The Big Sort: fine, but not fine enough

In my work exploring the future of education and technology I keep researching social, economic, and cultural trends. One part of that involves investigating what happened to both American education and society since 1975 or so, after the generation when we rebuilt higher ed. In that world The Big Sort (2008) has loomed large for the past few years, and I’m glad to have finally gotten to read it.

The Big Sort book coverThe key argument Bill Bishop* makes is that Americans have been balkanizing into like-minded communities since around 1975, building up “a new order based on individual choice.”

Today we seek our own kind in like-minded churches, like-minded neighborhoods,
and like-minded sources of news and entertainment…. [these] groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong.(39)

How did this occur? In brief, “[t]he melting pot turned out to be a flop.” (186) Bishop sees domestic (between and within states) migration turning a mixed nation into a divided one, as people physically pulled up stakes to be with their political and cultural ilk. He identifies a crisis or break point in the upheavals of the 1960s (1965 is his key year), after which a consensus culture was no longer possible, and we started the trek towards an American divided thoroughly into red versus blue.

Changes in city structures are also vital, as Bishop sees two kinds of cities appearing: Richard Florida-style creative class urban areas and more traditional, manufacturing and service-oriented ones, with each embodying a different culture.**

This is the Big Sort. People who move to Portland [Oregon] want good public transportation and city life. People who don’t give a hoot about those things migrate to Phoenix, suburban Dallas, south of Minneapolis, or north of Austin. But people don’t move to Portland just because of bike trails and metro stops. They want to be able to buy certain books, see certain kinds of movies, and listen to particular styles of live music. (201)

More: “After 1990… high-tech cities… were Democratic strongholds. Manufacturing cities and rural areas moved in the opposite direction, growing more Republican.” (153) That urban-rural divide looms large for The Big Sort, as the countryside’s red politics deepen. One of my favorite quotes in the book is from a Republican activist: “I have a theory that the farther away you are from another human being, the more likely you are to be a Republican.” (204) Meanwhile Democrats sometimes see themselves as occupying no rural areas at all, but living in a set of cities linked by invisible cultural strands, which one 2004 manifesto dubbed The Urban Archipelago (270).

At the elite level, Republican and Democratic politicians are not only more polarized in their policy work and public statements, but also cease to socialize with each other in private (248). Technology and service economies are also split, which Bishop neatly sums up as Google versus McDonald’s (135).

Marketing plays a key role in making this happen, as advertising and political outreach shifted from broadcast messaging in the middle of the 20th century to targeting individuals. Religion also looms large in Bishop’s account, as people sort themselves into not just denominations, but homogeneous churches, helped along by an ecclesiastical strategy of embracing like-minded small groups, even cells.

Education helps drive these differences (121), acting as a feedback loop:

Every action produced a self-reinforcing reaction: educated people congregated, creating regional wage disparities, which attracted more educated people to the richer cities – which further increased the disparity in regional economies. The Big Sort was just beginning with education. Or was it ending with education? It was hard to tell. (133)

Military experience is another vivid sign of cultural difference (137-8) (see below).

Readers may connect The Big Sort with books our book club has read, namely Malka Older’s Infomocracy (science fiction about a hyperlocal future politics) and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (Putnam’s research plays a key part in Bishop’s data work).

I admire several things about the book, beyond its thesis, which makes a general sense. Bishop begins his account by setting it apart from some popular explanations for current political and cultural divisions. For instance, he criticizes the attention paid to the Powell memo as an explanation of conservative political power, noting that liberals rapidly developed their own “political infrastructure to counter foundations on the right” (228; 32). Later he credits Republican party activists for breakthroughs in data analysis and targeted marketing in 2004, developments sometimes overshadowed by the GOP’s failures in 2008 and 2012 (253ff).

I was pleasantly surprised to see the book spending so much time on West Virginia and Kentucky, states usually ignored as flyover country, especially by many urbanists. Bishop’s account of the Kanawha County textbook incident is very nicely done, being open minded and careful with local details (chapter 5). For a 2008 book, The Big Sort is noteworthy for focusing on the opioid epidemic, and with sympathy.

Perhaps most powerfully, Bishop notes that migration patterns are shifting economic power away from many red areas and settling them in blue cities. Ominously: “[t]here is simply no telling what the consequences will be of this kind of economic sorting.” (56) . Readers may see the Trump presidency as one consequence.

I was impressed that Bishop took religion very seriously throughout the book. To put my cards on the table, I’m not a religious person, but I think many humanists fail to give it enough credit for shaping society and individuals. The Big Sort sees Americans sorting out through religious denominations and individual churches, and also reminds us that the supermajority of this population are religious, despite centuries of expectations that modern societies would become secular. I was especially impressed by Bishop’s quotation from Peter Francia: “It is not a culture war between red states and blue states, but rather a war between Fundamentalists and biblical Minimalists within both the red and blue states” (caps in original; 126). This is one way of thinking about Democratic and liberal efforts to embrace or mobilize religion, like the Moral Mondays campaign.

I was also impressed that The Big Sort addressed the contemporary socialization of warfighting, a topic weirdly and importantly invisible today. The book accurately notes that most soldiers now come from rural and poor areas (137-8).

However, The Big Sort runs into a series of problems which weaken its thesis and applicability.

For one, there’s little attention given to forces and trends that oppose differences and individuation.

Bishop admits that there’s a countervailing trend of homogenization through chain stores (37), but doesn’t address this seriously, despite its major presence in the retail economy. Elsewhere his media argument suffers from a lack of awareness that for most of American history we’ve preferred openly partisan media (the mid-20th-century ideal of objective journalism and Walter Cronkite is an exception), and that mainstream media (think movies, tv fiction, network tv “news”, non-local websites, most books, computer games, etc) often aims for a generic audience. Except for Hollywood, which is now pointed towards a Chinese market. I would love to see Bishop address American English issues, too, but that language remains a standard.

Race is a very silent part of The Big Sort. It seems like most of the populations the book investigates are white, or at least not racially identified, which is often the same thing. Rarely does it touch on non-white experiences. Passages like this only hint at a larger picture: “The melting pot turned out to be a flop. People, classes, and races didn’t ‘melt’ as expected.” (emphases added; 186) . The whiteness of Portland isn’t a major factor in Bishop’s description, nor the blackness of Detroit. Latino immigration doesn’t seem to play a role in the book, despite its enormous impact on nearly every aspect of American life. Jews are mentioned only three times (two of those in footnotes). I couldn’t find references to Asian-Americans and Native Americans. I don’t think I need to argue why this is a problem.

At another level The Big Sort relies strongly on Ronald Inglehart‘s idea that Americans are changing our political priorities from a focus on material issues (economics) to “post-materialist” topics (culture, personal identity, sexuality) (84ff). Bishop’s reading unfortunately downplays material concerns, neatly avoiding a left-wing critique of American economics and politics: “The new society was more about personal taste and worldview than public policy.” (104) This also sidesteps the very real material concerns of marginalized populations too easily pigeonholed under “identity”, such as personal safety and unequal compensation. To be fair, late in The Big Sort Bishop admits that “economic matters… and civil rights” issues from the early and mid-20th century persist, underneath “the new cultural issues [that were subsequently] added on.” (230) But the latter are far, far more important in the book than the former.

In fact, The Big Sort is at times either apolitical or just plain centrist. The book’s account of Bill Clinton taking the Democrats from liberalism to centrism weirdly insists Republicans had nothing to do with it (96-7), and that Clinton was basically following American predilections, rather than seeking to influence them. There’s no mention of economic entities acting on their own terms, since the book focuses entirely on consumers. Financialization, for example, is hugely important in reshaping America from personal lives to education to cities; it doesn’t appear. No does the decline of unions, which is allied to migration out of relatively union-friendly midwestern and northeastern states.

The book also suffers from a deep internal contradiction, which might be its greatest weakness. The Big Sort sees America divided into two, red versus blue, but increasingly due to technologies and methods that frame us an individuals. The latter necessarily means a more complex characterization of people than across two simple dimensions. By the book’s own evidence, we should expect a plurality of communities to emerge, rather than American calcifying into a duopoly. Early on Bishop notes that “people don’t live in states. They live in communities” (5), a sentiment I agree with. Yet his account can’t allow those communities characteristics other than those defining states as red or blue.

As Bishop admits in the main religion chapter, “There is no longer ‘brand loyalty’ in regard to religion. There are, however, local micro-brands.” (175). One paragraph describes a Catskills retreat area that plays host to a variety of religions – Hasidic, Christian, Hindu – and concludes that this is a form of “segregation”, but cannot fit that very diversity into cleanly labeled red and blue buckets (200). The book’s chapter dwells approvingly on new, youth-driven, and experimental church practices which appear as fascinatingly diverse, and Bishop barely tries to cram them into a red or blue bucket.

A key part of this plurality involves the online world, which barely appears in The Big Sort. One glancing reference occurs in the lifestyle chapter: “People can rent obscure movies through Netflix and buy books at Amazon.com that their local stores can’t afford to stock…” (201), then backs away from that to argue for the far greater importance of face to face socialization:

In the geography of niche markets, however, people can best fill their lives with the stuff or experiences they want only if they live around others with the same tastes. Those interested in seeing a recently released foreign film or the new documentary on Townes Van Zandt on the big screen need to live in a community that can fill that theater. Similarly, someone who wants to participate in a specialized sport, worship in a less than mainstream church, or catch the latest alt-country acts will be drawn to certain locations. (202)

This is obviously true on its own terms, but downplays how resourceful we are in striking out beyond the limits of our locales. Our car-happy culture means we readily drive hundreds of miles for valued experiences. And clearly many people find a great deal of value in online life, from movies to romance to information. Partly I’m being unfair to a decade-old book, since the digitization of life has progressed even further since the book came out, but the signs and practices were clear then.

Elsewhere Bishop observes of the 1970s that

The divisions grew finer. The Pepsi Generation had to be divided again between LSD-laced rock singers and blond daughters of Republican presidents, and again between hockey players and golfers, between environmentalists and Evangelicals. Researchers parsed consumers into ever-smaller homogenous groups. (188)

Are all hockey players Republicans? Are all proponents of drug decriminalization Democrats? The book is all about clear binaries, especially political ones, which aren’t too useful when examining the full range of America.

Last note: there’s a quiet nostalgia running through The Big Sort for a time when people lived together in heterogeneous yet consensus-based communities. That strikes me as a deep misreading of the 1940s and 50s, and perhaps it’s too much to ask the book to expand on that vision (how much was driven by wartime organization, for example?). Yet that nostalgia – if I’m right – leads to one conclusion I must disagree with. At the book’s conclusion there’s a longing for, well, authority:

Presidential candidates and op-ed writers often lament the lack of leaders… What the country is missing is old-fashioned followers. The generations that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century lost trust in every vestige of hierarchical authority, from the edicts of Catholic bishops to the degrees of Free Masons to the stature of federal representatives. There haven’t been any new LBJs because the whole notion of leadership has changed – and the whole shape of democracy is changing.  (298-9)***

“For the worse” echoed off of those pages, at least for me. That longing for obedience, that sadness about skepticism, depresses me as a writer, educator, parent, and human being.

Let me take a step back to wrap this up. I think Bishop’s thesis has a lot of explanatory merit, although he doesn’t follow it to where it leads, nor does he factor in key elements. Along the way he offers some good analysis and arguments, accounting for often neglected history. I’m glad he keeps his partisan interest in check for most of the book. It’s an important contribution to contemporary discussion, and worth reading both for what it says, and for what it misses.

*Although the book’s voice is first person and Bishop is credited on the title page, Robert Cushing seems to have done a ton of stats work. He’s also featured on the author flap.
**This is neat, on reflection. Bishop and Cushing worked with Richard Florida, and clearly admire the latter’s work. But their insistence on the economic viability of non-creative-class cities has them quietly embracing the work of Florida’s nemesis, Joel Kotkin. So they embrace both sides of a debate without dissing either. Nicely done.
***The LBJ reference is to the first half of Johnson’s presidency, which Bishop accurately sees as generating a powerful range of policy activity, especially Great Society programs (Medicare, etc). It’s not a pointer towards the, ah, less effective end of his presidency, nor a reference to the war in Vietnam.

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4 Responses to The Big Sort: fine, but not fine enough

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Tracking social, economic, and cultural trends “longue durée” are central to understanding what happened to American education as well as society

    Like

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    I recall reading articles along this line in the late 90s when I lived in California — about the same time as articles about stacking certifications onto a basic degree being the future of high ed. The former was already observable in local demographics.

    Like

  3. joatsimeon says:

    Bear in mind that the ultimately decisive means of political action is always, as Max Weber put it, violence.

    The ultimate logic of the “Big Sort” is civil war. With nukes.

    Like

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