The Big Sort

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Another book for my reading list. Bill Bishop: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. 2008. http://www.thebigsort.com

The Wall Street Journal: 'Like-Minded, Living Nearby' (April 22, 2008)

The more diverse America becomes, the more homogeneous it becomes.

No, that's not a misprint; it is the thesis of "The Big Sort," Bill Bishop's rich and challenging book about the ways in which the citizens of this country have, in the past generation, rearranged themselves into discrete enclaves that have little to say to one another and little incentive to bother trying. "As Americans have moved over the past three decades," Mr. Bishop proclaims, "they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs and in the end, politics."

It is an idea that has all but obsessed Mr. Bishop since he began thinking about it years ago in his hometown of Austin, Texas. In his Austin neighborhood, he observed, there were virtually no Republicans. In another community of similar size nearby there were very few Democrats. Thirty years earlier, he was willing to bet, nothing like that uniformity would have been possible. Values, ideology and partisanship would have mingled more variously in even the most compact neighborhood, ward or district.

This hunch and others led Mr. Bishop to write a series of widely discussed newspaper articles, and now, finally, a full-length presentation of the argument. I have always been skeptical about the clustering thesis myself, but there is one simple statistic, rightly seized on by Mr. Bishop, that is difficult to explain away. It is this: In 1976, less than a quarter of the American people lived in so-called "landslide counties" – that is, counties in which the spread between the two major presidential candidates was 20 percentage points or more. By 2004, nearly half of us lived in this kind of politically tilted territory.

How could this be? .... The longer one thinks about it, the more seriously one has to consider Mr. Bishop's claim: that the local landslide effect has been largely the result of demographic resorting.

Why in recent years and not before? In Mr. Bishop's view, resorting is what happens when individuals in a society become more affluent, better educated and freer to make their own personal and political choices. But he also believes that the Big Sort has been a form of escape. As the country attracts more and more immigrants, and as large metropolitan areas become multiracial and multilingual, people feel a strong desire to retreat to the safety of smaller communities where they can live among those who look, think and behave like themselves.

"Americans," Mr. Bishop writes, "lost their sense of a nation by accident in the sweeping economic and cultural shifts that took place after the mid-1960s. And by instinct they have sought out modern-day recreations of the 19th-century 'island communities' in where and how they live." Not red and blue states, he is quick to insist; he calls that cliché an illusion. The reality is red and blue wards and precincts, suburbs and counties.

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