The Big Sort – A Small Summary

I've just finished Bill Bishop's 2008 book, "The Big Sort."  The author, Bill Bishop, started research forBigSort
 the book via an examination of why Congress appears polarized in debate and in elections.  To his surprise, Bishop uncovered a much more diffuse, interesting dynamic:  Americans have been using their increased mobility to sort into geographic and political homogeneity.  Congress appears more polarized because its members represent increasingly lopsided districts, full of increasingly ideological voters.

In 1976, 26% of the nation’s voters lived in landslide counties, defined as counties where one party’s candidate for President won by twenty percentage points or more.  In 2004, that figure had exceeded 48%.  More of us live near others who vote – and engage the issues of the commonwealth generally – like us. 

The Big Sort presents a number of direct challenges to the consensus view in realms where Donjek operates – development, planning, architecture, and policy.  For this reason, I am compelled to relay a sample of them here at the Cents of Place.

• The author cites work by political scientist Michael Harrington, showing that Republicans are increasingly moving to less densely developed places, Democrats clustered in areas more dense.  Average population density for counties voting for President Bush in 2004 was 110 persons per square mile; average density for counties carried by John Kerry was 836 persons per square mile.  Such findings raise questions about the market demand for dense development that many firms implicitly assume exists outside the urban core.  But does it?

• Bishop and Cushing analyzed data sets examined by Robert Putnam in his acclaimed 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” which documented the decline of civic engagement in many American communities.  Bishop writes:

As Bob Cushing and I looked at how the Big Sort was creating greater inequality among cities – in patents, incomes, and levels of education – we wondered whether there was a relationship between culture and economic success…in fact, there was a relationship between the health of the local civic culture and the well-being of the economy.  It was negative.  The tighter the social ties, the fewer the patents, the lower the wages, and the slower the rates of growth. (p.141).

In my view, this represents a challenge not only to orthodoxy in the planning and economic development fields, but also to the premise that improving economic and financial performance is worth nearly any price.  The author appears to have taken this particular statistical finding and run with it, suggesting that weak social ties stimulate economic growth, while stressing throughout the book that social interaction and idea exchange is the most important mode of production in the modern economy.  Even in the final pages of the book, he doesn’t offer a more nuanced interpretation of his findings, which is disappointing.

• When polarization arises in conversation, the cause is frequently identified as gerrymandering – the methodical drawing of legislative boundaries to benefit incumbents.  However, Bishop points out that parties and political caucuses have an interest not in building huge majorities in certain districts and small minorities in others, but in spreading supporters to reach a plurality in as many districts as possible.  The sorting described in the book suggests a much more pervasive – and less “coordinatable” shift underway than gerrymandering.

• In a section titled “Caffeinated Federalism and the End of Consensus,” Bishop notes the emergence of “systems of issue brokering” that cross over the traditionally rigid distinction between public- and private-sector functions.  A critical challenge in the next generation will be managing the widespread misunderstanding of the importance and cost of shared infrastructure (whether provided by public or private entities), and defying the easy notion that we may consume quality services without regard to how they are financed.  

Bishop emphasizes that in part due to the Big Sort, public and private actors on the local level will provide the fuel for innovation on a regional level, or they will not.  The difference will mean everything, because the federal government remains a detached, and now increasingly mortgaged, partner for economic development.

The author’s analysis is provoking in its consideration of everything from patent filings to car models, education levels to protocol of professional attire.  He makes a strong and broad case that Americans are using increased mobility to sort into more homogenous communities, with 100 million of us picking up and moving in the 1990s alone.  However, he fails to fulfill the promise of his subtitle, to explain “why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart.”  His point is that the clustering of talent and human capital has been underway to reflect the demands of the economy of the future – but fails to reconcile these shifts with the tearing apart hypothesis.

11/07/08 Postscript
The results of the mock election in our neighborhood elementary school (which attracts most of its student body from within a two-mile radius) bear testament to the Big Sort: One of the Presidential candidates won 85% of the vote.


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