Book Review: The Big Sort

Over the last 15 years Americans have physically sorted ourselves into cultural enclaves that share strikingly similar tastes in everything from cars and clothes to churches and politics.  Bill Bishop isn’t the first observer to point this out, but his new book The Big Sort is the deepest analysis of the phenomenon’s origins and political effects so far. 

One of the first big discussions we had on this blog was a debate over the roles of targeted micro messages and unifying macro themes and this book breaks down the demographics behind that debate. Americans have retreated into enclaves of “image tribes” as divided by geography as they are by ideas and tastes and according to Bishop, there’s very little common dialog left.


Americans are extremely mobile, and as we move across the country we’ve been relocating to counties that reflect our worldviews and tastes.  A typical San Francisco resident wouldn’t even think of moving to Midland Texas, (where would one find an organic banana muffin served by such expressively tattooed café staff?) but a conservative living in Seattle is often pretty eager to get away from things people like this and liberals living in Nebraska feel the same way.  Now, imagine that process millions of times across the nation and you get the idea.

Bishop details these trends and then hones in on a well researched psychological phenomenon – rather than moving towards the average group view, a homogenous collection of people will get more extreme in their views over time.  In other words, our opinions are much more extreme than they would have been if we’d lived in mixed communities.  This, not redistricting, is what’s produced our age of division and this trend has only accelerated over the last decade.

This is why I’m so skeptical of mass political messaging.  Even Obama’s milquetoast HopeChange™ message – which essentially says nothing – manages to turn off whole demographics.  Occasionally something cuts broadly across demographic lines, but it’s difficult, rare and very hard to manufacture.  Politicians and activists need to meet the electorate where they are, and there’s simply no mass market anymore.

No goo-goo redistricting proposal is going to change these fundamental realities and everyone in politics needs to grapple with these trends.  I strongly recommend picking up the Big Sort; while it’s fundamentally about wonky demographic data, it’s presented in a readable style and Bishop’s underlying analysis is critical to understanding modern politics.

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Straighten up and fly right

Straighten up and fly right Josh, you were on a role untill: 

"Even Obama’s milquetoast HopeChange™ message – which essentially says nothing – manages to turn off whole demographics."

A cheap shot like that detracts from the point you were making, and does not encourage a reader to go to the posted links...