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 Country town, Democrats built a July 4th float, but when it came time for the parade, nobody would ride. Nobody wanted to be publicly identified as a Democrat. Luckily, it rained and so the Ds were spared the ignominy of having a riderless float.

How does a national political campaign address such a socially schizophrenic populace?

The old way of running a political campaign was to think of the electorate as a pie cut into three large, and largely equal, chunks—Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The goal of a campaign was to convince enough Independents and those from the opposing party to pick your side. Campaigns were aimed at persuading voters. The key insight of the Bush campaign in 2003 was that there were just very few voters left out there to persuade. Actually, the number of true independents had been dropping since the 1970s, as were the number of people who split their ticket between the two parties. Most political journalism was—and still is—based on the outdated notion that one-third of the electorate was truly undecided.

What [former President Bush adviser] Matthew Dowd and others in the Bush campaign realized was the number of undecideds was actually under ten percent. So the Bush campaign concentrated on turnout rather than persuasion. (For fun, ask a group of people how many don’t know today which party they will support in November. There won’t be many. I did this last summer in a crowd of about 400. Maybe a dozen people raised their hands.) The second key insight of the Bush campaign was to understand that these like-minded social structures created over the past generation—neighborhoods, clubs, churches—couldn’t be organized from the outside. The campaign had to be run by people from the community. There was good research on this, too. The Bush people knew that a door-to-door campaign run by people who came from the neighborhood (or looked like they came from the neighborhood) was more effective than a door-to-door campaign of volunteers trucked in from out of state—the kind of campaign operated by the Democrats and Finally, the Bush campaign knew that they had to tap into the social networks being created. So they organized through home schoolers and through church networks and sports leagues. They didn’t use preachers to call their flocks into the voting booths. They found key leaders within the church who would support their campaign. (It turns out that preachers aren’t even very good at recruiting members for their own churches, much less for a political campaign.)

The Bush campaign gained members the way evangelical churches gain members—through friends recruiting friends. It’s called friendship evangelism, or relational evangelism in the church. So the same techniques that built megachurches in suburban and exurban counties also created the Bush majority in 2004. A shorter answer to your question is that you don’t run a national campaign. You run thousands of local campaigns that address the needs, desires, and ideologies of individuals. It’s target marketing or one-to-one marketing in the commercial world.

Are these homogeneous clusters really anything new? Economic and ethnic groups often tended to settle the same towns or neighborhoods.

Crucial question. You are absolutely right. From the first day we’re alive, we learn that there is safety among those who are like ourselves—and danger in disagreeing with others. Birds of a feather flock because that’s the way birds survive. This has always been true, and America has at times been extraordinarily polarized geographically. (There was the Civil War, after all; and historian Robert Wiebe described America in the 19th century as a “nation of loosely connected islands.”) What was remarkable to us was that the country is growing more politically and culturally polarized now. We live in a time when day-to-day survival for most Americans is assured; when social safety nets reduce the need to depend on family; when Americans have unprecedented choice about where and how to live—but given all this freedom and opportunity to

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