NY Times Book Review - 5/18/2008

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THE BIG SORT: WHY THE CLUSTERING OF LIKE-MINDED AMERICA IS TEARING US APART by Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing (available from your local library or from Amazon.com for $10.85 + shipping)

Bill Clinton has been discussing and recommending "The Big Sort" in speeches across the nation -- "Some of us are going to have to cross the street, folks."

It is 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 like we do. This social transformation didn't happen by accident. 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, are the subject of this ground-breaking work.

In 2004, journalist Bill Bishop made national news in a series of articles when he first described "the big sort." Armed with original and startling demographic data, he showed how Americans have been sorting themselves over the past three decades into homogeneous communities -- not at the regional level, or the red-state/blue-state level, but at the micro level of city and neighborhood.

In The Big Sort (Houghton Mifflin 5/7/2008) Bishop and Robert Cushing, a retired University of Texas sociology professor, deepen the 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.
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johnkarls
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NY Times Book Review - 5/18/2008

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The New York Times – 5/18/2008

Subdivided We Fall
By SCOTT STOSSEL (the author of “Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver” and deputy editor of The Atlantic)

As catchy pop-social science coinages go, “the Big Sort” may not have quite the pith or resonance of, say, “bobos” or “tipping points.” But in attempting to define and argue the implications of the sweeping social and political balkanization that has swept across America over the last 30 years, Bill Bishop has set his sights ambitiously on David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell territory: identifying a big, worldview-changing social science phenomenon, and interpreting it for a popular audience.

Superficially, the phenomenon Bishop is examining is not new, and the litany of division he recites is familiar. The two major political parties have become more extreme and can’t find common ground anymore. National civic groups and mainline church denominations have withered away, replaced by smaller, more narrowly focused independent groups. Marketers (and political pollsters) have sliced up the population into increasingly “microtargeted” segments. The three-network era of mass media, which helped create a national hearth of shared references and values, is long gone, displaced by a new media landscape that has splintered us into thousands of insular tribes. We can no longer even agree on what used to be called facts: Conservatives watch Fox; liberals watch MSNBC. Blogs and RSS feeds now make it easy to produce and inhabit a cultural universe tailored to fit your social values, your musical preferences, your view on every single political issue. We’re bowling alone — or at least only with people who resemble us, and agree with us, in nearly every conceivable way.

This separation into solipsistic blocs would perhaps not be so complete if people of different political views or cultural values at least lived within hailing distance, and encountered one another on the street or in the store from time to time. But, increasingly, they don’t. Over the last decade, as 100 million Americans have moved from one place to another, they’ve clustered in increasingly homogeneous communities. This is where “The Big Sort,” which grew out of a series of articles that Bishop, formerly a reporter at The Austin American-Statesman, wrote with Robert Cushing, a retired sociologist and statistician from the University of Texas, is both wonkiest and most original. Working with a team of collaborators (including Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class”), Bishop and Cushing swam around in different sets of data — voting records; I.R.S. income figures; patent filings; poll numbers from advertising firms — to figure out how thoroughly, and in what ways, Americans had sorted themselves. Their conclusion: “By the turn of the 21st century, it seemed as though the country was separating in every way conceivable.”

Americans have always moved around restlessly. But whereas in earlier times large flows of people — the “great migration” of African-Americans to Chicago in the 1950s, for instance, or the “hillbilly highway” that took white Appalachians to the Midwest after World War II — were motivated primarily by the quest for economic opportunity, American migration is now inspired at least as much by “lifestyle” choices as by economics. “We have built a country,” Bishop writes, “where everyone can choose the neighbors (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”

Bishop argues that this clustering of like with like accelerated in the tumult of the 1960s when, unmoored from the organizations and traditions that had guided their choices about how to live, Americans grew anxious and disoriented — and reflexively sought comfort in the familiar, cocooning themselves in communities of people like themselves. This sorting was compounded in the 1980s and ’90s as the clustering of educated people in certain cities produced regional wage disparities — which in turn attracted more-highly educated people to the richer cities, which in turn accentuated the economic disparities between cities, creating a cycle of division that shows little sign of relenting.

This intense geographic sorting helps account for an abiding weirdness in American politics. Congress is split right down the middle, or nearly so; the last two presidential elections have been achingly close; half the nation, almost by definition, must disagree with you politically — and yet you have probably met very few of your antagonists. “How can the polls be neck and neck,” the playwright Arthur Miller lamented during the 2004 election, “when I don’t know one Bush supporter?”

Gerrymandering — the redrawing of political districts by partisan legislation from above — partly accounts for increasing polarization. But the more significant force, Bishop argues, has been movement from below. In 1976, the year in the postwar era when the average American was most likely to live alongside people of the opposing political party, barely 26 percent of us lived in counties that went in a landslide for one presidential candidate or another. In 1992, nearly 38 percent of us lived in a “landslide county.” By 2004, nearly 50 percent did.

Does this balkanization matter? Bishop argues convincingly that it does. Psychological studies suggest that the mere fact of division, even when there is no substantive content to it, can be corrosive: in a series of experiments in the 1950s and ’60s, groups of similar people arbitrarily divided into subgroups quickly exploded into conflicts of “Lord of the Flies”-like intensity. Other studies have shown that when relatively like-minded people are grouped together, they don’t settle around the average point of view of the individuals in the group but rather become more extreme in the direction toward which they’re already inclined. This gives clustering a powerful self-reinforcing quality, and helps explain how American counties have hardened into such immovable political clumps. “It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a frat boy, a French high school student, a petty criminal or a federal appeals court judge,” Bishop writes. “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”

The founding fathers didn’t need social psychology experiments to understand that homogeneity could be dangerous. In their wisdom, they created a system of government that called for constant conversation and compromise among competing interests — what Alexander Hamilton called the “jarring of parties.” This system has proved durable and effective, but it breaks down when people of different parties or points of view no longer intermingle at all.

Are we doomed to retreat ever farther into our enclaves? A few pages from the end of the book, Bishop writes (in a notably wooden but unfortunately typical sentence) that “it’s wishful thinking to predict that a Generation Y L.B.J. will emerge to become ... some kind of Web-based ‘deus ex MySpace’ politician who could forge a national consensus out of our disparate communities.” But then, as if hedging his bets, Bishop has included a footnote: “Barack Obama presented himself early in the 2008 campaign as the man-of-the-earth candidate, the politician able and eager to speak to — and listen to — all sides.” Even so, Bishop’s view seems to be that no single candidate or election cycle can reverse these powerful trends; that only the rise of a “cross-cutting” issue — something that realigns political alliances across existing boundaries — can restore a sense of common purpose.

Actually, there may be another way. Bishop cites research suggesting that, contrary to the standard goo-goo exhortations, the surer route to political comity may be less civic engagement, less passionate conviction. So let’s hear it for the indifferent and unsure, whose passivity may provide the national glue we need.

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