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The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of…

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us… (edition 2008)

by Bill Bishop

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Title:The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart
Authors:Bill Bishop
Info:Houghton Mifflin (2008), Hardcover, 384 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:sociology, politics, homophily, social networks, political science

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The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop


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This makes a well-documented case that a political "clustering" trend, begun in the mid-1970s, is increasingly dividing the cultural geography of the US down ideological lines. One statistic is really enough to convince me: "During the closely fought 1976 election, about a quarter of Americans lived in landslide counties (i.e. those that voted for a candidate by more than 20 percentage points). By the 2004 election, about half the country lived in such counties." (http://www.creators.com/opinion/david-sirota/this-summer-s-trilogy-of-truth.html )

Not only does Bishop provide a significant amount of other demographic data substantiating this trend. He also illustrates the (qualitative) cultural changes as he encounters people around the country from the South Austin liberals to exurban fundamentalist Christians in Oregon. He belabors some of his points a little too long for me, but others might appreciate the less consequential details of this or that "sorting" phenomenon.

This trend will not likely be remembered as anything other than a historical curiosity. But, since there is no apparent evidence that it is slowing, it's probably a good idea to take notice of these patterns in which we're involved. If that awareness results in (only slightly) better informed choices, it is important. ( )
  dmac7 | Jun 14, 2013 |
In this interesting book Bill Bishop describes the polarization of American politics from 1965 onwards. He is fairly obviously a Democrat but goes out of his way to speak to new millennium Republicans and appreciate their world view.

He describes the "Big Sort" very convincingly, particularly the way that Republicans and Democrats drift towards their respective majority states, or at least the majority Republican or Democratic areas within each state, and the way that this seems to happen almost unconsciously by what "feels right and comfortable" about the surroundings.

One way or another Americans seem to gravitate towards two very different lifestyles; A) the city / anonymous / environmental / minority-rights / European / intellectual/ state-interventionist, or B) the country / community / traditional / religious / Constitutional / nationalist / self-reliant with Democratic and Republican loyalists dividing neatly along these lines.

He shows the result as a separation and hardening of positions generating the familiar American Gridlock politics of the new millennium, and as he says, "Democracy has become so balky that the normal processes of representative government are being replaced by systems of issue brokering that are only quasi-representative"......" public policy is often negotiated among interest groups". This would be a great lead in to look at where the power went and who these interest groups are but he doesn't follow it.

Maybe they're not particularly Democratic or Republican and they just want the money and the influence, but the author doesn't really go into this interesting question.

The author seems to be more concerned with establishing the reality of the "Big Sort" rather than evaluating it in a historical context. He refers to the early 1970's research of Robert Inglehart at the University of Michigan, suggesting that a young generation growing up in abundance will esteem self expression more than economic growth as they seek "higher values", but he doesn't refer to the more recent and much richer version of this idea available in for example "The Fourth Turning" by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

The book doesn't consider that the opposing factors of the "Sort" seem to coexist quite happily in some countries. Japan can be very respectful of tradition and community while developing leading high technologies with the same going for Germany and northern Europe in general.

The author doesn't look at the fairly obvious divide between Original Americans (OAs) and Newcomers (N's). OA's were in American prior to 1900, they mostly originated from European countries and now regard themselves as Americans first and have strong links to the Constitution and American history and also provided most of the troops and leadership in the two world wars. N's arrived after 1900 and are now mostly non-European hyphenated Americans with weak links to American traditions and a preference for identity politics, non-integration and minority rights and they predictably find their natural home in the Democratic party.

Equally, Bishop doesn't consider the 1965+ rise to power of the Jews as a prime example of an American special interest insider group. He does talk about the rise of advocacy groups that aren't broad based or democratically controlled but he could have shown Jewish tribal self-selection producing for example the present (2013) strange situation where the eight leading candidates for the post of Federal Reserve chairman are all Jewish or married to Jews (apart from Geithner) or Jewish students comprising 30% of Ivy League university enrolment. This is a major shift of power to a non-European and non-Christian newcomer minority group (3% of the population) which is also firmly on the Democratic left.

The author could also usefully have looked at the way in which the growing demands of the Democratic left generate a more extreme reaction from the traditionalist Republican right. For example he could have shown how the gay rights idea has progressed from 1965 onwards through illegality > ignoring > acceptance > protection > coming out > legal rights > marriage equality and adoption > to school teaching which is fine in a minority rights environment but is seen as provocative when legally applied traditional Americans.

In general I think that the "Big Sort" was a missed opportunity but it does provide indisputable evidence for the post 1965 polarization of the Republican and Democratic parties. ( )
  Miro | Apr 8, 2013 |
Most provocative book I've read on American life since Jane Jacobs' "Death and Life of Great American Cities." Bishop says gerrymandering isn't the key cause of entrenched Washington members of Congress; rather, Americans have been segregating themselves sociologically and politically since 1965 into increasingly homogeneous counties and election districts. People are clustering with PLUs, "people like us." This clustering generates increasingly partisan and intemperate political results, as members of the majority socially vie with each other to be "more" mainstream, and the disaffected minority increasingly opts out of political activity or simply moves to a more socially/politically comfortable town. Very scary.
Read more on my blog: http://barleyliterate.blogspot.com/ ( )
  rsubber | Feb 2, 2013 |
I never took a course in political science. In high school, we were required to take a semester of American Government, and a year of American History. Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before (in a previous review or two) classes have their limits. Even in college, there's only so much history you can study and actually learn in the course of a semester.

Having lived through the past few (increasingly controversial) elections, however, has definitely given me a decent amount of schooling in voter demographics and in the growing rift between the Republican and Democratic parties.

This rift is brilliantly illustrated by Bill Bishop in his book, The Big Sort which details the way in which both parties have reinforced themselves over the last few years, creating two extremes, with little to no middle ground. Most of us are partisan these days, living in shrinking communities with specific homogeneous interests, driving ourselves away from those whose opinions differ even in the slightest, nurturing our political and moral certainties and severing us from the coinciding concepts of tolerance and compromise. While Bishop's personal feelings are obviously skewed towards the liberal end of things, the book saves neither party from its due censure. And he does it without relying too heavily on numbers and statistics which will be forgotten at the turn of a page.

The facts are clear: neither party is willing to budge. And with the introduction of ultra-extreme party offshoots like The Tea Party, there seems little hope for mending the gap of beliefs in America. The ultra-conservative only drink tea with other ultra-conservatives, engendering a whirlpool of hate and ill-feeling toward anyone with a liberal bone in their body. And the ultra-liberal only interact with other ultra-liberals, creating an equally frightening force of hate and fear from conservatives. We all think we're right with pretty much no room for debate. In a world like this, where anyone who is an "other" is a fool or a sham, how is bipartisanship ever to be regained?

America seems to be on a path towards destruction. We can't see the light at the end of the tunnel because there is no light there, the only light seems to be at the center, in moderation. I will never agree with a lot of what the Republican party believes. But I do believe in compromise. I also believe that Glenn Beck is a fool, and I believe that he is one of the tools the conservatives are using to drive a deeper wedge between the parties. But if we want tolerance, if we want compassion and solidity as a nation, and if we want an end to this rift we all need to move towards the middle, even if it means compromising with those whom we consider "rubes, fools and hate-mongers." To get tolerance, you need to give it.

Bishop has a great quote at the end of his afterword to the 2009 edition of the book: "The message people living in a democracy must understand, more than any other message, is that there are Americans who aren't just like you. They don't live like you, they don't have families like yours, and they don't think like you. They may not live in your neighborhood, but this is their country, too." What this book has done, for me at least, is not convert me to a conservative or even reinforced my liberal standing: it has made me willing to listen. I may not side with conservatives and I may disagree with 90% of their rationale, but I think it's important that we all hear each other out and understand where the differences are, and how to bridge the gaps that currently separate us.

Lauren Cartelli
www.theliterarygothamite.com ( )
  laurscartelli | Mar 7, 2011 |
I agree... quirky. But having read it, I feel better equipped to understand and discuss various issues which confront us all. Understanding the "sorting behavior" of Americans (and others around the world?) at least helps to explain why things always feel so confrontational and unresolvable -- perhaps some solutions to this dilemma are implicit in the understanding of the phenomena. Reading this book along with Florida's "The Great Reset" helps put it into context. Then read Kiernan's "Authentic Patriotism" and Tapscott & Williams' "MacroWikinomics" for welcome antidotes. ( )
  LorinRicker | Dec 30, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
As the journalist Bill Bishop shows in his eye-opening demographic study The Big Sort, for decades we have been withdrawing into “communities of like-mindedness” where the gap between individual and collective closes. These are places where elective affinities are supplanting electoral politics.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618689354, Hardcover)

The untold story of why America is so culturally and politically divided

America may be more diverse than ever coast to coast, but the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote as we do. This social transformation didn't happed by accident. We’ve built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood -- and religion and news show -- most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this way-of-life segregation. Our country has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live just a few miles away. The reason for this situation, and the dire implications for our country, is the subject of this groundbreaking work.

In 2004, the journalist Bill Bishop, armed with original and startling demographic data, made national news in a series of articles showing how Americans have been sorting themselves over the past three decades into alarmingly homogeneous communities -- not by region or by red state or blue state, but by city and even neighborhood. In The Big Sort, Bishop deepens his analysis in a brilliantly reported book that makes its case from the ground up, starting with stories about how we live today and then drawing on history, economics, and our changing political landscape to create one of the most compelling big-picture accounts of America in recent memory.

The Big Sort will draw comparisons to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone and Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class and will redefine the way Americans think about themselves for decades to come.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:28 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

America may be more diverse than ever coast to coast, but the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote as we do. We've built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood--and church and news show--most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this way-of-life segregation. Our country has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don't know and can't understand those who live just a few miles away. The reason for this situation, and the dire implications for our country, is the subject of this groundbreaking work.--From publisher description.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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