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The Coffee Guy Book Review
The Big Sort
Wednesday, January 14, 2009 • Posted January 14, 2009

The Big Sort

By Bill Bishop with Robert G. Cushing

Published by Houghton Mifflin (2008)

$25.00 Hardback

Back in the day, when I took my first film production class, we were instructed to throw a “schmooze party” so we could get to know each other better and then form partnerships for our final projects. There were to be ten final films and each team would be comprised of three budding filmmakers. Common sense held that if you partnered with like-minded folk your project would probably go more smoothly. As I mingled about at this party I began to worry that I would be the odd man out. You know, the last guy without a team who was forced on to the last pair against their will. On the surface, I just had nothing in common with any of these people – I bathed, I didn’t dress in a monochromatic scheme, I liked sports and I knew that before Godard broke the rules he actually knew the rules. But before the night was over I came across two guys arguing about the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers (usually a very one-sided argument but Dallas had gone 3-13 the previous season so Oiler fans had to take their shots while they could). Aha! I thought to myself, these are my people. And that’s how we all sorted ourselves out that night.

With The Big Sort Bill Bishop shows that over the last thirty to forty years the whole country has been sorting itself out in just that same manner. Okay, maybe not exactly on the basis of Dan Pastorini’s former team or Luis Bunuel films but closer along those lines than you might imagine. Bishop also argues (quite persuasively) that this “sorting” is tearing the country apart: “Today we see our own kind in like-minded churches, like-minded neighborhoods, and like-minded sources of news and entertainment. As we will see later in this book, like-minded, homogeneous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong. As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.”

The Big Sort starts with two illustrated maps of the United States. Each map shows the presidential election results by county for the 1976 and 2004 elections. Counties that had competitive contests (a margin less than 20%) were un-shaded while landslide (either Republican or Democratic) counties (a winning margin of over 20%) were shaded accordingly. The graphics are stunning. Just a quick glance shows that about 75% of the 1976 map held a competitive election while the 2004 map looks like the exact opposite. In other words, in the last thirty years or so we’ve migrated to either massively Republican or massively Democratic areas. In a way these two graphics sum up The Big Sort but that would be a really short book – more of a pamphlet really – so Bishop expands on this “sorting” with statistical research, well written anecdotes, historical footnotes and most importantly, an even hand.

I’m always struck by how brilliant the Founding Fathers were in their deliberations. Once again, their foresight was dead on as Bishop relates their struggle with the “right to instruct” (some framers felt that elected officials should basically govern in a vacuum with regard to their respective constituencies). Ultimately, the “right to instruct” was rejected by the framers as Founder Roger Sherman explained, “I think, when the people have chosen a representative, it is his duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community. If they were to be guided by instructions, there would be no use in deliberation.” And Cass Sunstein further explained that he “sees the rejection of the “right to instruct” as an explicit example of the framers’ realization that like-minded communities could produce extreme politics, a tendency that would be weakened by debate and understanding.”

As usual, we’re not heeding the Founding Father’s advice. Where churches used to be built around geographic communities now they’re built around personal lifestyle. And we’re seeing this in all aspects of our lives – from advertising strategy to the neighborhoods we live in. Instead of rational discourse and seeking out opposing views on issues to see all sides of things we’re insulating ourselves amongst those exactly like us. Most of us hate stereotypes yet that’s exactly what the nation is becoming. It’s “books, beer, bikes and Birkenstocks” or church, guns, open space and work boots.

Interestingly, I have gone to church, read a book, shot a gun, drank some beer, rode a bike, wore sandals, chopped wood on the family land and worn work boots – all in the same day. Perhaps that’s why I feel just as at home in Mason as I do in Austin. According to The Big Sort we’re seeing less and less of that. And that’s a shame because it’s our diversity and individual freedom that make the U.S. the greatest social experiment in the history of mankind (if not the greatest country in the history of mankind).

And in the end, gravitating toward like-minded people doesn’t guarantee success nor does it mean those same people are decent human beings. After all, half the people in my film production class ended up despising each other. And we made a bunch of terrible films.

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