Customer Reviews: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart
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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.
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on May 16, 2008
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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on June 17, 2008
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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on August 17, 2008
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.

The authors thesis is appealing. The rise of the religious right is common knowledge. Democrats, referred to as the rainbow coalition, being more ethnically diverse is well accepted too.

But, sometimes the authors contradict themselves. On page 50 they disclose a graph showing how counties have become increasingly more polarized in their Presidential voting; and it is clearly the Democratic counties that have become more so. This contradicts their narrative analysis. So, which one is correct? Their analysis or their graph?

Other leading social scientists completely contradict their theories. The latter suggest that to the contrary the U.S. population is not so polarized. And, that it is only the politicians that have become more so. Those are the themes presented by Morris Fiorina in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (Great Questions in Politics Series). The authors actually do agree with Fiorina about the politicians as they convey a graph on pg. 247 showing the rapid decline of moderates in Congress from near 50% of the membership (either Senate or the House) in 1950 down to 10% currently. But, Fiorina and the authors reach diametrically opposite conclusion regarding the general population. How can that be? The authors show polarization mainly at the county voting level. Fiorina instead shows moderation at the State level, as he shows that the majority of the State in the 2000 election did have less than a 10% differential between Bush and Gore (I suspect the updated edition shows the same phenomenon in 2004 between Bush and Kerry). He also conveys that people's opinions between Blue and Red States are not that different even on very controversial topics such as abortion and homosexuality. To the authors credit, they addressed Fiorina's work. But, they dismissed it too quickly. They suggest Fiorina was looking for moderation by phrasing the questions ambiguously. On abortion Fiorina asked whether people were for or against abortion in different terms of pregnancies and in different situations (health of the mother at risk, rape, confirmed malformation of fetus, etc...). Meanwhile, the authors asked simply are you for or against abortion? And they got different results. But, I think Fiorina's work is more sophisticated as it uncovered the nuances of people's values much better. Additionally, Fiorina develops a political model indicating that the Presidential candidate who gets closer to the Center on both fiscal and social dimensions typically wins the election. Karl Rove proved the opposite in 2000 and 2004 by rallying the base. Meanwhile, the authors support Karl Rove strategy and suggests that given our polarized electorate you have to rally your base first and foremost. The current election between Obama and McCain may swing the pendulum again in Fiorina's favor.

Another leading pollster who is on Fiorina's side is Mark Penn. In his interesting book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes he indicates that the % of independent voters is steadily rising. Per studies from University of Michigan, the % of split-ticket voters (people who vote for a different party for President vs Congress) has increased by 42% since 1952.

Also counties presidential voting may have become more polarized because the candidates have become more polarized not the voters. In 1976, Ford and Carter was a far less contentious match than either Bush - Gore in 2000 or Bush - Kerry in 2004.

In terms of the sorting and clustering of communities economic implications, the authors work is simplistic vs the far more sophisticated and insightful work of Richard Florida in Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life.
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on May 1, 2011
I thorougly enjoyed this book and I feel the author made a strong case for his proposition.

The basic point seems to be this:

1). Americans are segregating themselves into communities of people who live and think alike.
2). In such homogeneous communities, people become increasingly more intensely committed to the values they hold and increasingly intolerant of anyone who does not share those same values.
3). This phenomenon could seriously jeopardize the ability of our society to constructively address the issues it faces.

As to the first point, the strongest critique I think could be thrown at it would be to claim it is self-evident. Surprisingly, I don't see a lot of reviews here that make that assertion.

It is a point I think I have been vaguely aware of already, but the book really put it into focus.

The second point is a disturbing one and to me a very convincing one. Aside from everything that is covered in the book, from my own experience, I get a strong feeling in political discourse in recent years that most people have become rigid adherents to the entire agenda of either the Republican or Democratic party. As someone who agrees with the R's on some issues and with the D's on others, when I am contemplating expressing my opinion about a particular issue, I have the strong feeling that nearly everyone who hears my opinion will immediately assume that I support the entire agenda of whichever party that stance on that particular issue is associated with.

Something not really mentioned in the book that I think is also indicative of this, there are a lot of people who are so politically polarized that if you don't agree with them on a particular issue, it is not just an honest difference opinion, your position on the issue makes you a sociopath, unlike they who are on the side of moral virtue.

It stands to reason when someone is absolutist in supporting a particular political agenda, that it is not grounded in reason but rather in a quasi-religious moral certitude, hence for me to not share any of that agenda makes me a sociopath.

The author does at at least one point do a good job in pointing out that the intellectual inbreeding associated with self-segregation tends to stifle any genuine critical thinking about issues.

If there is anything in the book I can take issue with I would say that the degree to which the views of Americans have become solidified into a binary pair of opposite ideological agendas is probably somewhat overstated. There are some factions of the political right that have some very fundamental disagreements. The most obvious would probably be the foreign policy views of Neocons versus Libertarians. And there is still a substantial faction among Republicans who do not agree with the prevailing stance of the party on the conservative side of social issues, i.e. abortion and gay rights. However, the author does make a good case that those who are liberal or agnostic on social issues are facing a lot more conflict from the conservative establishment.

As to the Democratic Party, I would say there is a similar situation regarding diversity of views. There is a dominant "progressive" wing that is very monolithic in its ideological agenda, and is increasingly intolerant of accepting anyone as a "Democrat" who holds contrary views such as fiscal conservatism or a pro-life stance on abortion.


I found the historical material in the book fascinating, some reviewers have found it superfluous and perhaps if I were more versed in sociology some of it would already be familiar to me, but since it was new to me, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was not really familiar with the fact that the current split in the Christian religion in America of left wing and right wing denominations actually has a hundred years of history behind it. Other historical material that I found interesting was that on the textbook wars, the techniques the evangelical movement developed to grow their churches, the evolution of advertising philosophy (including political advertising). And some bizarre stories I found of particular interest were the Oxycontin problem in Kentucky and the big subdivision (in California?) that was divided into an enclave for right wingers and another for left wingers.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I feel like I learned something from it.
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on April 29, 2015
The Big Sort argues that (as of 2006) American democracy is in trouble. We have sorted ourselves into like minded communities and in doing so destroyed the essence of a functioning democracy, coming into contact with people and ideas that challenge you. Bishop contrasts this with the postwar period when party identification was low and a rough policy consensus existed.

There are some things to like about this book. The discussion of the role of religion and the recruitment techniques of megachurches is fascinating as is the description of the eating houses in the early Congress when sorting was also high.

This latter anecdote though points out the big problem with the book. It appears to me that the Big Sort is not new, in fact, it is instead the norm in American history. The apparent exception is the postwar period that Bishop extols. However, I am not even sure that this is as big an exception as he (and others believe). The postwar consensus was built on a) prosperity and b) the acceptance of the welfare state but not for minorities (and women really). Neither of these conditions was built to last.

When President Johnson signed the landmark civil rights legislation in 1965 (a year Bishop notes for its importance but underplays the key reason for the importance) he knew he was transforming American politics and handing the south to the Republicans. What he was doing was allowing the two parties to really represent a coherent philosophy again. Democrats for a government assisted enforcement of an expansive definition of human rights, and Republicans for a limited state limited rights vision. Bishop notes that before 1965, political scientists worried about the meaninglessness of parties. It turns out that this was a temporary phenomenon (and perhaps an inevitably temporary one).

Bishop had done a great deal of reading in a wide range of fields and this comes out well in the book. However, from a narrative standpoint, the "this researcher found this and then this one found that" is choppy.

The book is a valuable contribution to debates on American democracy. I do wonder if it would be more relevant with an update on the effects of social media on clustering and reinforcing views. Still I can't help feeling that Bishop misses the big point. The subtitle should have been: How the clustering of like-minded America is returning us to historical norms." But that wouldn't have sold as much.
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on July 14, 2016
I'm not sure I'd have time to check all the references the author makes, but he does back up much of his statements. There may be a few conclusions made which seem to be supported by the statistics he sites, but may not be an accurate reading of the stats. On the other hand many have written about the divide in this country showing equally compelling stories of WHY we as a country are so divided, but never-the-less, DIVIDED WE ARE, politically, religiously, economically, and we as a country are in deep trouble...not the wonderful melting pot of American values we once could count on up to the 1950s.

I'm writing this primarily to take issue with the Kindle edition. There are lots of pages or paragraphs missing, or misplaced, and at several places the text is duplicated, so I suspect there was some fault with formatting the book as an eBook. I hope it's not duplicated in the print editions.
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on April 20, 2012
The main premises of The Big Sort are that our affluence and mobility allow us to segregate ourselves according to our interests and that, since we no longer have the interactions of many ideas within the community, we are becoming increasingly extreme. He presents a strong argument that where there is homogeneity of opinion, there will be lockstep movement towards the fringes. The politician who tries to represent such an electorate must of necessity become increasingly strident himself in order to gain and hold the support of the voters. I think we can see that phenomenon in current politics: each politician taking increasingly more ridiculous positions in order to stand out from others who represent and advocate the same doctrines. Because of that movement to attract the voter, the doctrine by degrees also moves towards extreme interpretation. The continuous extremism creep is the very cause of a deadlocked Congress and the growing sense we have that government is no longer willing or able to protect the health, safety, welfare, and environment of the citizens; our clustering in ideological communities is the cause of our inability to compromise or to seek the public good. He argues that we have no tolerance for opposing points of view, and that our intolerance contributes to the extremism because there is no tempering of our opinions. His argument is sound and his book a good study in why extremism has been loosed upon the nation.
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on June 8, 2008
I remember back in high school, I was talking to a teacher about his growing up in Pittsburgh in the twenties and thirtiesand how, back then, people seemed to live in communities. For example, his father working in the steel industry, as did a few other neighbours. The guy next door, however, was a doctor. Today you don't see that as much... That's because we live in class enclaves.

Bishop pinpoints 1965 as the epicenter. Myself, I'd place it at the end of World War II, when housing plans were popping up. Housing plans ensure that the residents living within the confines are, to a degree, very similar.

But enough with my ideas.

Bishops recognizes that the political division that the country is going through has a physical aspect as well, which is something I've not before considered. This is an important book that describes the further radicalisation of American politics. One must wonder what the ramifications will yeild a decade from now...
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on July 17, 2008
My fourteen-month-old daughter has a board book that tells the life story of Rosa Parks in under sixty words. Obviously, there are some gross omissions and stunning oversimplifications, but whatever--it's a board book. I'm just glad she's reading about Rosa Parks. And maybe when she's old enough to turn the pages without tearing them, she can tackle The Big Sort. The gross omissions and stunning oversimplifications will still be there, but at least she'll be reading about politics. And it does have a neat picture on the cover.

It's not that Bishop's main premise is misplaced. Indeed, if you live in the USA and have left the house anytime in, say, the past decade, then you've probably perceived Bishop's "big sort:" the steady division of the country along cultural and lifestyle lines. The book is a well-organized marshaling of prodigious statistical and anecdotal support for this what-else-is-new premise, with samples cut mostly from churches, restaurant franchises, and social scientists in fly-over America. Nor is Bishop totally lacking in thought-provoking insights. His contention that groups of like-minded individuals tend to become more extreme in their like-mindedness is well argued and not altogether obvious, and Bishop displays keen perception in noting similarities in the marketing of commercial products, religion, and ultimately political campaigns.

Bishop's problem, rather, is that he overreaches his evidence and has virtually no grasp of his historical context. Bishop writes as though the USA was once a harmonious land of brotherly neighbors standing in unshakable solidarity, whose occasional disagreements were nothing that couldn't be settled over a couple Budweisers and a handshake. Then out of nowhere fissures start to open in the mid-1960s, to then amplified in a nouveau "big sort." It might pass for board book history-- if you only count the white people.

Having announced that America was all like peas & carrots until 1965 fell from the sky, the balance of Bishop's text rings nostalgic for a return to those good `ole days, before political issues were anything to really get worked-up about, back when everyone just got along. As if. Bishop's big sort is happening, for sure, and its importance cannot be discounted. But his analysis is riddled with errors, and none bigger than a fictional point of origin. Sorting being nothing so new to America, Bishop really ought to brush up if he's going to write about politics. Maybe he can start by reading some board books.
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