Book Review: The Big Sort (part 1)

“How could Bush have possibly won?! I don’t know anyone who voted for him!”

“How could Obama have possibly won?!  I don’t know anyone who voted for him!”

Depending on where you live and who you associate with, you’re likely to have heard some version of one or the other of the above two quotes (in 2004 or 2008, respectively).

That’s because over the past few decades we’ve migrated and rearranged our lives to surround ourselves with people who think pretty much just like us – and we’ve effectively phased out the folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes.  We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations (or lack thereof), civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance.

In The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, author Bill Bishop (with Robert G. Cushing) eloquently presents a thorough study of political self-segregation in the United States.  Since around, say, 1968, geographic and cultural spaces in the United States have become measurably more politically homogeneous.  Bishop provides data to support this claim, broken down by zip codes, neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic organizations, and more.  He offers helpful explanations from several angles for why this has happened – including some fascinating insights from social psychology.  And he makes strong arguments that this “Big Sort” is having profound impacts – mostly negative – on our culture and politics.

The book focuses heavily on Democrats vs. Republicans.  This is understandable as the only data available that snapshots political opinion across the entire country at once is voting records from Presidential elections.  It’s the one time when we all have the same political choice in front of us – and you can see how different districts, zip codes, and demographics cast their votes (and having only two major political parties – lucky us – surely makes the analysis simpler).  As such, I can appreciate why the author draws primarily on this data.  I do take issue though with the way he discusses the two parties as if they genuinely represent the left and the right.  I take more issue with how he treats left and right as if they are symmetrical in their self-segregating behavior, and equally culpable for the crisis in our democracy.  I discuss this further in Part 2 of this book review.

But critiques aside for the moment, here’s why I love this book – and why I think it’s essential reading for anyone working for progressive change in the United States.  Bishop provides a framework that inadvertently illuminates a major constraint on the emergence of stronger, broader-based progressive movements today: namely the tendency of progressives to talk only to ourselves.  I’ll get to that shortly.

First, to explain our national “migration of self-selection,” Bishop spotlights the work of Ronald Inglehart, who “proposed a theory for why all industrial countries appeared to be undergoing similar changes in their cultures and politics” – changes that seemed to explode dramatically all over the world at once in 1968.  Inglehart’s explanation is based on Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which essentially states that once people have air, they then concern themselves with finding water; and after their thirst is quenched, they can think about food; and then clothes and shelter.  And once basic survival and material needs are so abundantly available that they can be taken for granted, we humans then concern ourselves with social networks, and then ultimately with individual freedom and expression.

Inglehart applied Maslow’s theory to what was happening in every industrialized society around the world simultaneously in the late 1960s.  Bishop discusses how a generation that “grew up in relative abundance” started to display “a politics of self-expression.”

The new society was more about personal taste and worldview than public policy.  It was as much or more concerned with self-expression and belief as with social class and economics.

Self-expressive people apparently like to express themselves in like-minded company.  And there you have it… The Big Sort.  Bishop provides a much fuller picture, and then goes on to discuss how insularity, self-righteousness, and groupthink inevitably rear their ugly heads in homogeneous social circles.  That’s where I jump off to return to the question of what progressive change organizations have to learn from The Big Sort’s framework…

If a progressive change organization’s goals are instrumental (i.e. the aim is to measurably change policies, structures, etc.), then it’s necessary for effective group members to be outwardly oriented – regularly talking to people outside of our social circles in order to build broad-based grassroots power, to gain the capacity to affect the big changes we imagine.  But if our psychological motivation for involvement is self-expressive (i.e. our aim is to express our values and who we are as people, and to feel a sense of belonging in a value-based community), then it doesn’t really matter if we talk to anyone but ourselves.  In fact, our identity with the group is reinforced when we differentiate ourselves from people outside of the group.  There can actually be a disincentive to reach outside of the group or social circle – and a social incentive to put up barriers.  This is especially true if a group defines itself in direct opposition to the dominant culture.  If your group’s narrative rejects the dominant culture, it’s pretty easy to take the next step and reject “society” wholesale – and then your place in the group is affirmed when you encounter (or project) hostility from “society.”  Taken to the extreme, some political groups even become suspicious of success itself.  Because if society embraces you, then you must have sold out!

So, at least part of our psychological motivation for political involvement can be fulfilled completely without us ever winning anything.  Thus, some of the most committed, fire-in-the-belly fighters for social justice and equality today are wearing their politics on their sleeve in a way that signals only to each other – at the cost of turning off a lot of potential allies.  We’re building a community together.  We are oriented to impress each other.  Our tactics, our speech, our fashion, all our expression is aimed at the center of our small, ineffectual, insular groups – instead of aiming to infect the broader society.  We are always looking to differentiate ourselves from the dominant culture, instead of looking for common ground.  We become attached to an identity of the righteous few, the keepers of a little flame.  We pride ourselves that we won’t let it be extinguished, but our monopoly on that little flame, our attachment to our own marginalization, our activist brand – inoculates the proverbial prairie against catching fire.

I’m generalizing.  Different political organizations land at different points across the instrumental vs. expressive spectrum.  And very few groups actually enjoy swimming in their own marginalization.  But probably all of us could stand to reflect on the prayer of Reverend Johnson (Blazing Saddles, anyone?): “O Lord, do we have the strength to carry off this mighty task … Or are we just jerking off?”

To be clear, the biggest reasons I recommend The Big Sort (particularly to progressive change advocates) are likely pretty different from the reasons why Bill Bishop wrote the book.  He seems mostly interested in getting everyone to better understand each other and to talk to each other more – worthy goals.  I’m extrapolating from his framework, applying it to my “neck of the woods” (waaaaaaay over here in “Far-Left-ville” *I discuss problems with this framing in Part 2 of this review).  In my 16-and-counting years working for progressive social change, I’ve found myself frustrated many times with the insular, “preaching to the choir” tendencies of many efforts I’ve been part of.  The Big Sort has helped me to see those tendencies in a broader societal context.  Like-minded clustering and self-segregation is not a uniquely progressive problem.  Just the opposite; it’s a nationwide, across-the-spectrum phenomenon.  You can see it in golfers or Cure fans or church-goers.  Like golfers and Cure fans and church-goers, members of social change organizations gain a sense of identity and belonging by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people.  But unlike golfers or Cure fans or church-goers, the raison d’etre of social change organizations is to affect real change that everyday people can feel in their everyday lives.  To do that, we can’t afford to go it alone.  We won’t see the big changes we imagine if we fail to activate more than the self-selecting usual suspects.  We’ve got to orient ourselves to connect outside the group to a broader base.

There’s some irony here.  For a crew that so often fashions itself as different from the dominant culture, in one important way we’re just doing what everyone else is doing: we’re surrounding ourselves with the wonderful people that we feel most comfortable with, and we’re closing off to others.  That seems perfectly understandable.  It even seems somewhat inevitable – but I hope not.  I hope we’re capable of devising better strategies for how we engage the Big Sort.

Read Part Two here.

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