Us vs. Them: A Review of The Big Sort by Bill Bishop

Us vs. Them: A Review of The Big Sort by Bill Bishop

By Daniel Tucker (Published in The Next American City Magazine, Fall 2008. Issue #20)

The Big Sort by Bill Bishop Houghton Mifflin, 2008

The new political and cultural geography of the U.S. is sorted. By “sorted,” journalist Bill Bishop essentially means “divided.” Americans are increasingly unlikely to find themselves in mixed company: Atheists rarely hang out with evangelicals; liberals avoid conservatives, and vice versa; the rich and poor, who have always been segregated, are even more so now.

Bishop began researching the consequences of American demographic and economic shifts over the past three decades while he penned a series of articles for the Austin American-Statesman. Because presidential elections are the only instances in which the entire country’s adult population are able to vote on the same candidates (with the important exception of those who are legally and illegally prevented from voting), they can give insight into nation-wide political opinion. Bishop found that more than half of the voters today live in communities where presidential elections are preordained. Why? That is what Bill Bishop, and collaborating statistical researcher Robert Cushing, try to figure out in their book, The Big Sort.

Bishop’s analysis goes further than the polarizing and abstract red/blue state divisions of abortion, gay rights and immigration. Through countless anecdotes, statistics and charts Bishop convinces us that people have been “sorting themselves into ideological homogeneous communities” where people like to use the same forms of transportation, drink the same kind of beer and buy the same styles of shoes. Blogs, news programs and other forms of media create “echo chambers” that allow people to surround themselves with others who share their very same opinions.

The Big Sort is also relevant for its coverage of city planning issues. Bishop notes educated people were spread more evenly throughout the country’s cities 30 years ago than they are today. College graduates are clearly congregating in particular cities, such as Austin, Portland and Chicago while avoiding others, such as Cleveland and Las Vegas. Bishop’s “schooling attracts schooling” investigation reveals that this sorting is the result of the gradual development of jobs and amenities that appeal to those wanting to consume and live a “lifestyle product” associated with their professional class as well as their political preferences. Bishop goes beyond the “creative class” theory of clustering to note that these seemingly casual and personal choices about lifestyle have real economic consequences for entire regions.

In The Big Sort the entire country is a network of cultural and political bastions — a nation of niche markets that don’t have to intersect with one another. It’s a small world, indeed, because we are actually growing more segregated from those who are different than us. While unprecedented mobility and distribution through “world-flattening” information technologies allow us to experience more of the world, many of us end up surrounding ourselves with the familiar rather than the different.

This research is unique in that it takes the geography of the U.S. seriously and does an admirable job at taking the picture as a whole and complex portrait. Bishop looks at county level shifts in racial makeup, age, religious affiliation, patents produced, wages and occupations to understand how this unprecedented migration is occurring. The diversity of his research subjects, from right-wing foundations and mega churches to artist communes and small-town theaters, makes it exciting to read. The specificity of Bishop’s analysis makes it not only convincing, but also useful.

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