A new book argues that politics has made American communities more divided than ever. It's right in parts, but for the wrong reasonsby Peter Kellner / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
The Big Sort by Bill Bishop (Houghton Mifflin, $25)
First there was The Tipping Point. Then Blink. Then Nudge. Then, just before the recent US elections and in good time to influence strategists ahead of Britain’s next general election, came The Big Sort. What these books have in common is that they are American, easy to read, take a fresh look at today’s politics and society, and have become fashionable and influential—The Big Sort has received friendly reviews from, among others, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. I can’t join the chorus. The Big Sort is intellectually shoddy. Its central message is also wrong. Why should we care? The reason is that The Big Sort belongs to a trend: one which consists of journalists playing professor, and purporting to say large and important things, but without applying the levels of rigour that any professor would demand. They inhabit an enticing, undemanding new world; let’s call it quackademia. Bluntly, on the evidence of The Big Sort, Bill Bishop is a quackademic.
Bishop’s thesis is simply stated. American communities are becoming more polarised. In the past three decades, Americans have tended increasingly to buy homes where other like-minded people already live. Instead of rubbing shoulders daily with neighbours who have a different outlook, they now mix with people who tend to share their attitudes. This process contains two specific dangers. The first is that Democratic and Republican America know and understand each other less and less. The second is that, by talking mainly to themselves, both sides of this widening divide whip themselves up into increasingly extremist frenzies. On the normal, lazy assumption that social trends in America come to Britain a few years later, The Big Sort thus appears to offer a warning.
Plainly, one can point to specific examples of polarisation, in Britain as in the US—such as gated housing estates where rich homeowners keep others out. But examples and anecdotes do not amount to proof. More substantial evidence is needed. Working with Robert Cushing, a retired statistician from the University of Texas, Bishop sets out to provide this for the US. At the core of his argument is an analysis of county-by-county voting patterns. Back in 1976, he says, just 26.8 per cent of Americans lived in “landslide” counties (where the gap between the Democratic and Republican vote in the presidential election was 20 per cent or…