More on “The Big Sort”


We previously wrote about Bill Bishop’s new book, The Big Sort. The Economist now explores the issues in the book:

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.

County-level data understate the degree of ideological segregation, reckons Bill Bishop, the author of a gripping new book called “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart”. Counties can be big. Cook County, Illinois, (which includes Chicago), has over 5m inhabitants. Beaverhead County, Montana, covers 5,600 square miles (14,400 square kilometres). The neighbourhoods people care about are much smaller.

Americans move house often, usually for practical reasons. Before choosing a new neighbourhood, they drive around it. They notice whether it has gun shops, evangelical churches and “W” bumper stickers, or yoga classes and organic fruit shops. Perhaps unconsciously, they are drawn to places where they expect to fit in.

Where you live is partly determined by where you can afford to live, of course. But the “Big Sort” does not seem to be driven by economic factors. Income is a poor predictor of party preference in America; cultural factors matter more. For Americans who move to a new city, the choice is often not between a posh neighbourhood and a run-down one, but between several different neighbourhoods that are economically similar but culturally distinct.

For example, someone who works in Washington, DC, but wants to live in a suburb can commute either from Maryland or northern Virginia. Both states have equally leafy streets and good schools. But Virginia has plenty of conservative neighbourhoods with megachurches and Bushites you’ve heard of living on your block. In the posh suburbs of Maryland, by contrast, Republicans are as rare as unkempt lawns and yard signs proclaim that war is not the answer but Barack Obama might be.

. . .

Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbours leads over time to severe segregation. An accountant in Texas, for example, can live anywhere she wants, so the liberal ones move to the funky bits of Austin while the more conservative ones prefer the exurbs of Dallas. Conservative Californians can find refuge in Orange County or the Central Valley.

Over time, this means Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views. In a book called “Hearing the Other Side”, Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.

Intriguingly, the more educated Americans become, the more insular they are. (Hence Mr Miller’s confusion.) Better-educated people tend to be richer, so they have more choice about where they live. And they are more mobile. One study that covered most of the 1980s and 1990s found that 45% of young Americans with a college degree moved state within five years of graduating, whereas only 19% of those with only a high-school education did.

Read it all here.

do you think this is type of sorting is happening in our churches as well? Anything we can do about it?

Dislike (0)
5 Responses to "More on “The Big Sort”"
  1. Says The Economist:

    Americans move house often, usually for practical reasons. Before choosing a new neighbourhood, they drive around it. They notice whether it has gun shops, evangelical churches and "W" bumper stickers, or yoga classes and organic fruit shops. Perhaps unconsciously, they are drawn to places where they expect to fit in.

    Oh please. This is just as fatuous as the folk wisdom in The Life of David Gale that "You know you are in the Bible belt when there are more churches than Starbucks."

    My wife and I are both long-standing evangelicals. By some miracle, we have never taken the presence of gun shops, evangelical churches or "W" bumper stickers into account when choosing where we will live. I don't know a single evangelical who has done so. When we moved to our current home, we rejected other neighborhoods that were closer to my wife's work because they felt too far away from both Starbucks and movie theaters, although we watch movies at home.

    I think an alternative answer to Arthur Miller's rhetorical question ("How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?") simply was that Mr. Miller needed to broaden his social circle.

    If my friends are determined primarily by the neighborhood I live in or by ideological agreement, I'm not getting out enough.

    Like (0)
    Dislike (0)
  2. One quick correction: ". . . although we watch [most] movoies at home."

    Like (0)
    Dislike (0)
  3. Douglas:

    I agree that the Economist went over the top. And its notion of folks lookin gfor megachurches and gun chops is silly. It is also true, however, that the trend they report is occuring--we are dividing oursleves into enclaves of like-minded people more so in the past.

    My concern is whether this is occuring in our churches as well.

    Like (0)
    Dislike (0)
  4. Three years ago our community saw a small scale red state/blue state issue come up. Walmart proposed a supercenter in our town. As the shire town (or fairly self sufficient service center to put it less charmingly) for a population of about 6,000 people, we have Walmarts 30-45 minutes in three directions (30 minutes in the fourth direction plops you in the middle of the Gulf of Maine).

    Most people I knew were appalled at the prospect of a supercenter or a Walmart of any kind infecting our little town. Not one person within our social circle supported it.

    Before long an 86,000 square foot retail size cap was on the warrant for town meeting, and suddenly the people who have lived in this community for generations were coming out against it. Many people wanted a Walmart nearby. They wanted landowners and business owners to retain the freedom to do whatever they saw fit with their property. Many low and middle income people welcomed the low prices and local convenience. When confronted with the "high cost of low prices," their attitude was, "my life is too complicated and money is too tight for me to worry about all that."

    This was tough for many of us PFAs (people from away) who have chosen to live in this exceptional community, raise our children in a setting where they are known and cared about by many people, and who are by the virtue of our professional skills and education able to find a way to make a living here. We want to be liked by the local families and be on friendly terms.

    Not all local families and businesses were opposed to the size cap, but many were. For the first time in 20 years of living here, most of my adult life, uncomfortable class lines were drawn in ways that no one liked.

    Ultimately the retail size cap passed overwhelmingly in four contiguous towns along the midcoast, and Walmart has thus far been unsuccessful in beating local regulations of this type.

    Okay, we won. But I don't think anyone will forget what it felt like to sit in town meeting hearing passionate voices on both sides you both like and respect and disagree with with your whole heart. It was painful, but we lived and we would have lived even if a supercenter had been built. The fabric of our community is strong enough either way.

    Hmmm, community - communion.

    Maybe Damariscotta, Maine should send a couple of envoys to Lambeth.

    Like (0)
    Dislike (0)
  5. Dear Chuck,

    I think you ask a fair question about whether Big Sort choices are affecting church life. One easy indication is for readers to visit the Facebook pages of Episcopalians they know and see how many cross-ideological friendships they find.

    For what it's worth, my Facebook profile is here.

    Like (0)
    Dislike (0)