Seek Out the Wrong Sort
Bill Bishop, co-author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about what he’s learned since the publication of his book in 2008. Together, they consider how we’ll cope with the further fragmentation of American society.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’m sure that lots of people pick up your book at Barnes & Noble, look at the cover, and think “Okay, there are red states, there are blue states, they’re different, got it.” But the actual argument of the book is more subtle than that. Could you tell me a little bit about what you and Bob Cushing discovered about the changing role of place in American life?
Bill Bishop: When we began, we actually weren’t interested in politics. We were interested in economics. We wanted to understand why places like Austin were zooming off while places like the part of Kentucky that I came from or Gary, Indiana and lots of other places like that just weren’t doing very well.
What we found was that over the past 30 years, these places were getting increasingly different from one another in ways that have powered those changes in the economy. People with education have concentrated in some places rather than others. Patents are issued to people in some places rather than others. Technological development was concentrated in some places rather than others. As people’s movement across the country increased, people were landing in certain places rather than others. So the world wasn’t getting flatter — it was getting spikier. It was only after all that work that Bob said, “I wonder what would happen if we looked at the vote.”
So we had a typology of 21 cities across the country that produced a higher number of patents per person and a higher degree of technological output. In 1980, those cities voted in about the same way the nation voted in the presidential election. But over the next 20 years, the tech cities became increasingly Democratic and the cities that were less technologically-oriented became increasingly Republican. From there we began to look at counties, which is the smallest unit of aggregation you can get to measure data over time. At that point we saw that this “sorting” effect was increasing dramatically at that level over time.
So we started looking at this as an economic phenomenon, not a political one. And we still think that politics is kind of the tail on the dog. Fundamentally, people are creating communities around people who do the same things that they do, that look the same way that they look, that buy the same kind of stuff that they buy. It only comes out politically every four years.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: In the book, you position your narrative against another one that you hear a lot, which is the idea that the divisions in the nation are really just divisions in the country’s political elite, and when you get away from Washington most regular folks still get along. But it seems as if you proved that that’s not the case — in fact, you show that politics isn’t even the main thing driving our divisions.
Bill Bishop: In fact, we may have overstated the significance of politics. Yes, there is a huge battle within political science over how divided the parties actually are. There is an argument that voters are actually pretty mushy on most issues and are just following the leads of the elites.
But our sense is that people actually are pretty divided. There is all sorts of data, for instance, that many people are changing their religious affiliation in order to “match” their political affiliation. There is also evidence that the rise in people who say that they have no religion is mainly accounted for by people who are more liberal and want to make a political statement. They see that people with more conservative values are the ones going to church every week, so they identify as “nonreligious” in order to separate themselves from those people.
Our feeling is that what’s really going on is that politics has become tied up with “lifestyle” in a way that it really never was before. Factors like class and occupation don’t mean as much anymore, in the white population at least. But what does mean something is whether you own a Prius or get a subscription to Guns & Ammo. In fact, those are the kind of things that politicians now look at when guessing how you’ll vote.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It also seems important to note that everyone knows which party is which in that scenario. I mean, I’m sure that if you let Sherlock Holmes loose in 1920s America he could have studied someone’s personal habits and told you who they voted for. But absolutely everyone knows that “Prius” means liberal and “guns” means conservative. I’m sure they know it with greater certainty than they know about policy distinctions.
Bill Bishop: Right. So the result is that you don’t really need to talk to your neighbors to figure out their views. Jim Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, wrote that people now “know it in their gut.” It’s because political parties now have all of these lifestyle characteristics.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: A lot of observers of our political life will also attribute our current predicament to some sort of decline in manners. They say things like, “When will the parties learn to work together again?” Where does your book fit into that line of thinking?
Bill Bishop: I would say that we showed that problem can at least in part be traced back to their constituents. Voters are less interested in compromises that get things done and more interested in making sure their point of view is represented. It suggests that politics is actually serving a very different societal function these days. Instead of solving problems, it serves as a venue for self-expression. If self-expression is really the goal, then constituents actually are getting what they want. They’re getting a lot of expression and not a lot of problem-solving. …
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: One theme that runs through The Big Sort is that marketers are also increasingly seeing Americans through this lens of “lifestyle.” Could you tell me more about that?
Bill Bishop: Yes, that’s been going on for some time. There was an interesting paper in the 70s that asked, “Are Tricia Nixon Cox and Grace Slick the same person?” (That’s the daughter of the president and the Jefferson Airplane singer.) They both went to the same college; they were about the same age; they were both female, white, educated, rich. All the demographics were the same. But they’re clearly not the same type of person.
So the marketers of 40 years ago realized that they had to start tailoring products to lifestyle. Now that has evolved into the selling of experiences rather than products, as well as manufacturing that is able to produced individualized goods for a mass market. It only reached the political realm in 2004 when the Bush people also realized that they had to appeal to the electorate in this individual way. And the model has been refined in each election since.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So you had a number of manifestations of “the Sort”: cultural, religious, political. But could you tell me a little more about what you view as the fundamental drivers?
Bill Bishop: Economically, it has become more important to regions to have groups of educated people near each other. It also became more important to the economy that those people be more individualistic, because a higher degree of specialization leads to greater economic growth. Meanwhile, you had a number of unifying institutions such as the church and the family begin to break down. Traditional community institutions began to disappear and people were increasingly forced to devise their own identities. Seeking out people who were similar to themselves made it easier for people to construct those lives. But it also made it easier for them to pursue those lives as consumers. So if you’re into certain kinds of music or if you want to see certain types of movies, you need to live in certain places where those things are available.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: The Big Sort came out in 2008. If you were putting together a second edition, what would you add or emphasize or change?
Bill Bishop: I don’t know that there would be anything to add. Even though the election was closer in 2012, the number of people who lived in “lopsided” counties (counties that went strongly for one candidate or another) increased.
Some other folks have done additional research on the Sort and why it’s happening. There’s a paper coming out from RAND that shows that one of the biggest differences is between the percentage of people who are married. Counties or congressional districts where more people are married are overwhelmingly Republican, though marriage may be some sort of placeholder for cultural difference there. The church divisions have also increased. The Episcopal Church, for instance, has become riven by differences between left and right.
So I think that if anything, things are speeding up.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I had the same reaction when I read the book. However, I wonder if there are any follow-on effects of the Sort that you hadn’t yet anticipated.
Bill Bishop: There is a political scientist at the University of Kansas who talked about “soft secession,” the movement by state governments to essentially withdraw from national programs and regulations, or to enact laws that make it a crime to enforce those laws. That’s happening in a number of places with firearms legislation. But it’s left and right — the New York Times just ran a story on how New Orleans and other cities are telling the federal government that they won’t enforce immigration law.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Or the conflicts over marijuana legalization.
Bill Bishop: Yeah. So you have this rapid increase in cities and states zinging off in their own directions, being kind of huffy about it, demanding they be left alone. We wrote about how people were choosing to live in places where people thought like them, but this kind of rapid decentralization in the United States seems fairly unexpected.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Speaking of marijuana legalization, in the book you call out Colorado as a place whose internal dynamics are explained really well by the Big Sort. Are there any other phenomena that have occurred in the past few years that strike you as similar cases, places that can be best explained by your theory?
Bill Bishop: Colorado is a good example. When we wrote the book, we hadn’t yet seen as many dramatic examples of differences within states. The conflicts in Wisconsin are probably attributable to those differences. I have a German friend who spent some time in Dane County, where Madison is. He said that people there describe a nearby, mostly Republican county as “Mordor with lawns.” Those kinds of differences are increasing, and so the problems of Congress are now being visited upon state legislatures. …
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So one of the reasons I wanted to interview you is that we’re interested in the theme of the “atomization” of American life more generally. Since you wrote the book, have you noticed any parallel trends to the geographic “Big Sort”? Do you see any other ways in which we’re fragmenting?
Bill Bishop: Gosh, yes. As established communities are breaking down, people are living from one event-based community to the next. We have a nephew and recently saw that he had a tattoo on his arm. We asked, “What’s that?” It was a map of the United States with a flag planted out West. The flag was supposed to be the Burning Man festival — he goes every year. It was “the United States of Burning Man.” So I also see a fragmentation into these event-based communities.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’d say there are also some parallels on the cultural right or among the evangelical community. There are plenty of subcultures where the differentiator is whether you went to something rather than whether you belong to something.
Bill Bishop: We’ve been trying to collect some examples of these. In Austin it seems as if there is a different event every other week. Nationally, people form communities around Bonnaroo and Sturgis and Comic-Con. They don’t want a long-term commitment to a place or even to a club they have to attend every week. But two or three days at one of these events becomes the center of a religion. Then everyday life becomes theologized — you see people forming theologies around food or wine or film.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: If you’re talking Austin, South By Southwest may be the great granddaddy of all of these event-based communities.
Bill Bishop: Or the Newport Jazz Festival. Or maybe Woodstock is the one everyone is trying to re-create. I don’t know.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: The point is that an experience like South By Southwest or TED has become a highly salient cultural marker. Look, I went to TEDActive last year — if I find out someone sitting next to me on the plane was there too, we have a lot to talk about.
Bill Bishop: They go on and on. It’s the new community. So it’s a different kind of ephemeral sorting, but it’s fundamentally the same thing. It’s people engaged in the art of identity construction.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: To the layer of “Where do you live?” you’re adding “Where have you been?”
I’d like to ask about another parallel phenomenon. You may have read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. One argument he makes is that we’ll see more art and media targeted at various micro-niches, since the Internet makes it profitable to address those audiences profitably. I feel like that also leads to a sort of fragmentation, and the easiest way to see it is in the conversations people have around television. People watch their very specific groups of shows and want to talk with other people who watch them.
Bill Bishop: Yeah. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I know we have groups of friends who regularly get together to watch Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
In general, people can’t live without community. They’re going to attempt to re-create community somehow. But it’s being re-created in ways that are more ephemeral and that don’t really demand anything from people in return.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So do you see any significant countervailing trends or efforts to resist The Big Sort?
Bill Bishop: No. No. Not really.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Well I just thought I’d check…
Bill Bishop: I think you see some movements away from this kind of hyper-individualism. The growth of Hasidic Jews in Manhattan, for example, or the Anabaptists and other forms of “neo-orthodoxy.” That’s not very large, though. And you could also view it as another kind of sorting, a kind of extreme opposite of Burning Man.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s interesting, because I think that if you asked folks who go to Burning Man, they would also view it as a sort of communitarian antidote to everyday life. But it sounds as if you view it as part of the same sorting phenomenon.
Bill Bishop: They assert their identities there. It’s mainly about performance. In that way, it’s not so different from Occupy or the Tea Party. It’s about the broadcasting of the self rather than building anything permanent. On their website, Burning Man says they “leave no footprint.” Well, they don’t. But society and community are all about footprints. That’s what’s being lost in these corporate-sponsored communities that come and go.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So have you thought about what the logical extreme of The Big Sort and these other phenomena might be?
Bill Bishop: No… as you probably know, the prediction business is no better than random. So we’ll wait and see. Something will come along. Something will shift. I haven’t seen what that something is yet. But it seems likely that inequality will continue to increase across society and from place to place. I think we’ll continue to see less ability of people to take collective action to address national problems and more policy solutions directed at individuals instead of groups, which will make them less effective. People will continue to have more and more options about where they live and how they live. People say they want choice, and they’re going to get it.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Are there any institutions in particular that you think are unlikely to survive this shift?
Bill Bishop: You see a lot of institutions already failing — family, church. Even the right-wing and evangelical churches are losing membership now. … The question is really how society is going to re-wire itself to replace those kinds of institutions and the trust that is being lost.
Here’s one example. There is a lot of interest lately in behavioral economics and “nudging” people to do this or that. You could see that as a way of attempting to govern without traditional democratic engagement. Congress is constantly looking for ways to go around the president. George W. Bush mastered the art of the “signing statement,” in which he would impose his interpretation of a law as he signed it. Obama frequently looks for ways to implement policy without going through Congress. Environmental groups are finding that it’s more effective to work at the local level because they could deal with like-minded state governments rather than a divided national government.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Have you seen any of these stories about drones and hunters?
Bill Bishop: No.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Apparently PETA said they planned to purchase drones to make sure that hunters were obeying the law, not bagging too many animals, that sort of thing. Anyway, there’s been a huge uproar among NRA types, and if you go to a gun shop you’ll see things like “PETA drone practice targets.”
Anyway, it’s a funny story, but my point is that this appears to be the relationship between environmentalists and hunters these days. It seems more reasonable to prepare to surveil each other or shoot each other than conduct a campaign of persuasion.
Bill Bishop: But it’s also another case where you ask, “Is this a real problem at all? Or is it just another case of politics as expression?”
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So this may seem like a dull question, but how do you think one might go about starting a business in the kind of cultural environment you describe?
Bill Bishop: You’d assume that your audience is more targeted. You’d probably be selling an experience rather than a good. But I don’t know — making money’s hard.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’m trying to think about brand through the lens of The Big Sort. It seems unlikely that you’d have many new brands that resemble Coca-Cola, that most people would think of as solid, reliable, middle class, etc. It seems as if you’d always have to find a niche.
Bill Bishop: Except that you have Google and Facebook. And in the real economy, monopoly has actually increased. You could view that as a consequence of our inability to take collective actions. In the agricultural business, for instance, Monsanto has 90 percent of the corn seed business. Walmart is increasing its grocery business by leaps and bounds.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I don’t have an explanation for Monsanto — it may just be that no one pays attention to agriculture anymore. But for these other brands — Google, Facebook, Apple, but also retailers like Walmart — it seems as if they win in the Big Sort world by positioning themselves as portals to all of the niches.
Bill Bishop: Right. And they are. So yeah, if you’re starting a business, your strategy would want to rely on a group or groups of like-minded people, especially since people trust their friends more than they trust advertising. I don’t know, I’m not sure I know what I’m talking about.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But wait, there’s a great example of this in your book, which is Applebee’s restaurants. Their entire strategy is to reflect back to people whatever already exists in their neighborhood. But it’s obviously just a “skin” — the actual menu is the same everywhere.
Bill Bishop: Yes. That’s an example of selling the “experience” rather than the food. You’re selling connection and community rather than a particular good. You’re selling what’s been lost across the country.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: The reason we’re investigating what life might be like in 2023 is to help figure out what the profession of law might look like that far out. Where do you think that the law might fit in to the sort of society you see us becoming?
Bill Bishop: Well, law is a given. People tend to be against givens these days. But the law does remain. It’s one of the few places where there is an established order that is not subject to the whims of individuals. In that sense, I would think that the law would be one of the slowest places to change.
Jane Jacobs has a great book called Systems of Survival. She says there are two great ethical systems or “moral syndromes,” as she calls them. One is “hunter” and the other is “trader.” In the trader syndrome, people make contracts and deals. They compete and collaborate. It’s the world of business. And in the hunter syndrome, people follow tradition. It’s the arts and the military and the law. You can see deference to tradition in everything from the judge’s outfit to the way precedent is used in the law.
So Jacobs says that societies get in trouble when “trader” and “hunter” moralities get mixed up. If the judge starts thinking of himself as a private business, he starts selling rulings. In a lot of areas, we are mixed up. Universities are now being told to make money, with terrible results. But the law seems to be a “hunter syndrome” that has resisted trader morality more than others.
That’s a long way of not answering your question. But I think it’s a valuable and underused way of understanding why people do what they do. And it tells us that “hunter” institutions need to be careful as they change and modernize, since that’s not what they were set up to do. They were set up to maintain tradition and authority.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s funny. In some ways, I would have imagined the law to be part of the “trader” syndrome. Here’s why I say that. A lot of these different subcultures you’re talking about have their own sets of traditions that outsiders will never get. Certainly I would have no idea what to do with myself at Burning Man. But Burning Man doesn’t have its own legal system. I feel like there’s a sense in which the law is something that allows relationships to form between these different groups, like a trader might.
Bill Bishop: Yeah, that’s why I think the law is different from Burning Man. I think that’s why it’s resistant to a lot of these sorting tendencies.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’d like to imagine it that way. You think of stories like To Kill a Mockingbird where the law is imagined as the great leveler. But do you think it can actually play that role sociologically? Do you think that law has the potential to be a countervailing force to The Big Sort?
Bill Bishop: It is, because it is a collective enterprise. It’s something we all live under. Every other collective enterprise is losing favor. But that’s also the danger for the institution of the law. The danger is that it will be perceived in the same way that Congress is perceived, and people will lose their faith in it. If that happens, it would be impossible for us to have that kind of collective governance.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’m trying to think of governmental institutions that are more associated with the idea of law than politics. You’ve got the Constitution. Then there’s the Supreme Court… even though that’s been politicized in some pretty significant ways, it still seems to have more cultural authority than Congress. There is an idea that our disputes will in fact be settled there.
Bill Bishop: Yes. My sense is that despite events like Bush v. Gore or the highly partisan nature of recent decisions, that seems right. But what you would really want to avoid is that the law would be as manipulable as a congressional district.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: More generally, how do you think people will handle conflict in the Big Sort world?
Bill Bishop: Increasingly, they won’t handle it at all. People will expect things to go their way. When people go into a restaurant or a store, they expect to get what they want. They are now applying many of those same consumer notions to the rest of public life. We’ve lost the understanding that we’ll need to compromise with people who are different from us, because we live with fewer people who are different from us. And because we don’t have to compromise in our everyday lives, we lose the expectation that we’ll have to compromise in our public lives.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I get it — it’s not just that you don’t have good manners. You sort of lose the sense of when you might reasonably expect conflict to occur.
Bill Bishop: Yeah. My wife and I are about to move to a place in rural Texas that is about 70 percent Republican. They have these great big church picnics out there with polka dancing and great food. But our friends from Austin are reluctant to go out there because they feel like they’re going to some foreign territory.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Sure. I’ll give you another example. Not too far from where I live, there was a survivalist convention.
Bill Bishop: Another event-based community.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: They’re anticipating a future event.
Bill Bishop: Right.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Anyway, I decided to check it out just as a kind of tourist, since I’m sort of curious about some of their specific practices, like food canning. Anyway, I felt this vague sort of suspicion toward me. It seemed like they thought I was there to stare at them or something. But I was genuinely curious. I feel like we’re losing space for those kinds of interactions, the space between absolute conflict and just ignoring each other.
Bill Bishop: That’s exactly what my wife and I have seen when we try to get people outside of Austin. It wasn’t that way 30 years ago.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems as if you folks are looking for a way to personally dissent from The Big Sort. Could you tell me about that?
Bill Bishop: Doing this project definitely led to some changes in how we think about our lives. We used to live in a town of 3500 people, and it felt like our range of acquaintances was greater than living in this city of 1.8 million. It was less predictable. The sense of community was stronger. So we just signed a contract on a house out in La Grange. In a way, that was a result of all the research and thinking that went into the book.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Okay. Well, since we can’t all move to La Grange —
Bill Bishop: Let’s hope not.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It would kind of ruin your project, wouldn’t it?
Bill Bishop: Right.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So since we can’t all move to the country, what’s your advice to folks who want to personally get out of The Big Sort?
Bill Bishop: I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how you do it. If I moved to another big city, I’d probably move to a neighborhood that’s a lot like the one I’m in now. It’s just easier. So I don’t know what you do except keep it in mind.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I would hope that if this bothered you enough to move to La Grange, it must be bothering enough other people that they’re thinking about ways to make a change.
Bill Bishop: I don’t know, I haven’t bumped into too many. Most people tend to believe that this is a problem caused by “those other people.” We’ve gotten so good at constructing our identities that we don’t do much to deconstruct our identities. But maybe the solution is finding more ways to be objective about who we really are. Maybe we need to get better at thinking about why we think the way we do.
So no, I don’t have great hopes. But I am definitely looking forward to polka dances in Fayette County, Texas.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems like a decent place to go and think about who you are.