Saturday, July 12, 2008

"The Big Sort", by Bill Bishop

Now that Bill Clinton is using my friend Bill Bishop's book "The Big Sort" as the basis for his current speeches, I should finally have some kind of comment here. I read "The Big Sort" as soon as it was published and liked it, but not being one who regularly picks up social science books on political culture, I procrastinated. Here, now, are a few observations.

"The Big Sort" refers to the fact that lifestyle choices are causing like-minded folks to live together in communities where they feel comfortable and perhaps unchallenged. That has significant ramifications for our country's political and social development. To quote the book, "The lesson for politics and culture is pretty clear: It doesn't seem to matter if you're a frat boy, a French high school student, a petty criminal, or a federal appeals court judge. Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes."

The fact that Republican strategists understood this well before the Democrats is detailed in a discussion with Matthew Dowd, George Bush's pollster in the 2000 election and chief strategist for the Bush campaign in 2004. According to Bishop's account, Dowd understood that "American communities were 'becoming very homogeneous'. He believed that to a large degree, this clustering was defensive, the general reaction to a society, a country, and a world that were largely beyond an individual's control or understanding. For generations, people had used their clubs, their trust in a national government, and long-established religious denominations to make sense of the world. But those old institutions no longer provided a safe harbor. 'What I think has happened,' Dowd told me early in the summer of 2005, 'is the general anxiety the country feels is building. We're no longer anchored." Bishop decodes this further, saying "Unsurpassed prosperity had enriched Americans---and it had loosened long-established social moorings. Americans were scrambling to find a secure place, to make a secure place...Most Americans have done that by seeking out(or perhaps just gravitating toward) those who share their lifeworlds---made up of old, fundamental differences such as race, class, gender, and age, but also, now more than ever, personal tastes, beliefs, styles, opinions, and values."

"The Big Sort" identifies 1965 as the beginning of the major shift in American political and social demographics. The result today, in a political sense, is underscored by the findings of Bishop and his sociologist/demographer contributor Robert Cushing. Statistics showed that in the 1976 presidential election only 20% of Americans lived in counties that voted for one candidate or the other by more than a 20% margin. By 2004, 48% of America's counties were this type of landslide county with 20% plus margins for one of the candidates. Big change.

Bishop's book manages to deal with this subject comprehensively while being fluidly written, informative, insightful and even entertaining. Somehow he pulls off the trick of letting us know of his participation in the "clustering" by living in a liberal Austin neighborhood where he fits in, without upsetting the balanced analytical perspective of the book. At least that's my take on it. It's an important book that seems to be gaining deserved recognition as we move toward November 4.

Remembering Hendrix's shout before a solo in "Are You Experienced" of "let Jimi take over", I'll add a perspective. What if this big sort, this "clustering of like-minded America" is not only "tearing us apart" but diminishing the lives of those who find themselves with their lifestyle choice fulfilled around them. A few years ago, a guy named Socrates said that "the unexamined life is not worth living", and one could hypothesize that there are few exams required within these concentrated clusters. This thought hit me as I was reading an essay by James Wood that is totally unrelated to politics. In this essay, "Hysterical Realism", Wood is reviewing a series of highly regarded current novels whose characters are to Wood less than fully developed. When he writes, "After all, hell is other people, actually; real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections which are finally merely conceptual rather than human.", it raised a question in my mind. Could the clusters of like-minded Americans be in the paradoxical position of coming together with their own kind and finding that meaningful interaction is unnecessary. What kind of experience is that.

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