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The big sort that starts at home
on July 12, 2008
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. '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.