The Big Sort

Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort explores the complex causes of a simple observation:  Since the late 1970s, Americans have sorted themselves into roughly two different types of culturally and politically homogeneous communities. There is a liberal, Democrat-supporting, high-growth, tech-oriented, weak social ties, low religiosity type, and a conservative, Republican-supporting, low cost, family and tradition oriented, strong social ties, high religiosity type. Why? What caused this?

Bishop, with the assistance of numerous others mentioned in his book, lists the following forces that were active in the mid-to-late 20th century.

First, there is the growing affluence of developed nations, which leads to greater personal autonomy and, therefore, a greater focus on self-expression and individualism. People no longer settle for being just a face in the masses, but increasingly want choices and seek out communities and institutions that cater to their individual needs and which allow them to express themselves. These people join fewer organizations and generally reduce their participation in communal activities compared to previous generations, leading to weaker social ties (the main discovery of Bowling Alone). There is some decent evidence supporting this theory based on surveys conducted over time in developed nations, with the richest and most equitable countries (e.g the Nordics) ranking highest for individualism. The US is a bit of an outlier here due to our much stronger religiosity and higher levels of poverty, but the trend generally holds for us as well.

The New Deal era, and particularly the post-WWII era, was very public-oriented in its solutions and ideals. Big government, big business, big unions, and the social gospel of prosperity and good works were the focus of the time. This naturally led to a quiet counter reaction among those who were either economic losers, political outsiders, or whose ideals just didn’t really fit in. The counter reaction could be described by the terms private, conservative, family, faith, and individual salvation. It was in many ways the antithesis of the prevailing post-war attitudes.

This counter reaction had two prongs, one led from the bottom through popular, fundamentalist religious movements and voters in some areas of the growing outer suburbs, and one led from the top, by certain business leaders and Republicans who sought to wrest power from the dominant Democratic liberal order. Somewhere in the 1970s, the top found the bottom and the extremely strange Republican coalition of the Religious Right, sunbelt suburbanites, corporate socialists, and Ayn Rand acolytes took shape.

In addition to the above, cheap automobiles, cheap gas, and the interstate system lowered the barrier for people to pick up and physically relocate, while increasing affluence and individualism gave them the impetus to do so.

And yet another force was at play, the development of sophisticated marketing techniques enabled by information technology. Just as people were becoming more individualistic in their affluence, computers were gaining the power to churn through masses of consumer data and develop market profiles tailored to them. This was the big move from “mass appeal” advertising to lifestyle targeted advertising via market segmentation. This would have political implications, to be discussed shortly.

Finally, we have to tie all this together. We have affluence leading people toward greater self-expression than is commonly believed to be the historical norm. A high mobility / low barrier transportation infrastructure allows people to move around. There is a counter reaction to the New Deal era’s emphasis on public life that mingles with the new individualism and a religious resurgence, creating a silent revolution and a sort of alternative society away from the centers of power. This reaction is noticed by the out-of-power national political party and promoted as a means to attack its opponents. Meanwhile, innovative forms of marketing and dividing up the population into lifestyle bins are developed.

Bishop’s thesis is that all this led to a great sorting of America, where we all moved into two different and increasingly homogeneous camps. His reasoning is we did this because we wanted to, because we had the means to do so and it was only natural that people move to places where they feel more comfortable among like-minded people and that, over time, minor lifestyle or ideological differences between adjacent communities would get picked out and snowball into major disagreements about politics and life itself. While the last bit of that sentence (snowballing) is correct, the main explanation of voluntary sorting is lacking.

In particular, he notes that the 1976 presidential election featured the highest degree of mixed party voting, by county, in the post-war era. Meaning that Democrats and Republicans lived next door to each other, and that most Americans routinely encountered people whose political beliefs, or at least allegiances, were different from their own. But for that to be the most mixed election, there must have been an increase in heterogeneity compared to the past—people were living in increasingly mixed (political) communities, and these communities functioned while allowing individuals to disagree. After 1976, communities become more homogeneous.

Something changed.

People had mobility and affluence pre-1976. Many lived in areas at the center of the emerging counter reaction to the New Deal and got along fine with their neighbors, or well enough to not move away. On top of all that, most people will choose to continue living near the friends and family they grew up with if they can afford to, and if they believe doing so will lead to a good, purposeful, and plentiful life. They move, if they can, when opportunities are lacking or when some other area is clearly better. There is a strong economic driver not accounted for here.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ll know what’s coming—the American Thermidor that Stirling Newberry has outlined, the counterrevolution against FDR’s New Deal that, while not exactly destroying it, severely warped its mechanisms and forced many of them into reverse. Wealth started to flow to the top, wages were frozen, organized labor was broken, speculative economic bubbles became the norm, and everything was thrown into preserving a suburban land rent economy that pays for oil it can’t afford by buying cheap goods from overseas in order to wage speculative stock market battles with foreign elites for control of the US economy.

This created two economies in America. The first is the extractive plunder economy that runs entirely on the land rent casino, military adventurism, resource strip mining, and the enforcement of rigid social and religious traditions. It is essentially the old economy put on life support, unable to innovate away from its technological, resource, and ideological constraints, subject to increasingly severe austerity in order to maintain its unaffordable lifestyle. These are the low cost homogeneous communities that Bishop finds in his book.

The second economy is the future tech economy. Exactly what it runs on is hard to say at the moment, but it’s some combination of information technology, artificial intelligence (really just “smart” systems), renewable and other low carbon energy, electrified transportation, and relatively permissive, liberal social mores. This economy is trying to emerge in half a dozen or so tech-centered cities around the country, and is most clearly being built in the state of California. These are the high growth homogeneous communities that Bishop finds in his book.

The Big Sort happened not because we all decided to start moving to places where we agree with everyone, but because we were forced to—at least, those who had the means and the smarts to do so. If you wanted to do well, if you wanted to make more money, have your kids go to a good school, live in a clean, prosperous place, free of heavy religious indoctrination, you had to move to either one of the tech hub cities or to one of the established mega cities that have also done well. There was a selection for certain types of people to move to these locations in order to pursue their economic interests.

All the elements were there for people to move to live in likeminded, culturally homogeneous communities—but what Bishop seems to miss is the impetus to do so. “Like attracts like” isn’t enough, people need a serious threat to their material wellbeing to move. Stirling supplies this.

So, where are we now?

I haven’t said much about that market segmentation comment above—so here it comes. Politics has finally learned from marketing and has started running political campaigns, especially Presidential campaigns, as if they were marketing campaigns. Bishop documents how the Republicans first did this in 2004, when, upon review of survey data and historical voting patterns by county, they realized that true independents were actually just 10% of the population—completely against the popular wisdom of the time. They focused on messaging to get their base to turnout and completely ignored independents and Democrats. They marketed to their base. The Democrats figured this out for 2008 and the Obama campaign adopted the same tactics, leading to a massive win.

Most of the country supports one party or the other, so the challenge isn’t convincing people to switch their vote or even to have a discussion, but it is instead to activate enough of a party’s base to win the election. Campaigns are now marketing events, almost totally ignoring the other party’s base. This works because homogeneous communities where everyone mostly agrees on major issues have a tendency to spiral off into more extreme and conformist views. Seemingly minor decisions or opinions or product choices tie upward to political party affiliation. Our political culture has become some horrible lifestyle branding initiative.

We have lost the commons, so our challenge is now to recreate it, by either finding cross-cutting issues that can tie these two lifestyles back together, or by creating a new platform that allows them to coexist while still securing the existence and continued prosperity of the US. The future tech economy must happen, but we need everyone to come along for the ride.