Human history is about the movement of people through space and across time. Americans especially have made a totem of this idea. It’s embedded in Puritan prayers for safe passage to a new Canaan, in the literary musings of James Fenimore Cooper (“Westward Ho! Natty Bumppo …”), and in late-19th century paeans to empire. Americans, Melville confirmed, “are the peculiar, chosen people-the Israelites of our time.” The young nation’s future tracked the sun’s trajectory.
No one captured this faith in movement better than Frederick Jackson Turner. In The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893), he argued that the primary explanation for American development was the “existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward.” Such geographical thrust framed both politics and culture: “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life … furnish the forces dominating American character.” In other words, we are where we choose to move.
Though Bill Bishop focuses more specifically on American peregrinations over the last 30 years, he also believes our national character can be gauged by where we move, and more to the point, the neighbors we choose. The former Austin American-Statesman reporter opens his first book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, with a telling anecdote: When he and his wife lit out for Austin (he doesn’t say where they were lighting from), they did not “intend to move into a community filled with Democrats, but that’s what we did.” Because they liked the feel of the southside Travis Heights neighborhood, with its ubiquitous strollers, dogs, and bumper stickers (“78704Peace”), they bought a house there, happy with their homies.
But there’s trouble in this leafy paradise: Its political homogeneity is part of a disturbing national pattern. “As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics.” Travis Heights, in concert with its like-minded analogs across the country, is apparently having a profound impact on civic culture and political discourse, evoked in this startling statistic: “In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties.”
This transformation’s origin, Bishop contends, “wasn’t simply an increase of political partisanship, but a more fundamental kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division.” Because we live with folks who share our values and sensibilities, and have little daily interaction with those who think and feel otherwise, we’ve become an oppositional culture, a cantankerous nation of strangers.
The data sustaining these interrelated claims, drawn from the statistical analyses of Bishop’s gifted colleague, retired University of Texas sociologist Robert G. Cushing, are wide-ranging. The latest polling data and cultural assessments come from a tight circle of self-referential scholars and analysts-largely orbiting Richard Florida, of The Rise of the Creative Class fame. The Big Sort itself argues an arguable point: In the 1960s, the United States began unraveling.
What Bishop means by this is not that we frayed as a consequence of Vietnam War-era protests or Watergate crimes, but that we dropped our membership in the Moose Lodge and signed on with Common Cause. We withdrew from mainline Protestant congregations and took our seats in the pews of unaffiliated evangelical houses of worship. Instead of splitting our tickets in the election booth, we’ve voted straight party lines up and down the ballot. This upheaval came conjoined with what Bishop describes as an “explosion of self-expression in a post-materialist economy.” Set loose from their moorings, “freed from want and worry,” Americans began “reordering their lives around their values, their tastes, and their beliefs,” and started searching for places to live that dovetailed with their perspectives. “Location itself became a commodity.”
Although conventional wisdom affirms the accuracy of this analysis and the social costs that flow from it-a decrease in across-the-aisle contact, elevated levels of rhetorical excess, diminished civility-it does not follow that our political life has reached new levels of intemperance, or that this has had any enduring impact on our capacity to govern.
First, contemporary politics are not in fact nearly as contentious as the slugfests of the 19th century. Newspapers then were party organs, and were so slanderous as to make Fox News seem truly fair and balanced. In the 1856 debate over whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner into unconsciousness. Now that was a blood sport.
Moreover, the book’s insistence that modern partisanship has so corrupted Congress that “it had given up governing by the summer of 2006,” is unpersuasive. In toeing the commentariat’s party line about the cause of that legislative dysfunction, The Big Sort mistakes received opinion for unquestioned fact.
A more nuanced assessment would note that the GOP alone shut down Congress, reducing its working calendar to three days a week, shelving its investigative function, bottling up legislation in committee, and refusing Democrats access to hearing rooms and committee deliberations. The 2006 midterm elections broke this logjam. With a new Democratic majority, Congress now meets five days a week and has added two months to its sessions. Better, upwards of 70 percent of the 177 key bills it has enacted have secured strong bipartisan support, according to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. How did this reversal of fortune happen, and in just a few months, if we are really so fractious a people and polity?
The Big Sort‘s uncritical adoption of marketing’s trade tools is also problematic. Yes, lifestyle tribalism can tell us much about why megachurches look and even smell like shopping malls, what pages televangelists have taken from the Book of Disney, and why some citizens flock toward “books, beer, bikes, and Birkenstocks,” while other pilgrims seek “Bible studies, big backyards, and Bass Weejuns.” Still, the Republican ascendancy was not achieved simply by adopting Madison Avenue’s focus-group playbook. It was the GOP’s fielding of a stronger slate of candidates that produced the Contract with America.
Niche analysis only goes so far, in short, especially when it dispenses with the potent analytical categories of class, gender, and race. Although Bishop dismisses their relevance, this presidential primary season offers a sharp reminder of just how firmly these concepts can grab our attention and direct our votes. The campaign strategies that Clinton, McCain, and Obama pursued, like the blocs of voters who flocked to their appeals, have made it crystal clear, notwithstanding Bishop’s assumptions to the contrary, that we are not post-racial, not post-feminist, not post-materialist. Put another way: How big a sort have we actually undergone if our regrouping has left the power elite unscathed, failed to disturb the tenets of our foreign policy, and ignored festering racial divides, ethnic tensions, and gender inequalities?
Perhaps the reason these structures and ideologies remain so entrenched is the migratory impulse itself. From the colonial era through the 20th century, millions of Americans have cycled between frontier and metropole seeking economic opportunity and social stability, and rarely found either. Today, according to Bishop, we move from place to place to discover ourselves in the reflection of neighbors just like us. Have our incessant changes of location-past and present-allowed us to dodge pressing social ills and much-needed political transformation? Does all of our coming and going and self-sorting function as a safety value, venting dissatisfaction and leaving little energy to pursue radical change?
I haven’t a clue, and neither does The Big Sort. Were it a more inquisitive and demanding book, it might have helped answer these crucial queries, and in the process offered a more convincing explanation for why, in historian Turner’s words, “movement has been [our] dominant fact.”
Contributing writer Char Miller is visiting professor of history and environmental analysis at Pomona College in the bright-blue town of Claremont, Calif. He’s uncomfortable being so comfortable.