The Big Sort? – Yes and No

I think of myself as a ‘culture critic’, looking at trends over time – here and abroad – and evaluating the changes critically. Not in the negative sense – though that is often my view of these changes – but in an effort to see the big picture, pro and con. Topics that involve big generalizations are attractive, especially when they are controversial, in terms of popular press accounts. Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort (updated 2009) is one of these. It appears to have been a phenomenal success with lots of sales help, including mention by Bill Clinton in a video.

Journalist Bishop says his “big sort” idea first appeared in 2004 in a series of articles that made national news. In published form, Bishop’s book was a finalist in the Pulitzer Prize competition. I want to know if and in what sense the message of The Big Sort  is correct, and why it has gotten so much publicity (positive and negative).

Bishop’s main idea is that increasingly over the past, say, 50 years, when people decide to move (for whatever reason) they settle in places that ‘feel right’ – that make them say ‘I feel at home here’. He says their decision is not determined by reasoning, or financial or other practical necessities, but by some sort of intuitive awareness that they ‘fit’ comfortably with the people around them. The effects of this “clustering” are “tearing the country apart”. It’s a “Balkanization” of society – further polarizing the political realm, at national, state and especially local levels, and ultimately leaving the country with an electorate  who can’t stand to be around people who are ‘different’. They can’t discuss viewpoints critically; they only reenforce their group’s ideas.

I agree that this outcome is a trend that’s potentially fatal for democracy. I would add that democracy  is not a natural state of society; it needs to be renewed continually. The normal condition is an autocratic government and compliant – often ignorant or deluded – citizens. Democracy requires open and rational sharing of viewpoints, and compromise. Clustering prohibits this, making the idea of ‘One Nation Under God’ seem like a bad joke.


Bishop’s claim that people look for place places that ‘fit’ them or ‘feel right’ is correct; it’s a natural human behavior. So we (and animals) feel safer with those like us (“birds of a feather”), but it’s far from the norm for the location choices most people make. I would add that increasingly, the sales approach to everything, including political affiliation, will encourage further ‘clustering’ mindsets, governed more by taste than thought. In term of numbers, however, I can’t deduce from his research how far along he thinks this trend has developed. It’s likely that very few people are part of a cluster. When he says “And it’s tearing the country apart”, his hyperbole is misleading.

Some people (like the Bishops themselves) intentionally look for ‘mixed’ communities. Much of the middle class and most of the underclass are trying to meet practical necessities. The latter can’t afford to go where all the people around them ‘look like them’ – or better, ‘act and think like them’, as the president of Yankelovich Partners told him (p. 216). I think they do not find their place by that sense of ‘fitting in’ so much as a sense of ‘I don’t belong here’!

The ‘culture shift’ he worries about is spontaneous or unthoughtout. He describes the sense of ‘fitting’ as an unconscious or intuitive awareness – a “This is it!” nudge – and that he and his wife shared it when they first decided to move. I think, rather, that they had the experience of a comfortable, well-educated middle class family. They found a place they could expect to feel comfortable. It wasn’t a fortuitous chance. But once having become part of a cluster, the other unhappy consequences follow.

Bishop has done a great deal of research since first hatching this concept. He followed up with personal interviews, and detailed analyses to support his ‘thesis’, aided by some social scientists, political scientists, psychologists and other culture critics. His main adviser was a retired sociologist from UT Texas at Austin – Robert G. Cushing – who now “analyzes Texas’ huge demographic and economic shifts, which appear as special reports in The Austin American Statesman newspaper”.

From the little I can gather, the Bishops’ first move was from Kentucky (near Lexington?) to Travis Hts, Texas – a small village (pop. approx 450) in the greater metro area of Austin. That 1000 mile trip involves a big cultural shift, from conservative to progressive, and into affluence (as this Best Places to Live website shows.) It was there, in 2004, he got the idea of “clusters” and published some articles. In a recent (2019) op-ed for CNN, Bishop mentioned his new  location. They had moved 65 miles Southwest to a good-old-boy Republican neighborhood, in LaGrange, Texas, on the Colorado River. The CNN piece was titled “If we can’t polka together, we can’t govern together”. A better title would be “If we can’t Square Dance or Barn Dance together, we can’t rule together”.

The Bishops were looking for ‘different people’ and found them. I’m  happy to learn this. My initial impression was biased; I thought his experience of place – his main interest – seemed limited. The ‘Power of Place’ he speaks about can be beneficial, but it can also do great harm. Without question it greatly influences how we view ‘others’. I’ve been fortunate to have lived many places, traveled, observed, studied and ‘talked to the locals’.

Forty years ago (1982) my wife (20 years younger) and I sought out a ‘mixed’ neighborhood in Chicago’s Southwest suburbs. Our 3 children were born there. They attended almost all black public schools. Their black playmate neighbors were friends, and though now adult, some of these stay in touch by social media. My wife and I divorced; our children and I moved individually to different parts of the Chicago Metro area. But before that separation, she and I traveled to other states and abroad, skiing by St Anton, Austria, and sunbathing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. This helped us all gain a better perspective on the hardships of underclass citizens and to know ourselves better.

Teaching philosophy and humanities in a mostly “white-flight” suburb of Chicago, I learned other related lessons. For example how unaware junior-college students fresh out of highschool can be about the real world. (I also had returning adult students who are more sophisticated.) Some students were fearful about going to visit downtown Chicago (25 miles away), as though it was still controlled by the Mafia! (Not that corruption has ended, alas.) But city development and management are an ongoing effort – sometimes improving. In every case experience and critical thinking are much better guides than hearsay and prejudgment.

Regarding place, Jacobin Magazine points out that housing is simply unaffordable for workers on the current minimum wage. This group doesn’t take into account workers who can’t find any housing, or only in the worst poor and violent neighborhoods. The son of black friend of mine was recently sprayed with bullets, driving home from work to his apartment in Englewood, Chicago. He’s still alive, and improving in an excellent hospital. By the way, it was not  “gang related”, yet was immeasurably more likely to happen there than in any neighborhood that Bishop’s clusterers might call ‘a good fit’.

At the beginning of Bishop’s book are three maps supporting how more and more polarized voting is, which might engender ‘cluster’ thinking. Data on elections reflect the attitudes of voters. In 1976 (“Before the Sort”), a lot of white shows – which represents close, hotly contested counties. Gray shows Republican landslides. Black shows Democrat landslides. Bishop doesn’t mention some factors relevant to the elections, which I think are helpful. In this case, Democrat Jimmy Carter took the South, and a few other counties, because people were sick of war,  disillusioned with ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon, and the world was in recession.

The 2004 election shows very little white, and increasing gray – Republican landslides. Very few  Democrat landslides for Kerry (in black). Why did Bush beat the latter? One observer at Stanford U. said “Bush won the 2004 election for two reasons: 9/11 and women voters”. Another at Slate said “Vision without details beats details without vision”. The 2008 election shows still less white, and a whole lot of gray. In other words the country has turned largely Republican – whether or not ‘whole-heartedly’ is  questionable. Why did Democrat Obama win the presidency, despite increased Republican power? I don’t think Bishop discusses that. People were against the war which Obama’s opponent McCain supported, and the Global Financial Crisis was hurting the economy (and causing scandal).

In any case, despite their support, Blacks were not helped by Obama’s policies. Moreover, his impressive rhetorical skill aside, his adminstration supported Neoliberalism and right wing conservative values. I don’t think he improved the condition of Blacks, or lessened the prejudice against Blacks and Latinos. My Mexican-born friend, ex-student and author Jose Angel N. notes that Obama sent more undocumented immigrants back across the border than any previous president.


In fact, one observer in a 2019 Washington Post article said Obama is really a conservative by nature. Interesting! There were Obama haters as well, of course. His citizenship was disputed – and that foolisness continues. One of my deceased Republican friends used the disgusting popular reference to Barack Obama as ‘BO’. Free speech?

To get a feel for the size of the shift towards Republican values, one need only go back to the 60’s – a decade of incredible change from traditional values to ‘anything goes’ – the best and the worst mixed together. I was just starting a teaching career, after a stint in the Army. This  webpage shows it all: War protests, Civil Rights movements, Youth culture, Counter-culture, Political assassinations, the Woodstock fest (shown here), the Manson family, the Birmingham Church Burning, the ’68 Democratic Convention (Richard Daley), the Watts Rebellion, the Orangeburg Massacre, Satanism, the Generation Gap and more.

Bishop mentions the “Power of Place”. I would agree place is powerful, but the effects and feelings it generates are not always positive. In our country’s history, certain groups – especially Blacks, Hispanics and women – have been assigned their ‘place’ and forced to stay there from the beginning, and this has not entirely ended. It brought to mind the famous (or infamous) Levittown developments that marked the beginnings of suburanization in the 50’s and 60’s, when G.I.s came back from WWII and Korea. These tract homes were advertised as a cozy romantic dream nest,  but more realistically they were horribly monotonous. ]


Blacks were specifically excluded from Levittown ownership. An impresssive Kahn Academy article details this, and other “darker side” aspects of ‘urban flight’. Kahn is an outstanding free online source for learning. Now the flight is back to the cities, in many places, despite their on-going problems. After all, having your own get-away place in the woods, at the lake, or on the mountain is costly (and you might lack WiFi!). My son recently overheard the following snippet in a nearby park: “All my friends are having to get rid of their 3rd property.” Later he commented to me wryly, “Things are getting tough all over!” It’s hard to be objective. What we’re used to gets in the way.

Adding to the stress of places where poor and ill-served people live, the moratorium on renter evictions has run out. This isn’t surprising; landlords also need to make a living. Contrary to the usual criticism of the ‘rentier class’, though, not all landlords are bad. I was  a landlord for 25 years, lived with my tenants and we were friends. As I frequently suggest, a good society needs to think of the social good – which  includes at least shelter, clothing, food, health care and education – and provide these goods to the degree possible, after serious thought and transparent negotiations. Negotiation is a problem today. It’s also the main motive for this post.

‘Clustering’ is a kind of tribalism as Bishop suggests. Primal, or tribal groups are normally small. It’s a kind of ‘herd’ thinking. There’s a limit to how many people can know each other well enough to live comfortably together without the need for laws, regulations and a ruling class to enforce them. In fact, this small number has a name – Dunbar’s Number – after a British anthropologist writing in the 1990s. He says the normal limit is around 250, though we can recognize more people than that – perhaps 1000. The limit applies equally to social media. Not surprisingly, this idea is controversial, but it lends support to what the Big Sort claims. The sense of community can make non-conformists feel unwelcome, as Bishop notes – i.e., the us v. them perspective – to the point where they leave, or are forced out. It also can easily – even naturally – cause tribal groups to do violence to outsiders. This is the kind of primal group behavior that Rene Girard explained so well in his theories of Mimetic Desire and Scapegoating.

As one might expect, Bishop’s progressive ‘thesis’ has detractors from characteristically far right sources – e.g., this 2012 Hoover Institution article The “Myth of the “Big Sort”. It also has supporters, like Bryan Alexander, who finds the thesis Fine but not fine enough. Alexander claims that Bishop ‘hardly mentions’ groups who can’t afford to follow their intuition –  especially Blacks and Latinos. Perhaps he’s right. One of Bishop’s first research questions was about large cities around the country. Some were losing population, while others were gaining. The various reasons included high tech v. low tech, creative thinking v. improving what’s available, retirement or recreation v. too costly or violent, etc. In this context, he talked about cities with large numbers of Blacks. But that discussion (p. 133) takes up less than one page,, including this finding: “Blacks meanwhile moved to cities with strong black communities: Atlanta, Washington, New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Only 9 out of 320 cities lost black residents”. (By the way, I don’t understand that last statistic. Which 320? This is an example of why I find the book hard to read objectively, and somewhat offputting in that regard.)

Bishop offers many examples on every page to confirm his thesis, including individual conversations, findings of various political and social scientists, and statistical reports. Often the ideas and quotes are third hand. He is careful to present opposing views as well – but it isn’t always clear whether the text is pro or con regarding the point he wants to make in any particular chapter, or section. This NYT book review characterizes the title as a “catchy pop-social science image”, adding it “lacks the resonance of David Brooks’ ‘bobos’ or ‘tipping points’”. That criticism seems petty to me, and irrelevant, especially since Brooks is a well known conservative, and Bishop is relatively unknown and progressive.

The book’s cover displays the usual several-line promotional (and self-promotional) blurbs from writers at the WSJ, Boston Globe and Newsday, and claims to be a “New York Times Notable Book”. I can’t verify or dispute these credits, because none of the publications have records back to 2008. Unfortunately there is no data on sales or numbers in best-seller lists, in either Amazon or NYT. All I can find are self-promotions from the book’s own websites. Nor can I find independent biographical data about the author. Nontheless his book supports a big idea that is useful  to know about. If it was indeed a best seller, readers must have worked hard to understand it; or maybe they just ‘liked’ what they thought it conveyed. Apparently they were eager for this message.

Before going into more detail, let me support wholeheartedly something Bishop says. I find it totally relevant to our national bad health, and no citizen could reasonably dispute it. In the Afterword of the second (2009) edition he says,“The message people living in a democracy must understand, more than any other message, is that there are Americans who aren’t just like you. They don’t live like you, they don’t have families like yours, and they don’t think like you. They may not live in your neighborhood, but this is their country, too”.

At one point – The Origins of Division (p. 28) – Bishop speaks against the ”myth” that the Republican shift resulted from a long-time planned conspiracy to influence the public towards conservative thinking and free-market economic policies (which have been called Neoliberalism by progressive ideologues). He emphasizes that the collectivizing is unintentional and spontaneous, adding that people use ‘conspiracy’ to explain what they don’t like. He’s right about how conspiracy talk comes up in hard times. (Consider the current pandemic.) Nonetheless, I think there has been a planned strategy to favor conservative – i.e ‘unfettered’ free-market – capitalism, and extreme right-wing Republican politics. The Koch family, for example, did in fact establish right wing think tanks, and supported various scholars to use their influence on lobbyists and economic policy makers. One of the iconic favorites of this extreme perspective is Friedrich Hayek – author of The Road to Serfdom (whom my parents admired). The Kochs enlisted Hayek to come to America, but found he needed Medicare to visit. So they arranged for him to get it. Thus he, who preached that Social Security and Medicare are a leftist populist ploy to gain control, hypocritically accepted the offer. Of course the Kochs keep their doings private, and they do support some liberal social non-profits which helps their image. Perhaps all this doesn’t count as ‘conspiracy’; I won’t argue the point. Bishop doesn’t discuss this.

Bishop does discuss the National Council of State Legislators (NCSL) in Ch. 10 – Choosing a Side. But he doesn’t think it’s important; he calls it a “character in the story liberals tell about the synchronized, centrally planned  effort to bring conservatives to power”. I disagree, and in fact see this as a continuation of the ‘plan’ to re-establish right wing control. It’s name was changed to ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) because the former sounded too ‘governmental’ and ‘bureaucratic’. Looking at its website you’ll find most statements expressed in moderate, everyday language, but what they advocate is not as it appears; the goal is effectively to eliminate the oversight or even involvement of central government in the economy or social welfare, insofar as possible. It’s stated purpose is to help “state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism”. They do so by means of consulting with huge corporations who will help the legislators to do it their way. Not coincidentally, it was founded in 1973, at the start of this conservative movement. Bishop doesn’t note that ALEC received enough bad press from NYTimes and BloombergBusinessWeek for its “unwarranted influence” that some legislators and corporations have withdrawn.

Bishop discusses marketing techniques, including ‘segmented markets’ and how the same product can be sold to people of different tastes. Coke now has special labels that LGBQX can attach to their drink! Brand loyalty is another related way of selling. Most of us have favorite brands. But if you ask who owns the product it’s generally some enormous world-wide conglomerate acquiring more and more brands, without necessarily giving the benefits of ‘scale’. One of my  favorite examples of brand loyalty involves Adidas and Puma. Adolf (Adi) Dassler and Rudolf Dassler were brothers. What I did not know was that the brothers became bitter rivals. Rudolf founded the Puma brand (Pumas are fast animals). Both companies are publicly traded at the top level of the German stock market. I’m waiting to see a private equity buy them out.

There were ‘Unconscious’ efforts to change the culture to more ‘what’s-in-it-for me’ thinking long before the Kochs and others began. Instead of ‘unconscious’ or ‘spontaneous’ shifts, I would call them subconscious, because they drew heavily on Freudian notions of motivation and ‘Mass Psychology’. In fact, Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (1891 – 1995), who is little known in the popular press, initiated the idea of giving people ‘anything they want’, while finding how to manipulate those wants. This marketing technique of influencing choices has continued with increasing effect, and the unbelievably powerful new tools of big data and algorithms aimed at individuals, not groups. Bernays wasn’t even aware of these. He died 15 years before smartphones put these influencers into the hands of the whole world.

When Bishop calls the motivations and thinking of cluster groups post-materialistic, his terminology is ill-chosen. What I think he means is that views about practical issues like money, food shopping, good health, means of travel, comfortable housing, etc. have morphed into matters of taste shared by your fellow cluster groupies, and aren’t worth worrying about, so long as you stay with your group. Post-materialistic certainly does not mean other-worldly. These folks are characteristially and increasingly worldly, and non-believers. The closest they come to religion is SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious). I will grant there is much room for criticizing mainline religions, which often have self-contradictory theologies (e.g., If you think rationally about The Trinity, it amounts in practice to belief in 3 gods. But rational thought and questioning are forbidden). Moreover, religious groups are frequently hypocritical and uncharitable towards their opponents, and neglect the needy in society, as younger generations are saying.

When Bishop shows graphs on voter turnout, or the importance of religious affiliation in choosing candidates, Millennials are the least likely to vote, and least interested in religious affiliation. That fact might suggest that these people are confident, or even devil-may-care. But on the contrary, they are increasingly unsure and stressed out about the world, their country, the future and themselves (i.e., ‘Who am I?’). This doesn’t surprise me, since the elder-described ‘younger generation’ seem often to show little awareness of, or interest in, anything I would call objective, real and trustworthy to guide them. “It’s all relative”. And as Gen Z comes into its own, these traits are emphasized, especially with respect to religion, as a Pew report shows. Stress and mental illness (including suicide) do affect them, but at least they’re more willing to seek help than their ‘elders’. They are also more culturally sensitive, to issues of racism and inequality, and they tend towards progressive politics. Maybe there’s reason for hope! Supporters praise them as seeking answers and justice. Their current dislike for Millennials is thoughtfully critiqued by one of the latter group, published by The Print, an on-line digital platform from India. Don’t forget, the young generations are international for good reasons – mostly internet related. That can be a very good thing if it’s used well.

The ‘practical issues’ I mentioned earlier – safety, enough food, clothing, money, health care, means of travel, decent housing, etc. – are public goods which every civilized society should try to provide. In America, they should be provided by ‘the people’ – all of them – as means permit, in the way citizens see fit and choose to do . But whether they do this in the spirit of loving their country and their neighbors, or in the spirit of ‘what’s in it for me?’, depends on the inner character of each voter. The motivation of every person is either spiritual or natural. I can’t possibly know it. There is only One who can.


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