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The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart Hardcover – May 7, 2008

4.2 out of 5 stars 73 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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)
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From 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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (May 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618689354
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618689354
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #49,591 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John L. Borden on July 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Now that Bill Clinton is using Bill Bishop's book "The Big Sort" as the basis for his current speeches, I should finally post a review. I read this book as soon as it was published and liked it, but not being one who regularly picks up social science books on political culture I procrastinated. Now it's time, and here are a few observations.

"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.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is intriguing, convincing, also sad and scary for anybody who hopes to be living in a democracy.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The central thesis of this book, that this country's population is segregating itself into political and life-style enclaves, is interesting and important, with a variety of consequential social and political implications. Bishop provides convincing statistical documentation to support his contention.
His argument would have made a first rate article. Unfortunately, he has turned it into a full length book by padding it with a lot of familiar and often barely relevant material from earlier academic studies and news articles.
"The Big Sort" is nonetheless a worthwhile read, even if much of it can be skipped or skimmed without losing the main thrust of its argument.
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Format: Hardcover
The authors' thesis is intriguing. U.S. counties are becoming increasingly homogenous in their lifestyle and politics. As a result, they are becoming polarized. The authors state this phenomenon is more pronounced for Republican counties. They are concerned that our society has become increasingly fragmented with close by communities having radically different sets of values. The authors partly explain this clustering into homogenous communities over the past three decades resulting in polarizing differences between them.

Their main supporting observation is that the % of voters in Presidential election from counties with a 20 percentage point differential (in either direction) in close elections has steadily increased over the past 30 years (from 26.8% in 1976 to 48.3% in 2004). They also rely on Alan Abramowitz work who observed the same phenomenon at the State level. In 1976, the average Presidential election margin in the States was 8.9 percentage points. In 2004, it was 14.8 percentage points. But, it is unclear if the latter just picked two points. That's because when you look at the standard deviation of the Democrat's % at the State level minus the nation's Democrat's % for each Presidential election over the same period, you get pretty much trendless results. If polarization had really increased, the standard deviation as defined over the period should have increased.

The authors also observed that since the 70s, Democratic counties share of the college educated and foreign-born citizens has risen. Meanwhile, Republicans gained shares of the Church going and white population. This demographic shift explains why Republican counties have become more polarized as they are more religious, less ethnically diverse, and less moderate in their views.
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