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The Big Sort
June 22, 2008 11:21 AM   Subscribe

"Bishop contends that as Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics. There are endless variations of this clustering—what Bishop dubs the Big Sort—as like-minded Americans self-segregate in states, cities—even neighborhoods. Consequences of the Big Sort are dire: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life. " Article about the book from the Economist. Book's Website. A review.
posted by wittgenstein (49 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wait, he thinks that this is in some way new? We're not just coming down from a mid-century surge of worldliness?
posted by hattifattener at 11:31 AM on June 22, 2008


Yes, mass homogenization is so much more ideal.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 11:41 AM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I don't think this is new like he thinks it is.
posted by Arturus at 11:44 AM on June 22, 2008


Let me sum up this book and so many others:


"It was all so much better before!"
posted by tkolar at 11:46 AM on June 22, 2008 [7 favorites]


I disagree with this to an extent. I think the problem is that George Bush and his gang really pushed this 'us versus them' no commonality, no compromise politics to an extreme. And it was re-enforced with their allies, the Clear Channel's talk radio hosts. This is a recent artificial condition.

There have always been more and less conservative communities since time immemorial. But there are also lots of cutural cross-links that can compensate and defocus the differences, But a country's leadership can play with a public's emotions and accentuate the differences. Just look at Rwanda to see what can happen.

The Internet is a good cross-link force in society. (I once knew a German word that sociologists use to describe this, but I've forgotten it). People can self-segregate, but there is so much on the Internet, that it is hard to keep it up for long. People in Peoria who are into BMWs are going to read and post on sites with people from San Francisco, and they despite their politics, they will make friends.

Wait a few years and see if this concept looks dated.
posted by eye of newt at 11:49 AM on June 22, 2008


Yeah, I don't think this is new like he thinks it is.

Or, in fact, a specifically American phenonemon.

Heck, this has been going on in Europe for 3000 years and the result is a continent 30 souvereign countries with two dozen different languages (or more).
By comparison, the US is totally homogenous. There is a difference in accents between east coast and west coast, but it is negligible compared to what you have in Europe. The same is true, more or less, for world views. E.g. the difference between Republican and Democrat politics is much narrower than the difference between the parliamentary extremes in, say, Italy, France or Germany.
posted by sour cream at 11:51 AM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


It's not new but the evidence suggests it's intensified.
A good way to measure this is to look at the country's changing electoral geography. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 50.1% of the popular vote. Though the race was close, some 26.8% of Americans were in “landslide counties” that year, where Mr Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.

The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then. In the dead-heat election of 2000, it was 45.3%. When George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, it was a whopping 48.3%. As the playwright Arthur Miller put it that year: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?” Clustering is how.

This has a lot to do with mobility and cheap transport (where you work, etc., is a weak constraint on where you live). So the trend should reverse itself as energy prices accelerate.
posted by grobstein at 11:59 AM on June 22, 2008


i dunno, my neighborhood is a fucking Tower Of Babel and I like it that way.
posted by jonmc at 12:13 PM on June 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


landslide counties

A meaningless metric. Minnesota has 87 counties. Roughly 1/4 of the state's population lives in just one of them (Hennepin). Using "landslide counties" as a metric skews overwhelmingly towards the sparse and rural against the urban and concentrated.
posted by gimonca at 12:13 PM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


A meaningless metric. Minnesota has 87 counties.

real meaningless as a look at the maps reveals that minnesota, wisconsin and michigan haven't increased the number of landslide counties like the rest of the country has

one of the things about the smaller midwestern cities is that they're not big enough for people to sort themselves out like this - conservatives and liberals end up having to cooperate, although lately, it's been more difficult to have them do it
posted by pyramid termite at 12:24 PM on June 22, 2008


So, this great polarization of American civic life, how exactly does it square with a Democratic Congress that takes impeachment off the table, and is about to pass into law the telco amnesty bill?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:24 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then.
Isn't that explained (at least partially) by gerrymandering?
posted by Leon at 12:24 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


> People can self-segregate, but there is so much on the Internet, that it is hard to keep it up for long.

I'm not sure I agree with this. If anything, the Internet makes it easier to self-segregate. On the Internet, if you choose, you can surround yourself with people who think virtually the same way you do, and reinforce your own beliefs regardless of how fringe they may be in your IRL community.

In most places, if you're a white supremacist, you're probably only going to have a few other people around who share your beliefs that you can get all white-supremacisty with. But on the Internet, you can find tons of other people -- turning what might once have felt like a fringe belief into something acceptable and mainstream. The Internet is a powerful echo chamber.

When you have that sort of reinforcement, it's a lot easier to ignore the moderating influence of real-world community norms (for better and worse).

While it's certainly true that the Internet can expose you to radically different viewpoints, that's only true if you're looking for that sort of difference. If all you want is reinforcement of what you already believe, and the ability to surround yourself with people who are just like you, the Internet provides an exceptional venue.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:24 PM on June 22, 2008 [21 favorites]


A meaningless metric. Minnesota has 87 counties. Roughly 1/4 of the state's population lives in just one of them (Hennepin). Using "landslide counties" as a metric skews overwhelmingly towards the sparse and rural against the urban and concentrated.

I would agree if they were just counting the number of landslide counties, but they are using the percent of the population residing in landslide counties. Thus Hennepin gets a 1/4 weight, not a 1/87 weight.
posted by thrako at 12:25 PM on June 22, 2008


I do get the impression that we're clustering differently than we used to — doing it primarily by politics and "lifestyle" (whatever the hell that is) rather than language and "ethnicity" (whatever the hell that is). Gay vacation hotspots and Burning Man rather than the Borscht Belt. Goth Night rather than the Polish Falcons of America. That sort of thing.

But then that's just an impression. I have no idea if real demographic statistics would back it up.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:25 PM on June 22, 2008


The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then.

Isn't that explained (at least partially) by gerrymandering?


Gerrymandering sets congressional district boundaries, not county lines.
posted by thrako at 12:27 PM on June 22, 2008


Does this indicate the US is broken, or working as designed? Isn't the whole intent of many states with independent law-making powers to allow people to cluster together with like-minded folks and create communities that reflect their shared values within the greater framework?
posted by rodgerd at 12:27 PM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


When you have that sort of reinforcement, it's a lot easier to ignore the moderating influence of real-world community norms (for better and worse).

While it's certainly true that the Internet can expose you to radically different viewpoints, that's only true if you're looking for that sort of difference. If all you want is reinforcement of what you already believe, and the ability to surround yourself with people who are just like you, the Internet provides an exceptional venue.


Thus the fact that we all know what furries are now.
posted by Caduceus at 12:41 PM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I kinda feel that balkanizing this soon-to-be-failed empire wouldn't be a bad thing.
posted by sourwookie at 12:44 PM on June 22, 2008


Does this indicate the US is broken, or working as designed? Isn't the whole intent of many states with independent law-making powers to allow people to cluster together with like-minded folks and create communities that reflect their shared values within the greater framework?

Well, the states have a lot less independent law-making power than they used to. Whether or not you like that fact, it does mean that the various states have to get along a lot more in order to get things done, making this sort of clustering kind of a hassle.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:46 PM on June 22, 2008


Wait a few years and see if this concept looks dated.

It's already dated.

The basic concept of moving to places you like better is just Tiebout sorting from *google* 1956.

The more specific idea of living around people similar to you can be directly traced to Schelling 1971.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:47 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Does this indicate the US is broken, or working as designed?

You'll never go broke telling a certain audience that:
a) things are worse than they used to be
and
b) things in the US are terrible and have no chance to get better.

I'm sure if I did a search i could find a dozen posts about how horrible the US is for the exact opposite reason: "everything is so homogenous, McDonald's replacing main street blah blah blah"

Of the many many flaws in this argument, i think one of the biggest is that it assumes presidential politics is the be-all end-all of who the American people are and how they think. What about republican Mitt Romney being governor of Mass.? What about Arnold being governor of CA? What about Arnold, the republican, coming out AGAINST the amendment banning gay marriage?

I look around me and I just don't see this. Fifty years ago most parts of this country were completely racially segregated. Things have changed, for the better. They're far from perfect, but a cool, logical look not designed to sell books will tell you they ARE better.

You want to see "polarized," watch some footage from 1968.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:52 PM on June 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


Also, the latest polls show Barack Obama ahead by a few points in VA and GA, and close in NC and Mississippi. How do you think he would have done in Mississippi in 1960?
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:54 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think what this is actually showing is a change from ethnic/racial segregation into 'lifestyle' segregation. Since lifestyle more closely correlates with voting then ethnicity (in most cases) you get this effect. I'd definitely bet that if you looked at ethnic segregation in this country over the past few decades, you'd find a lot less.

i dunno, my neighborhood is a fucking Tower Of Babel and I like it that way.

Yeah, but how many of those people are bush-loving republicans?
posted by delmoi at 12:54 PM on June 22, 2008


High Rise
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:03 PM on June 22, 2008


Hmm, seems like the 1800 - 1900's had massive ethnic ghettos in all of the major US cities; these persist to some extent today, but are nowhere near what they were back then ("No Irish Need Apply, etc). Forced segregation was technically outlawed in the 1970s- while it still exists in terms of realtor redlining, etc, it's far better than it was.
posted by jenkinsEar at 1:03 PM on June 22, 2008


Yeah, but how many of those people are bush-loving republicans?

a not insignificant chunk based on bumperstickers and the like. and even the Democrats here are not as knee-jerk as you'd see in say, williamsburg. There's roughly a quarter of a million people in what's decribed as my nieghborhood and trying to pigeonhole that many people (especially in what the Census Bureau has determined is the most ethnically diverse county in the nation) is futile. and I'd bet the same holds true of a lot of the country. people tend to socialize with like minded people, that dosen't neccessarily mean that everybody who lives near them is like minded, and running up against people who think different from you is healthy and neccessary.
posted by jonmc at 1:28 PM on June 22, 2008


I think the problem is that George Bush and his gang really pushed this 'us versus them' no commonality

And Clinton's 51-percent strategy before that, Nixon's Southern Strategy before then...

Riling up the masses with fear of the Other is a lot older than this administration. I'm sure we could go all Greco-Roman with this if we wanted to.
posted by rokusan at 1:35 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


to elaborate: the borough of Queens, NY is a bubbling stew of ethnic, economic, racial and political differences that manages to exist relatively harmoniously*. This is both the reason I love living here and a reason to retain faith in both this city and this country.

* for example: a few years ago, I was enjoying a couple beers at my corner bar while my laundry was in the dry cycle. I wandered in and the only people in the place besides me were the bartender (a kid from Venezeula who has since become a cop) and an old man straight out of Central casting for Old Immigrant Patriarch: short-sleeved white shirt, khaki pants, thick glasses, moustache, etc. I put a few bucks in the jukebox, and one of my songs was 'Suspicious Minds,' which got Pops dancing on his stool. 'You like that song?" I asked eager to make conversation. "Oh, yeah' he said and we shot the shit for awhile. Later he said "I live here 30 years," "Is that when you came over from Greece?" I asked (on our block, it's predominately Greek). "No. No Greece." "Italy?" "No," he got up from his stool, "I'm gonna take a leak, when I get back you guess where I'm from!"

He walked off. I looked at the bartender. He shrugged and said "Fuck if I know." When he returned, he said "Give Up? I am Malta!"

A few weeks later ona cab ride I learned that here was a 'Maltese-American Society" a few blocks away. I love this city.

posted by jonmc at 1:42 PM on June 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


I guess the kids have to go somewhere when they get off my lawn.
posted by srboisvert at 1:45 PM on June 22, 2008


I like to identify with the winers and the wealthy. Around election time, I buy a Support X sticker for each party and as soon as results in I paste in on my car bumper. I had moved qwhen the GOP took over and it looks like I may have to move again in the next election. Is the moving cost deductible?
posted by Postroad at 1:57 PM on June 22, 2008


If all you want is reinforcement of what you already believe, and the ability to surround yourself with people who are just like you, the Internet provides an exceptional venue.

I was just going to write that!


...which is kind of worrying, considering the context.
posted by martinrebas at 2:16 PM on June 22, 2008


As a gay moderate-liberal who moved from deep blue District of Columbia to moderate-red San Diego County to blue Galveston Island to red-but-rapidly-changing suburban Houston, my own experience doesn't jibe with this.

Or maybe I'm just a contrarian.

Or maybe I make my choices about where to lived based on criteria other than politics.
posted by Robert Angelo at 2:56 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


jonmc: A whitebread exurb is not the only outlet for living among people like yourself. People are drawn to eclectic urban centers because they're eclectic urban center types. You are no more challenged by your quirky ethnic neighbors than a suburbanite is by his suburbanite brethren. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Being challenged means fundamental discomfort and insurmountable alienation. It means being where you don't belong. Liking where you live is the most basic disqualification.

The problem is mass segregation based on individual preference implies local homogenization. It's important to realize that traditional markers (race, wealth, education) are not exclusive or even the most important. Everything, down to vibes and aesthetics, assists people in their largely unconscious quest to find surroundings that remind them of themselves.

It should be obvious this applies to more than just housing and neighborhoods.

Being forced to do things you would never choose to do is the key to personal growth and national health, but only to the degree it degrades your quality of life and impinges on your natural rights. This is pretty great.
posted by Ictus at 3:10 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


as Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics

What an astute observation. Now I'm gonna move back to the midwest and get a house in the suburbs so that I can be around all the god-fearing, family-values conservatives whom I was so glad to get away from in the first place.

So who's with me?
posted by Afroblanco at 3:20 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


what almost everybody else said, this is bullshit, and very easily disprovable bullshit at that -- it's a weak high-concept fallacious premise for your average pop sociology book, coming soon to a remainders bin near you. bullshit that went unsurprisingly undetected by the Economist, with its record of smugly getting everything wrong about America about 100% of the time -- their dire prediction of economic doom in 1996 unless Bob Dole won the general election because Bill Clinton would clearly give the US a recession is still cause of thigh-slapping mirth among those of us who still remember it. and it's almost as funny as their current campy infatuation for John McCain, whom they mysteriously keep calling a "maverick" who, in the Economist's imagination, constantly created bipartisan legislation and opposed much of Bush's foreign policy.
posted by matteo at 3:22 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Come on now, you guys ARE worried about the Big Sort, right? Don't be hypocrites now.

BTW - given my impending move to the midwest, I'll be leaving my 5th-floor walkup in the East Village vacant. So if anyone out there is an evolution-denying Bush voter who would like a sweet apartment in lower Manhattan, my email is in my profile.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:23 PM on June 22, 2008


Ictus: there's a pretty large contingent of immigrants from the Midwest who came here to be artists but couldn't afford Manhattan as well. They seem, as compared to other NYC neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, content to become part of the neighborhood, rather than take it over. And yes, as the descendant of working-class Catholic immigrants, I don't exactly stick out like a sore thumb here, but from even casual observation, it's difficult to figure out what would (and, no, the easy answer of gayfolk is wrong. there's a drag bar walking distance from here, and I had a gay couple help guide me home during the blackout a few years back). I'm not saying I live in cumbaya-land, just that the stewpot of diversity (of all kinds) is alive, and I don't think Astoria is the only place. and it isn't an 'eclectic urban center' in the sense that some otherneighborhoods are. It's not an artsy area, it's mostly skilled blue-collar and low-level white-collar people here. I'll bet you any thing other cities have areas like this, it just hasn't made any Lifestyle columns yet.
posted by jonmc at 3:28 PM on June 22, 2008


Being challenged means fundamental discomfort and insurmountable alienation. It means being where you don't belong.

Only if you are incapable of relating to people simply as fellow humans.
posted by jonmc at 3:31 PM on June 22, 2008



I do get the impression that we're clustering differently than we used to — doing it primarily by politics and "lifestyle" (whatever the hell that is) rather than language and "ethnicity" (whatever the hell that is).


It's funny because for a long time I lived with several roommates from different countries: Mexico, Sudan, Dubai, India, and Japan. One time I recall listening to them talk about indie bands and I thought to myself how I have relatives in rural areas of Arkansas who have the same heritage, race, and language as me...but I would never want to live with them.
posted by melissam at 3:37 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


jonmc
but from even casual observation, it's difficult to figure out what would (and, no, the easy answer of gayfolk is wrong.

Well, the "easy answer" wouldn't be "gayfolk" in the situation you've described, but Afroblanco's family-values Bible-thumping "evolution-denying Bush voter". You have Midwesterners, sure, but I seriously doubt you have people like that (especially Midwesterners who came to New York to be artists). Such a person would probably be very, very uncomfortable in the place you've described, especially because of the drag bar nearby. I'm not saying your place isn't diverse, but as others have said, diversity isn't just class, ethnicity, and geography.
posted by Sangermaine at 4:09 PM on June 22, 2008


This article is pretty ridiculous. How many people do you know have moved somewhere to be close to those who share their politcal affiliation? Perhaps this happens occasionally, but I think most people are more likely to move because of job opportunities, cost of living, climate, etc.

Most of suburban America is very similar. Maybe a county usually though of as conservative will vote 65-35 Republican and a liberal county might vote 65-35 Democratic, but that seems a rather superficial difference. Not something that would be a huge determining factor in a moving decision.
posted by wigglin at 4:11 PM on June 22, 2008


Such a person would probably be very, very uncomfortable in the place you've described, especially because of the drag bar nearby. I'm not saying your place isn't diverse, but as others have said, diversity isn't just class, ethnicity, and geography.

I've run into more than a few Jesus-freaks, too, even here in New York. We're talking millions of people in a lot of these cities. Quit trying to pigeonhole.
posted by jonmc at 4:44 PM on June 22, 2008


You have Midwesterners, sure, but I seriously doubt you have people like that (especially Midwesterners who came to New York to be artists). Such a person would probably be very, very uncomfortable in the place you've described, especially because of the drag bar nearby.

yeah, because we don't have transvestites or gay bars in the midwest, do we? or hindu temples or mosques or places called the "halal depot" or korean churches or ...

you haven't been to the midwest lately, have you? it's a lot more diverse than it used to be
posted by pyramid termite at 5:47 PM on June 22, 2008


As far as the idea of a "balkanized america" can go, it seems to be much more of a cultural phenomenon than geographic, and i think it relates to what Orlando Patterson was talking about on Bill Moyers in his hopes for an "ecumenical" vs. a "multi-cultural" america emerging out of the Obama campaign.

http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06202008/watch3.html

BILL MOYERS: Whether Obama wins or loses, does his campaign symbolize the great changes of the last 50 years? You talked about those. And is this a defining moment for race in America?

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Absolutely. What he embodies one America, I call ecumenical America. I see not one but three Americas. There's a traditional America, there's a multicultural America-

BILL MOYERS: How is ecumenical America different from multicultural America?

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Oh, multicultural America is a salad bowl in which everyone does their own thing and couldn't give a damn about what's going on elsewhere. Identity politics is almost mean-spirited about, you know, we'll attend the parade on St. Patrick's Day but, you know, we don't want to know you.

And a genuine intercultural America, it knows the other, and is involved with the other. And in a way, Obama embodies that. And it's very appealing, especially to a younger generation of America now, there's a huge divide in terms of age in America. Between people under, say, 45 and people above. And, I mean, it can be it comes out in every poll done. But you see it visibly.

I used to live a block away from a public school which you looked at, Cambridge Rindge and Latin, which is a very diverse multicultural school genuine. And I used to just love walks through that school because you see these young kids, their interaction with each other is like nothing a person over 50 can understand. And the reason for the appeal to younger people is that indeed he represents this intercultural America, I call it ecumenical, because there is a common culture there, a common culture which black Americans contribute to enormously, even as they were excluded. And--

BILL MOYERS: Through music, and art, and-

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Yes. And styles of living-

BILL MOYERS: Sure. Language-

ORLANDO PATTERSON: --language.

BILL MOYERS: --yes, language.

ORLANDO PATTERSON: Fist-bumping and arm, what have you. I mean, it's

BILL MOYERS: Fist-bumping?

ORLANDO PATTERSON: I mean, and the over-50s don't know about that. But, I mean you know, that's their problem. So and he embodies that and represents that.

posted by eustatic at 7:57 PM on June 22, 2008


pyramid termite: yeah, because we don't have transvestites or gay bars in the midwest, do we? or hindu temples or mosques or places called the "halal depot" or korean churches or ...

I often feel that small-city progressives have two fronts they need to deal with, conservatives in their own community, and urbanists who accept the conservative framing that the "heartland" is one homogenous mass.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:00 AM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I certainly see it in L.A. The kind of people who live in Silver Lake are very different from the kind of people who live in, say, Bel Air or Beverly Hills, and it's not just socio-economic. Wanting to live in a funky, artsy neighborhood implies a different kind of person than wanting to live in a stuck-up, snooty neighborhood. Thus, people sort themselves out - he's saying it happens at a neighborhood level, and I certainly see it.
posted by MythMaker at 9:12 AM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Only if you are incapable of relating to people simply as fellow humans."

You are not your demographics.
posted by Eideteker at 1:09 PM on June 23, 2008



I think there is a real sort going on by class and education and that *is* dire. If you are in a situation where higher prices mean a few less lattes and you never meet someone for whom higher prices genuinely threatens their ability to feed their family-- as many of us increasingly are-- it's troubling.

The Ivy League schools and other elite institutions are seeing more extremely rich people and fewer lower middle class and poor and it's in part because the institutions and child-rearing styles the rich and poor have access to are so different as to be virtually alien cultures. Lots of other things are getting stratified by class and we are in danger of winding up with a situation where there is a tiny oligarchy surrounded by mainly impoverished people.

there are fewer situations-- like public schools, state colleges and traditionally, the military-- where young people interact across class in nonhierarchical situations. if the only poor people you meet are on your volunteer vacations when you try to help, you have a very different level of connection with them then if you go to school with them or are in the army together.

of course, there was always class stratification in the U.S., but there's pretty good data suggesting that it has gotten worse over the last few decades and also good data that more and more of us are not only typically interacting only with people like us, we're interacting with others less overall. 25% of Americans live alone and something like the same number report no one to confide in.

And there certainly is new research suggesting that when people hang out only in like-minded groups, their views get more extreme and I do think we can see some of that

That's a pretty isolated society.
posted by Maias at 4:51 PM on June 23, 2008


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