The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008 - Political Science - 370 pages
The untold story of why America is so culturally and politically divided

America may be more diverse than ever coast to coast, but the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote as we do. This social transformation didn't happed by accident. We’ve built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood -- and religion and news show -- most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this way-of-life segregation. Our country has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live just a few miles away. The reason for this situation, and the dire implications for our country, is the subject of this groundbreaking work.

In 2004, the journalist Bill Bishop, armed with original and startling demographic data, made national news in a series of articles showing how Americans have been sorting themselves over the past three decades into alarmingly homogeneous communities -- not by region or by red state or blue state, but by city and even neighborhood. In The Big Sort, Bishop deepens his analysis in a brilliantly reported book that makes its case from the ground up, starting with stories about how we live today and then drawing on history, economics, and our changing political landscape to create one of the most compelling big-picture accounts of America in recent memory.

The Big Sort will draw comparisons to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone and Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class and will redefine the way Americans think about themselves for decades to come.

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User Review  - Miro - LibraryThing

In this interesting book Bill Bishop describes the polarization of American politics from 1965 onwards. He is fairly obviously a Democrat but goes out of his way to speak to new millennium Republicans ... Read full review

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User Review  - rsubber - LibraryThing

Most provocative book I've read on American life since Jane Jacobs' "Death and Life of Great American Cities." Bishop says gerrymandering isn't the key cause of entrenched Washington members of ... Read full review

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The Age of Political Segregation
The Politics of Migration
The Psychology of the Tribe
The Silent Revolution
Culture Shift The 1965 Unraveling
The Beginning of Division Beauty and Salvation in 1974
The Economics of the Big Sort Culture and Growth in the 1990s
The Way We Live Today
Lifestyle Books Beer Bikes and Birkenstocks
The Politics of People Like Us
Choosing a Side
The Big Sort Campaign
To Marry Your Enemies
Selected Bibliography

Religion The Missionary and the Megachurch
Advertising Grace Slick Tricia Nixon and You

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About the author (2008)


You don''t know me, but you don''t like me.-- Homer Joy, "Streets of Bakersfield"

How can the polls be neck and neck when I don''t know one Bush supporter?
-- Arthur Miller

In the spring before the 2004 election, I heard from LaHonda Jo Morgan. Jo Morgan lived in Wauconda, Washington, a one-building town (combination grocery, caf , and post office) about 150 miles northwest of Spokane. She was convinced that Wauconda remained on the map "simply because mapmakers don''t like to leave a lot of empty space on their products." Jo Morgan was writing about segregation -- political segregation. She had seen an article I had written about the tendency of places to become politically like- minded, either increasingly Republican or Democratic. She noticed that the article came from Austin, her hometown. So she recounted that through fifty years of marriage, she had lived in a number of places across the United States and elsewhere in the world. And then she described a change she had noticed taking place in Wauconda:

This is a predominantly conservative area with most residents tied to ranching, mining and apple orchards. A few years back I began to feel somewhat disconnected in my church community, but I chalked that up to the struggle between pre- and post-Vatican II concerns. Since the strife of the 2000 election, I became increasingly uncomfortable in conversations in a variety of situations. Perhaps I had more flexible views because of having been exposed to different cultures. In fact, I felt like a second-class citizen, not entitled to have opinions. I even wondered if I [was] becoming paranoid since being widowed.
Of course, now I understand. Increasing divisiveness arising from political partisanship is giving rise to the same sort of treatment I observed growing up in racially segregated Texas, only now it is directed at people who think differently from the majority population of an area. Sort of scary, isn''t it?

Jo Morgan was right about Wauconda changing. In 1976, Okanogan County in Washington had split fifty-fifty in the nearly fifty-fifty race between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. That made sense. Americans in 1976 were more likely to live close to somebody who voted differently from themselves than at any time since the end of World War II. And then, like the rest of the country, Jo Morgan''s community changed. Okanogan County went for Clinton in 1992 and then veered Republican, strongly so, in the next three elections. In 2000, 68 percent of Okanogan County voted for George W. Bush. No wonder Jo Morgan felt lonely.

Bonfire of the Yard Signs But "scary"? I kept a file of the more outrageous examples of political anger in 2004. They ranged from the psychotic to the merely sad. There was the Sarasota, Florida, man who swerved his Cadillac toward Representative Katherine Harris as she campaigned on a street corner. (Harris had been the Republican secretary of state in Florida during the presidential vote recount in 2000.) "I was exercising my political expression," Barry Seltzer told police. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported just a week before the election that "when an 18-year-old couldn''t convince his girlfriend that George W. Bush was the right choice for president, he became enraged, put a screwdriver to her throat and threatened to kill her." The man told her that if she didn''t change her vote, she wouldn''t "live to see the next election." Two old friends arguing about the war in Iraq at an Eastern Kentucky flea market both pulled their guns when they got tired of talking. Douglas Moore, age sixty-five, killed Harold Wayne Smith because, a witness said, "Doug was just quicker." The destruction of campaign yard signs and the vandalism of campaign headquarters was epidemic in 2004. The Lafayette, Louisiana, Democratic Party headquarters was struck twice; in the second assault, miscreants wrote "4 + GWB" on the building''s front windows in a mixture of motor oil and ashes collected from burned John Kerry signs. The most pathetic display of partisan havoc started at the Owens Crossroads United Methodist Church near Huntsville, Alabama. The youth minister at the church sent children on a "scavenger hunt" shortly before the election. On the list of items to be retrieved were John Kerry campaign signs. Once the kids toted the placards back to the church, the minister piled them in the parking lot and set the signs on fire. The scavengers did the best they could, but in Republican Huntsville they found only eight signs, barely enough for kindling. Had the same hunt taken place in, say, Seattle, the kids could have rounded up enough fuel to signal the space shuttle.
Living as a political minnority is often uncomfortable and at times frightening. In 2000, more than eight out of ten voters in the Texas Hill Country''s Gillespie County cassssst ballots for Bush. Two years later, Democrats prepared a float for the Fourth of July parade in the county seat of Fredericksburg. "We got it all decorated," county party chairman George Keller recalled, "but nobody wanted to ride." Nobody wanted to risk the stigma of being identified as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican area. "Thank goodness we got rained out," Keller said of the orphaned float.
Gerald Daugherty used to live in the hip and shady section of Austin known as Clarksville. When he became active in a campaign against a proposal to build a light rail system in town, Daugherty put no light rail bumper stickers on his car and on his wife''s Mercedes. That apparently didn''t go over too well in Democratic and pro-rail Clarksville. Somebody "keyed" the Mercedes at the local grocery and for good measure punched out the car''s turn signal lights. Was Daugherty sure the damage had been politically motivated? Not really. But then one morning he found his car coated with eggs. "There must have been two dozen eggs all over my car," he remembered. "Splattered. And then deliberately rubbed on the ''No Rail'' bumper stickers. You knew where that was coming from." So Daugherty sold his house in a precinct that gave George W. Bush only 20 percent of the vote against Al Gore. He bought a place in a precinct where two out of three people voted Republican in the same election. Two years later, Daugherty became the only Republican elected to the county governing body. His move out of Clarksville, he admits, was a political exodus. He left a place where he "stuck out like a sore thumb" and moved to a neighborhood that was more ideologically congenial. He reasoned, "You really do recognize when you aren''t in step with the community you live in." People don''t check voting records before deciding where to live. Why would anyone bother? In a time of political segregation, it''s simple enough to tell a place''s politics just by looking. Before the 2006 midterm elections, marketing firms held focus groups and fielded polls, scouring the countryside to find the giveaway to a person''s political inclination. Using the most sophisticated techniques of market profiling, these firms compiled a rather unsurprising list of attributes.
Democrats want to live by their own rules. They hang out with friends at parks or other public places. They think that religion and politics shouldn''t mix. Democrats watch Sunday morning news shows and late-night television. They listen to morning radio, read weekly newsmagazines, watch network television, read music and lifestyle publications, and are inclined to belong to a DVD rental service. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to own cats.
Republicans go to church. They spend more time with family, get their news from Fox News or the radio, and own guns. Republicans read sports and home magazines, attend Bible study, frequently visit relatives, and talk about politics with people at church. They believe that people should take more responsibility for their lives, and they think that overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorists. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to own dogs.
None of this is particularly shocking. We''ve all learned by now that Republicans watch Fox News and Democrats are less likely to attend church. Okay, the DVD rental clue is a surprise, and Democrats in my part of town own plenty of dogs, but basically we all know these differences. What is new is that some of us appear to be acting on this knowledge. An Episcopal priest told me he had moved from the reliably Republican Louisville, Kentucky, suburbs to an older city neighborhood so that he could be within walking distance of produce stands, restaurants, and coffee shops -- and to be among other Democrats. A journalism professor at the University of North Carolina told me that when he retired, he moved to a more urban part of Chapel Hill to escape Republican neighbors. A new resident of a Dallas exurb told a New York Times reporter that she stayed away from liberal Austin when considering a move from Wisconsin, choosing the Dallas suburb of Frisco instead. "Politically, I feel a lot more at home here," she explained. People don''t need to check voting records to know the political flavor of a community. They can smell it.

Picking a Party, Choosing a Life To explain how people choose which political party to join, Donald Green, a Yale political scientist, described two social events. Imagine that you are walking down a hall, Green said. Through one door is a cocktail party filled with Democrats. Through another is a party of Republicans. You look in at both, and then you ask yourself some questions: "Which one is filled with people that you most closely identify with? Not necessarily the people who would agree were you to talk policy with them. Which group most closely reflects your own sense of group self-conception? Which ones would you like to have your sons and daugh

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