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Book review: The Big Sort

February 14, 2010

One of the problems with people getting new freedoms is that they’ll use it, and not always in the way you like.  Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort looks at what happens when people have the freedom to live wherever they like, thanks to greater job mobility and spreading prosperity.  The answer is, people like to live near people like them, and this means, among other things, that people will live next to those with similar cultural* and political beliefs.  This leads, organically and unintentionally, to communities where everyone marches in ideological lockstep.  Because of this sorting, he argues, political polarization gets worse, and, barring major changes, will only get worse in the future as people barricade themselves in politico-cultural echo-chambers.

Some choice quotes:

Regardless of demographic category – age, gender, religion, occupation – Pew found a difference in support for the war [remember, this was 2006] based on geography.  Labor union members were against the war in Democratic counties but for it in Republican counties [by 30%]; women were against the war in Democratic counties but for it in Republican counties [by 23%].  The partisanship of place overpowered the categories that researchers usually use to describe durable voting blocs.

There is a market demand now for “lifestyle” communities.  Developers built the Lareda Ranch subdivision in Orange County….into distinct groups.  There is “Covenant Hills” for the faithful (big family rooms and traditional suburban architecture) and “Terramor” for what the developers call the “cultural creatives” (bamboo floors and instead of a family room, a “culture room.”) [turns out marriage and family formation is a huge predictor of politics]….Responding to the demands of students, colleges offer “thematic housing.”  Two residence halls at Brandeis University are set aside for those interested in “Justice, Service & Change.”  Colgate has a foreign film dorm.  Union College has a residence based on recycling and the environment.  Wesleyan University has twenty-eight thematic dorms….Kids have grown up in neighborhoods of like-mindedness, so homogenous groups are considered normal.

My thoughts: To a large extent this sorting is a good thing!  People seem very willing to give up a certain amount of convenience (in location, price, or job opportunities) to cluster with those with whom they share a culture – therefore like-mindedness is a valuable thing to them, and their achievement of this like-mindedness should be celebrated.  Remember also Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s findings on the inverse relationship between neighborhood diversity and social cohesion.  While he rightly points out the benefits of immigration, his prescription for mitigation of this negative impact is by assimilation – that is, by decreasing cultural diversity.

And yet of course political polarization is a bad thing, leading to inability to pass good policy, let alone make compromises. But I think a major part of this problem is that these cultural enclaves are too small to have local political power – they can be as culturally echo chamber-y as they like, but they have little influence on their government.  Hence, a growing sense of disenfranchisement and resentment towards the fools on the other side of the fence.

Marginalized groups become more extreme – think of the birthers and the antiwar protesters.  The problem Bishop describes is a federalism of ideology in a country in which political power is increasingly centralized, with states and local government much less influential than they were at the founding of the republic.  The solution, it would seem, would be to devolve power to smaller polities whenever possible – not just “states’ rights,” states being too broad to enclose these cultural enclaves, but smaller units like cities and counties.  This serve as a release valve for frustration at being bundled into a country together with ideological enemies.  It would also act as a proving ground for what policies work and don’t work (part of the original motivation for federalism) and possibly modify political beliefs by forcing people to deal with the consequences of the policies they advocate.

*I use “cultural” in the sense of shared beliefs and lifestyles, rather than the folkways of a common homeland.  So, instead of kielbasa and lion dances, think SWPLs and rednecks, country-club professionals and media insiders.

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