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The Book

THE BIG SORT (Houghton Mifflin, May 7, 2008) is the landmark story of how America came to be a country of swelling cultural division, economic separation, and political polarization.

Going far beyond the simplistic red state/blue state divide, journalist Bill Bishop (in collaboration with sociologist and statistician Robert Cushing) marshals original data and incisive reporting to show how Americans have sorted themselves geographically, economically, and politically into like-minded communities over the last three decades.

Homogeneity may be a perk of the unprecedented choice our society offers—but it also breeds economic inequality, cultural misunderstanding, political extremism, and legislative gridlock. This is the story of our times, and its reality poses a profound threat to democracy, but no one before now has seemed to notice, let alone been able to describe, its causes and consequences.

The nation we live in—our culture, economy, neighborhoods, and churches—has been sculpted by the Big Sort over the past thirty years:

•People with college degrees were relatively evenly spread across the nation's cities in 1970. Thirty years later, college graduates had congregated in particular cities, a phenomenon that decimated the economies in some places and caused other regions to flourish.

• The generation of ministers who built sprawling mega-churches in the new suburbs learned to attract their stadium-sized congregations through the "homogenous unit principle." The new churches were designed for cookie-cutter parishioners, what one church-growth proponent described as "people like us."

• In 1976, only about a quarter of America's voters lived in a county a presidential candidate won by a landslide margin. By 2004, it was nearly half.

• Businesses learned to target their marketing to like-minded "image tribes," a technique used by Republicans in the 2004 campaign.

Living in politically like-minded groups has had its consequences. People living in homogenous communities grow both more extreme and more certain in their beliefs. Locally, therefore, governments backed by large majorities are tackling every conceivable issue. Nationally, however, Congress has lost most of its moderate members and is mired in conflict.

Like Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class, and Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, THE BIG SORT explores the connection between cultural evolution, economic change, and the power of place. THE BIG SORT, however, is the first account that systematically ties cultural and economic evolution to the changing political landscape of America.

And when you have finished reading, the country—its conflicts and turmoil—makes a new kind of sense.