more affluent, better educated and freer to make their own personal and political choices. But he also believes that the Big Sort has been a form of escape. As the country attracts more and more immigrants, and as large metropolitan areas become multiracial and multilingual, people feel a strong desire to retreat to the safety of smaller communities where they can live among those who look, think and behave like themselves.

"Americans," Mr. Bishop writes, "lost their sense of a nation by accident in the sweeping economic and cultural shifts that took place after the mid-1960s. And by instinct they have sought out modern-day recreations of the 19th-century 'island communities' in where and how they live." Not red and blue states, he is quick to insist; he calls that cliché an illusion. The reality is red and blue wards and precincts, suburbs and counties.

To be sure, a few obstacles confront anyone who wishes to accept this argument in toto. Research by the political scientist Morris Fiorina, for example, shows that, on most important issues, one doesn't find a wide ideological division according to geography. Counties do differ in their attitudes toward Iraq, abortion and foreign trade but not by nearly as much as Mr. Bishop's Big Sort would suggest. Mr. Fiorina argues that it's the political parties and their leadership that are fomenting political culture wars, not rank-and-file voters.

I accept the validity of this research, but I don't think it necessarily undermines Mr. Bishop's thesis. What if voters looked at the candidates in 2004 and decided – in clusters – that one of the nominees was the kind of person that they would like to have as neighbor, tennis partner or fellow-parishioner – and the other one simply wasn't? This is how Mr. Bishop explains the results in 2004, and he makes a decent case.

Certainly it is a case that the two major parties have come to accept. Soon after the 2000 election, Bush pollster Matthew Dowd reported to Karl Rove that there wasn't much point in focusing any campaign on independents or moderate voters anymore. The country was too polarized, essentially along the cultural lines that Mr. Bishop lays out. "If you drive a Volvo and do yoga, you are pretty much a Democrat," Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said in 2004. "If you drive a Lincoln or a BMW and you own a gun, you're voting for Bush." Mr. Bishop would agree. He would simply add that the yoga people have clustered in one set of culturally segregated enclaves and the gun owners in another.

Mr. Bishop has drawn a painstaking, and in my view, accurate picture of the first eight years of this century – certainly of its politics. Whether he has described the next eight years is not so clear. George Bush has been a deeply polarizing political leader. John McCain doesn't seem to be one; Barack Obama is determined not to be one; and Hillary Clinton has spent much of the past six months looking for ways to cast herself as a less polarizing figure than she has been in the past. If any one of them succeeds in campaigning and governing on such terms, "The Big Sort" may turn out to be a captivating account of recent history rather than an enduring explanation of American social life.

Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing Magazine

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


Forget bowling alone: We’re barely talking with anyone who doesn’t share our views, habits, dress and bumper stickers.

Journalist Bishop is a Texan. But, he hastens to note, he lives in an Austin suburb that gave more votes to Nader than Bush in the last election and where the lone “out” Republican is a very lonely man. The mores of the neighborhood encourage political discussion, though only of a like-minded kind. The watershed year was 1965, before which Americans were used to the thought that people of different races, incomes, religions and voting habits might live more or less side by side.

Afterward, Bishop observes, through white flight and minority migration, whole cities were remade to be monoethnic, with even income distributions and similar levels of education, some higher and some lower. Thus the fact that in 1970 only 17 percent of the residents of Austin were college-educated, a number that had risen to 45 percent in 2004, whereas in Cleveland “the change was only from 4 percent to 14 percent.” All other things being equal, a liberally inclined college-educated person chose Austin, Portland or San Francisco over any of the old Rust Belt cities, even if the cost of living were substantially lower in the latter.

Just so, in those few surviving mixed cities where red- and blue-state types come together, they’re likely to do so only tangentially but live in neighborhoods that are more alike than unlike. The loss of diversity is of interest to more than just marketers, who have a lot of rethinking to do about demographics and target audiences, since “there is no longer national ‘brand loyalty’ in regard to religion,” much less sandwich spread or laundry soap. Instead, by Bishop’s account, this sorting tendency is of concern: We’ve cleansed our personal spaces of heretics but removed all the grit and tumult that make for debate and democracy, which spells trouble ahead for the republic.

Essential reading for activists, poli-sci types, journalists and trend-watchers.

Booklist (starred review)

How did zip codes become as useful to political activists as to mail carriers? In the relatively new cultural dynamics of political segregation, Bishop discerns a troubling transformation of American life. Complex and surprising, the story of that transformation will confound readers who suppose that recent decades have made American society both more diverse and more tolerant. Pinpointing 1965 as the year when events in Vietnam, Washington, and Watts delivered body blows to traditional social institutions, Bishop recounts how Americans who had severed ties to community, faith, and family forged new affiliations based on lifestyle preferences. The resulting social realignment has segmented the nation into groupthink communities, fostering political smugness and polarization. The much-noted cartography of Red and Blue states, as Bishop shows, actually distorts the reality of a deeply Blue archipelago of urban islands surrounded by a starkly Red rural sea. Bishop worries about the future of democratic discourse as more and more Americans live, work, and worship surrounded by people who echo their own views. A raft of social-science research underscores the growing difficulty of bipartisan compromise in a balkanized country where politicians win office by satisfying their most radical constituents. A book posing hard questions for readers across the political spectrum.
Bryce Christensen