The man who wrote the definitive work on how Americans have become splintered by their politics says the problem has only gotten worse. But there is a solution.
In an increasingly polarised country, both presidential candidates attempted to position themselves as post-partisan options in 2008. John McCain was viewed as a “maverick,” less beholden to the Republican Party’s dogmatic demands than others, whereas Barack Obama offered the possibility of overcoming not only racial divides but also the growing gulfs between red and blue on the electoral map, according to Politico news.
It was a good idea. Bill Bishop could tell it wasn’t true.
After all, Bishop had just published The Big Sort: Why America’s Clustering of Like-Minded People Is Tearing Us Apart that spring. It gave hard numbers and a catchy name to something that people from coast to coast were already feeling. Americans were becoming deeply divided — trying to sort themselves according to income, occupation and education, religion, lifestyle, and worldviews. This, in turn, would have far political implications.
The statistics backed him up. In 1976, 26.8 percent of voters lived in “landslide” counties — counties, that is, in which the winner in the presidential election won by more than 20 percent. In 1996, it was 42.1, and by 2004, it was nearing half. “Americans are increasingly unlikely to find themselves in the mixed political company,” Bishop wrote — “pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred,” as he put it, “that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people” who lived differently, thought differently, voted differently. People weren’t picking presidents — they were choosing sides.
At a time when the country is struggling to deal with its most polarising and controversial issues — reproductive rights and gun control — I asked Bishop if Americans are in any better shape to overcome the crippling tribalism he documented 14 years ago. He was not inspiring.
Bishop, 68, is now retired from a journalism career that took him from Kentucky to Texas, where he helped found and continues to contribute to The Daily Yonder, a publication that covers rural issues. He moved from blue, cosmopolitan Austin to red, rural La Grange about five years after his book came out, in an effort to follow his own advice (“Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarises,” he wrote in The Big Sort) and re-sort himself on the other side of the divide. That decision is one of the reasons he was able to end our conversation on a somewhat optimistic note about the ability of communities to transcend national politics and work together to solve difficult problems.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Kruse: Is there any way in which the Big Sort has gotten better? Or has the country just gotten more and more “Big Sorted”?
Bill Bishop: The numbers that we use show that it’s just increased. Twenty-six percent of the electorate in 1976 lived in one of those 60-40 counties. And that’s only looking at Republican and Democratic voters. And by 2016 it was 60 percent. Rhodes Cook looked at super-sorted counties — that gave 80 percent or more of its two-party presidential vote — and found that 20 percent of the nation’s counties gave 80 percent. All the numbers point in that same direction.
Kruse: The Big Sort is now the Bigger Sort.
Bishop: There you go. I could have said that.
Kruse: Rereading The Big Sort over the last few days, made me think about the 2004 election in a new way and made me wonder: Is it fair to look at that election in some sense as the first election of the rest of our political lives?
Bishop: Our conclusion was that we’re sorting in all kinds of ways, so it’s not primarily political — we see it in politics because we can measure it that way. But when people look at what church you go to, some churches become bluer, some churches become redder, and people will change their church or change their religion in order to be with their political group. And clubs will go that way. So, when we began looking at all the different aspects of life, they all began to show the same sorting into like-minded groups — based on essential identity. And so the underlying engine of all this is identity and expression. It’s who I am.
People just know when they get to the place where they’re around people who are like themselves. And so when James Gimpel at the University of Maryland showed people houses — would you want to live in this neighborhood or live in that neighborhood? — Republicans like the big houses with more yards and Democrats like the Jane Jacobs-y houses with the front porches and close to one another. And that is replicated over and over and over and over again. All this is about lifestyle and about identity — and, oh, every four years, it’s about politics.
Kruse: There is this section, though, in which you sit down with Matthew Dowd, the George W. Bush strategist, and he outlines the ways that he and the Bush campaign that year took advantage of this reality, saw the political utility within this reality in a maybe new way. Is it fair to see that as something of a shift in that presidential election cycle?
Bishop: Yeah. Except what they did was copy the megachurch.
Kruse: Right. They took what worked socially and in a religious context from a flat-out messaging standpoint, a marketing standpoint, and applied it fairly directly to a political campaign.
Bishop: You could see that people don’t come to a big church necessarily because of the preacher. They come because their friends come. And so what Dowd and those people figured out was you get the local person who becomes the local organizer. And they did that within the church. They would have a person in charge of each church to be that because it wasn’t about the head of the campaign. It was about the social group that people belonged to. And then Obama and Democrats and Republicans from then on realized they could do the same thing online.
Kruse: It’s interesting though, because in 2004, when Dowd is doing what he’s doing for the Bush campaign, Obama, pre-President Obama, pre-Senator Obama, is standing on a stage in Boston at the Democratic National Convention saying essentially there are no red states or blue states, there is only the United States, and then he runs for president and takes advantage — perhaps even better than the Bush campaign did in 2004 — of the big sort. Or am I wrong?
Bishop: I could see that they had organizers within Facebook so that friends would bring friends into the campaign, just like friends brought friends into the church. It’s just the way people organize themselves. It’s just another example of how in the big picture identity has become — I mean, politics now isn’t about dividing stuff up. It’s not about, as it was in the old days, getting roads in Kentucky. Now it’s about identity. All the other ways that people develop their identity or have developed their identity since time began in groups and in communities and in families and at work — all those have lost meaning.
People are given the task of creating their own identities every day, which is what Facebook and Twitter are all about. A bunch of European sociologists describes this breakdown of community and how the individual has become the artist of his own or her own life and is given this daily task of creating a self. And so politics now plays that role. People use politics to create identity, not to divide up stuff. The policy that is in place under Trump is hated by Democrats. If the same policy remains under a Democratic president, then Democrats like it.
Kruse: This is why Joe Biden has had such trouble with Build Back Better. People actually don’t care about that stuff as much.
Bishop: Not apparently. It used to be that’s what it was all about: Can you get my road paved? You’re delivering a good that is no longer valued in a society where identity and expression are paramount. The most important cultural capital that you can have these days is to be singular. So the most outrageous, the most indignant, the most this or that — they become our leaders.
Kruse: Do you think Donald Trump read The Big Sort?
Bishop: No, no-no. I think it’s what he sees.
Kruse: Right. Let’s just stipulate that Trump did not actually read The Big Short. But does Trump understand The Big Sort?
Bishop: I think he understands what identity means and how to use that craving that people have for identity and for expression to his advantage. So it’s gone from splitting up the goods of society to: Is politics giving me an opportunity to express my identity?
I gave talks all around. One of the best discussions I had was with the chamber of commerce, I think, in Oklahoma City, and the people who most wanted to deny that a lot of this stuff was happening were our liberal friends. It’s somebody’s fault, it’s Trump’s fault, it’s right-wing Christians who are creating this — and it’s, like, no, really, we’re all in this, it’s a social change. And they didn’t like it.
Kruse: I wonder if those liberal people you just referenced would see it more clearly if you were back giving that talk to the same group today.
Bishop: Good question. But would they see themselves? I mean, the interesting thing about the guy who looked at the 80-percent counties: Most of the counties were Trump counties. But Biden got more votes out of 80-percent of counties than Trump got out of 80-percent of counties.
People talk about, “Oh, it’s rural this or that.” Of course, I moved to a rural county.
Kruse: Why did you do that, by the way?
Bishop: We had lived in the heart of Austin. I had a picture of this dog in my little group of slides [for presentations]. You would go up to the polls, and there was somebody with their dog. Of course, city people take their dogs everywhere. And I said, “Oh, what’s the name of the dog?” And the woman said, “Oh, my dog’s name is Che.” And it’s like, OK, I know where I am, you know? The diversity of small towns is more interesting than the sort of mono-politics of the big city.
Kruse: So that’s been a conscious decision on your part at various points in your life to not live in those monocultures?
Bishop: Well, I live in an 80-percent Trump county.
Kruse: The anti-Austin.
Bishop: The anti-Austin. But we know everybody. People in Austin would be horrified, but it’s more diverse than Austin in that sense — in the way people live. It’s more diverse racially too.
Kruse: And how is it more diverse politically if it’s just sort of Austin flipped on its head from a voting standpoint?
Bishop: Because everybody knows everybody. Everybody goes to the same church. Everybody goes to the same clubs. The town isn’t big enough to have a liberal club over here and a conservative club over there. If you’re working on X problem, you work with everybody, and so the size of the place mitigates segregation.
Kruse: Which is why it’s beneficial, perhaps, to be in a place like that rather than a bigger neighborhood in a bigger city where everybody thinks the same stuff?
Bishop: It’s just more interesting. I mean, the mayor checks out groceries. We have a Black woman mayor in La Grange in an 80-percent Trump county who checks out groceries. Which is why she got elected. Everybody knows her, and everybody trusts her.
Kruse: If nothing else, living in a smaller town almost by definition makes you less likely to be virulently anti-government?
Bishop: There are some people …
Kruse: So they’re virulently anti-government, but they still like seeing the mayor bagging their groceries?
Bishop: Right. But we have our fair share of people who think Texas should secede and all that other business.
Kruse: Would she still be the mayor?
Bishop: She would still be the mayor of La Grange.
Kruse: You wrote an afterword [to a new edition] in January of 2009 — the month Obama was inaugurated. And at the time there was a chunk of the country that thought here is a chance to sort of lessen some of the implications of the big sort, to come together, quote-unquote, as one country again. Looking back, it seems ridiculous how wrong we were. But you literally right there at the beginning of that afterword said so: “America came out of the recent presidential election more divided than it had been in November of 2004.” And then at the end of that afterword — the last sentence — I just want to reread the last sentence: “The message people living in a democracy must understand more than any other message is that there are Americans who aren’t just like you, they don’t live like you, they don’t have families like yours, and they don’t think like you, they may not live in your neighborhood, but this is their country, too.”
Bishop: Not much has changed.
Bishop: We’re just stuck in this. It’s depressing.
Kruse: I was hoping…
Bishop: I get around it by — in a small town, you can help other people. We help one another. We had a flood here, Hurricane Harvey, that was almost five years ago now — 80-percent Trump county and we needed our Saint James Episcopal Church room [for a meeting]. And most people who got flooded out were Hispanic, and the Catholic priest got up and said, “We need to help these people. But if you ask them for their names, addresses, Social Security numbers, all that stuff, they won’t come because a lot of them are illegal. So don’t ask.” And there was no discussion. People just agreed: We’re helping — we’re not asking. And so people just came in. They got helped.
When you’re working on a problem that’s right in front of you and it’s not abstracted and it’s not about identity, it’s about somebody’s hungry and doesn’t have any clothes, then all those other issues begin to go away. They go away and you deal with people as they are and not as an ideologue. And it’s a great feeling. It is the greatest there is. You solve this problem not by talking about it, but by doing stuff. So don’t talk about it — do something. We’re not going to become good people and get over this modern problem because of a great leader. We’re going to get over it because we work with others who aren’t like ourselves.
Kruse: So really more of us who live in cities, and not just Washington, D.C., New York, LA, San Francisco, but Louisville and Austin and Charlotte and Nashville — we need to move to the country.
Bishop: It’s not an answer — but at least it doesn’t make you crazy.