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The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart Paperback – May 11, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize–finalist Bishop offers a one-idea grab bag with a thesis more provocative than its elaboration. Bishop contends that as Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics. There are endless variations of this clustering—what Bishop dubs the Big Sort—as like-minded Americans self-segregate in states, cities—even neighborhoods. Consequences of the Big Sort are dire: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life. Bishop's argument is meticulously researched—surveys and polls proliferate—and his reach is broad. He splices statistics with snippets of sociological theory and case studies of specific towns to illustrate that while the Big Sort enervates government, it has been a boon to advertisers and churches, to anyone catering to and targeting taste. Bishop's portrait of our post materialistic society will probably generate chatter; the idea is catchy, but demonstrating that like does attract like becomes an exercise in redundancy. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
"The Big Sort" refers to the fact that lifestyle choices are leading like-minded folks to live together in communities where they feel comfortable and perhaps unchallenged. That has significant ramifications for our country's political and social development. To quote the book, "The lesson for politics and culture is pretty clear. It doesn't matter if you're a frat boy, a French high school student, a petty criminal, or a federal appeals court judge. Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward extremes."
The fact that Republican strategists understood this well before the Democrats is detailed in a discussion with Matthew Dowd, George Bush's pollster in the 2000 election and chief strategist for the Bush campaign in 2004. According to Bishop's account, Dowd understood that "American communities were 'becoming very homogeneous'. He believed that to a large degree, this clustering was defensive, the general reaction to a society, a country, and a world that were largely beyond an individual's control or understanding. For generations, people had used their clubs, their trust in a national government, and long-established religious denominations to make sense of the world. But those old institutions no longer provided a safe harbor. 'What I think has happened,' Dowd told me early in 2005, 'is the general anxiety the country feels is building. We're no longer anchored'." Bishop decodes this further, saying "Unsurpassed prosperity had enriched Americans---and it had loosened long established social moorings. Americans were scrambling to find a secure place, to make a secure place...Most Americans have done that by seeking out(or perhaps gravitating toward)those who share their lifeworlds---made up of old, fundamental differences such as race, class, gender, and age, but also, now more than ever, personal tastes, beliefs, styles, opinions, and values."
"The Big Sort" identifies 1965 as the beginning of the major shift in American political and social demographics. The result today, in a political sense, is underscored by the findings of Bishop and his sociologist/demographer contributor Robert Cushing. Statistics showed that in the 1976 presidential election only 20% or Americans lived in counties that voted for one candidate or the other by more than a 20% margin. By 2004, 48% of America's counties were this type of landslide county with 20% plus margins for one of the candidates. Big change.
Bishop's book manages to deal with this subject comprehensively while being fluidly written, informative, insightful, and even entertaining. Somehow he pulls off the trick of letting us know of his participation in the "clustering" by living in a liberal Austin neighborhood where he fits in, without upsetting the balanced analytical perspective of the book. At least that's my take on it. It's an important book that seems to be gaining deserved recognition as we move toward November 4.
After reading it, I look around and see the uniformity (amid the Benetton ethnic mix and DIY style-diversity) of my own social networks in the city. All I did was exercise "free" choice about where to live. I've wound up in this cool 'hood, so cool I have to whisper that I voted for Clinton, not Obama.
Bishop and Cushing have done mighty work. They track back the origins of the mega-churches (would you believe in India and Korea?) and pull together decades of bizarre social psychology research. They prove what's happened by following the votes, the money, and the feet of Americans on the move.
Stories are good reading -- the comic book "tribe" in Portland, emergent church kids, moderates squeezed out of Congress, the textbook wars of the 1960s in particular blew my mind. Anybody who thinks Karl Rove masterminded the state we're in is going to be stunned. We're living a new segregationist era, and it goes a whole lot deeper than skin.
In 1965, we were a nation of 195,000,000 citizens, Democratics and Republicans evenly distributed across counties nationwide, of relative common mind, work, goals, politics and prosperity. By 2016 we’ve become a nation of 320,000,000, less individually prosperous, far less equally prosperous, all tightly sequestered in geographic, cultural and economic clusters. Politically polarized with a federal government frozen in perpetual stale mate.
The author cites numerous social science studies demonstrating the pernicious power of group-think and its ability to amplify ideologies, belief systems and behaviors while stoking extreme thinking. Mixed company moderates, like-minded company polarizes. And like-mindedness breeds isolationism, isolationism breeds extremist thinking. Because we’ve been sorting ourselves into like-minded clusters, we’ve lost the need for moderation, compromise and tolerance because we rarely interact with people with opposing views. Isolationism breeds extremism!
Bishop examines the culture wars of the 70s, 80s and 90s and reveals the links between generation, race, religion, tradition, abortion, birth control, guns, gays, identity rights, individualism, the environment and where you live and how you vote. He shows how GW Bush exploited this psychographic finding in his 2004 re-election campaign when his chief strategist Matt Dowd discovered there was no more “center” in the electorate. Dowd realized the middle was now just shallow water and wasting energy trying to persuade an undecided swing voter was folly, better to put all your energy into increasing turnout inside your deep base. And the partisan sentiment of the base was organically getting deeper by virtue of the Big Sort and its echo chambers. It was easier to build on an already rabid base than to convince a moderate swing voter to join your team. And it just so happens that right-leaning traditionalists were concentrating themselves inside electoral college battle ground states, making them easy to target.
Other interesting facts and observations Bishop presents include:
- Rural America defected en masse from the Democratic party in 2000
- Between Clinton ‘96 and Bush 2000, 856 counties switched from Democrat to Republican
- Republicans in 2007 were more religious than they were 20 years earlier. Democrats, less so.
- Republicans are “strict fathers” and Democrats are “nurturant parents.” (Everybody gets a trophy)
- Before the 1960s there was little difference in how Americans raised their children.
- After 2004, answers about child rearing became a better indicator of party than income
- Democrats moved to cities while Republicans moved to where there’s more grass to mow
- Reversing a trend, Democrats are now pro states-rights advocates whereas Republicans are shifting to support Federal mandates.
Other wedge issues Bishop cites behind the culture wars are school textbook censorship in the 70s and the 90s, busing in Boston in the ‘70s, prayer in schools, mainline churches preaching “social good” over “personal salvation” (saving society vs saving souls), spotted owls and old growth forests, gun control, birth control, abortion, sexual revolution, the rise of individualism and feminism.
Economic factors behind the Big Sort were globalization, technology, automation and the resulting disappearance of blue collar jobs, especially in the mid west and rural regions. This Corporate-Wall Street-Globalist grand bargain gave us cheap imported goods and low inflation (and a soaring stock market) but sacrificed jobs, livelihoods and a sense of meaning and direction for millions. (Globalization helped pull 150 million people out of poverty in China but plunged 10s of millions of the U.S. middle class into chaos and anxiety towards an uncertain future.)
Other changes Bishop notes includes the loss in faith in government and institutions beginning in the mid sixties with Vietnam and accelerating after Watergate. In 1955 80% of the population trusted government, by 1976 only 33% did. Civil rights was another seismic event, causing the Democrats to lose the south after 1964. The anti-science movement also came out of a slow burn of anti-trust in establishment and institutions, stoked by conspiracy theorists on both the right and left.
Bishop’s research also shows that higher education is another differentiator and has been a key sorting mechanism in the Big Sort. Today, the clearest indicators of Democrat vs Republican are education, age, parenting style, religion and geography (urban vs exurban - not necessarily sub-urban). The higher the education, the more progressive or liberal the voter, but not necessarily the less dogmatic.
Overall, The Big Sort is an interesting look at how certain monumental social and economic shifts have been quietly, and not so quietly, taking place in our society over the past 50 years causing ever larger chasms between the left and right. This new clustering of people, culture, economics, politics and ideas, all force-multiplied by social media and echo chambers, may help explain how this great country of ours has just elected a bellicose, ignorant, fear-mongering, Reality TV demagogue as its president - a primal scream from a fearful, displaced, white, rural middle class.
May God Save America!