Bill Bishop

In The Big Sort, the Austin political blogger and Pulitzer finalist addresses America’s tendency to segment itself into tiny, like-minded groups (a phenomenon he calls clustering).

How did the “big sort” notion come to be, and what does it signify?

[Sociologist] Robert Cushing and I began exploring why some places produced technology and patents while others seemed to stagnate. We found that the country was sorting: The places where educated people moved to got richer; the places where young people moved produced more patents; basic beliefs varied place to place. The sort was cultural, economic, and political. What surprised us was that we live in a time of incredible choice in where and how to live, and yet we were constructing increasingly isolated lives. I think it signifies a retreat from our country’s early democratic promise, that diversity is an asset if we can find a way to talk to each other and listen.

So instead of bonding together over their similarities, Americans are dividing into sub-sub-sub-groups based on their differences?

Definitely, opposites do not attract. We talk about assortative mating when it comes to marriage. People tend to mate with those like themselves. (There is, by the way, a strong correlation between the ideological orientations of spouses—such that dating services now use political beliefs to help match couples.) What we’re talking about here is a society-wide case of assortative mating when it comes to how and where we live. We are finding comfort around those who share our interests—religion, sports, Internet sites, lifestyles, politics. Like does attract like. But, as you say, there is a power in people trying to avoid those who are different. Certainly, God help those who find themselves living in places where they are in the minority. Political scientists have known for half a century that political minorities vote less—political minorities are even less likely to participate in civic activities.

In my deeply Democratic neighborhood (Travis Heights in Austin), a Republican once ventured on to the Internet news group and was not so politely told to find someplace else to live. In one deeply Republican Hill

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