Like-Minded, Living Nearby

Alan Enrenhalt, Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2008

The Big Sort 
By Bill Bishop 
(Houghton Mifflin, 370 pages, $25)

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.”

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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? Well, we know one thing: It isn’t gerrymandering. Nobody redraws the boundaries of a county every 10 years; they often stay the same for a century. Nor does it have much to do with natural population increase, which might push one group or another into a new proportional dominance within a certain geographical area. As it happens, there has been relatively little population growth in most parts of the country. 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.

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I accept the validity of this research, but I don’t think it necessarily undermines Mr. Bishop’s thesis. What if voters looked at the candidates in 2004 and decided—in clusters—that one of the nominees was the kind of person that they would like to have as neighbor, tennis partner or fellow-parishioner—and the other one simply wasn’t? This is how Mr. Bishop explains the results in 2004, and he makes a decent case.

Certainly it is a case that the two major parties have come to accept. Soon after the 2000 election, Bush pollster Matthew Dowd reported to Karl Rove that there wasn’t much point in focusing any campaign on independents or moderate voters anymore. The country was too polarized, essentially along the cultural lines that Mr. Bishop lays out. “If you drive a Volvo and do yoga, you are pretty much a Democrat,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said in 2004. “If you drive a Lincoln or a BMW and you own a gun, you’re voting for Bush.” Mr. Bishop would agree. He would simply add that the yoga people have clustered in one set of culturally segregated enclaves and the gun owners in another.

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