Coining phrases appears to be one of the few growth industries left in the United States. ‘The Big Sort’ is not one of the better ones. Compared to ‘Nimbys’ or ‘Yuppies’ or ‘tipping point’ or ‘soccer moms’, the ‘Big Sort’ seems lame. But despite the over-reaching and aggrandising claims of author Bill Bishop, this ambitious book, however it is named, is worthy of our attention.
Playwright Arthur Miller lamented as George W Bush took the lead over John Kerry in 2004: ‘How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?’ The answer, as Bishop would have it, is the Big Sort. Americans are self-segregating, residing in like-minded neighbourhoods and avoiding others who do not believe in the same things. The US is a very mobile nation – some 10 million Americans move county each year. The most mobile – university graduates making above-average incomes – have become the most segregated of all. Arthur Miller probably knows no Republicans at all – and prefers it that way.
Some of Bishop’s arguments are obvious. Anyone driving through the United States can tell the difference between city neighbourhoods - with their fair-trade coffee and bookshops, Ethiopian restaurants, dogs named Che, Volvos and obligatory Priuses – and rural areas, replete with Applebees and pick-up trucks with rifles in the back and Lynrd Skynrd or country music blaring, a worn bumper sticker with an American flag declaring ‘Men Love Bush – Women Love Dick (Cheney)’, on their way to megachurches. Separation between black and white neighbourhoods has haunted this country for generations. Bishop repeats many of the points made in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone about the increasing isolation of Americans and the destruction of postwar institutions.
But Bishop argues convincingly that this familiar division is not only getting worse; the country is splintering further into tribes who have little to do with each other. As he shows, the red and blue states and counties are becoming deeper shades of red and blue. In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide (p9). In 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in counties where it was a landslide for one candidate or the other. In the 2006 mid-term elections, 69 percent of Democratic voters were strongly pro-choice, compared to 21 percent of Republicans. Only 16 percent of Democrats supported a constitutional ban on gay marriage, as opposed to 80 percent of Republicans (p27).
As Bishop says, the Big Sort ‘is not simply about political partisanship, how Americans vote every couple of years. It is a division in what they value, in how they worship, and in what they expect out of life’ (p13). The results of the Big Sort is ‘balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible,’ where ‘elections are not just contests over policies, but bitter choices about ways of life’ (p14). Not only do Americans live in separate neighbourhoods; they shop differently and even get their news filtered according to their perspectives – Fox News and the Washington Times for Republicans, the New York Times or the Washington Post and National Public Radio for Democrats.
Bishop’s book describes something real and gives insights into some difficult questions. For instance, why, when in the UK and throughout Western Europe, political parties have become irrelevant, do the Democratic and Republican parties, about whom George Wallace complained with some justification in 1968 that ‘there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between them’, continue to animate Americans? As Bishop shows, unlike in Europe, these parties have become badges to be worn, identifiers rather than real political choices. Conspiracy theories become more understandable in a climate where incomprehension of other ways of thinking reigns. Bishop is right that we no longer view each other as from the same species. Small wonder that, in such an atmosphere, ‘animal rights’ have become so popular in a country that was once impervious to such silliness. Just as we assign inhuman qualities to ‘them,’ so dogs named Che seem to take on ‘our’ characteristics. In that it provides food for thought and a way of thinking about our world, this book is valuable.
Bishop’s research on the religious proclivities of both sides demonstrates the Big Sort admirably. Though European readers will be familiar with the annoyingly arch and condescending reports about admittedly-weird American evangelical megachurches, Bishop’s exposition of liberal churches, blaring out Sting instead of hymns, filled with Wiccans and ‘neo-pagan’ pastors who feel that ‘the church needs to birthed within …indigenous cultures and take on that indigenous expression,’ is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a revelation.
That’s not to say the book is without problems. Some of the chapters are full of hokey psychological explanations. Chapter Three: ‘The Psychology of the Tribe’ appears to be cribbed from turn-of-the-century sociologist Gustave Le Bon’s Crowd Psychology. Bishop is a sucker for every pop-social and psychological theory of the past twenty years. Crowded with such theories and covering a huge historical period, Bishop constantly risks losing sight of the specificity of his own Big Sort. He also overstates his case. Race segregation is still the most powerful division between Americans, and African-American Democratic support, as he is forced to admit, is very different than white Democratic support.
I have a difficulty with Bishop’s explanation of the origin of the Big Sort. In an effort to big-up his theory, the last thirty years of history are reduced to a build-up to the Big Sort. Thus, for Bishop, the movement appears first as the political right are consigned to the political wilderness. But what Bishop describes is a much more recent phenomenon in the United States, and it appears to be the result of frustration on the part of a largely Democratic elite, and disbelief that the nation could vote for George W Bush. The hatred for Bush has no presidential precedent, at least since Richard Nixon; hatred for Bill Clinton could be whipped up only in Congress. Newt Gingrich’s campaign fell flat outside Capitol Hill and even Monicagate hardly hurt the Democrats. Whereas Reagan was attacked for what some saw as dimness, most attacks on him were expressed politically. The personal vitriol against Bush is novel and has received political expression recently in political science tracts (1).
While this book contains important insights, some of its conclusions are disturbing. Bishop condemns ‘extreme’ politics, and lauds instead the political disinterest of the 1950s: ‘Having a good number of people who didn’t care much about politics was just as vital to democratic government as having the voting booths filled with eager supporters of both sides’ (p291). Bishop, who chose to live in an area where in 2000 Bush trailed behind both Al Gore and Ralph Nader, is doubtless part of that elite that would like to return politics to the professionals.
1) See, for instance, Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol, eds., Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005)