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The Big Sort-sort of

Books | Americans have a long history of clustering into groups

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

Peter Piper picks a peck of potential problems, then peppers his ponderings with pessimistic points. That's the formula for many sky-is-falling non-fiction books, and one of them is Bill Bishop's The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans Is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). The subtitle displays Bishop's dire prediction: Americans are hunkering down in enclaves only with people like themselves, so the center will not hold.

Sounds bad, but journalists do best when they know some history, and Bishop does not seem aware that the U.S. melting pot has always produced whole-berry rather than jellied cranberry sauce. A century ago races of a feather flocked together by law, and we also had more ethnicsegregation by custom than we do today. Voting by religion is also nothing new: The Democratic-Catholic connection a century ago was as strong as the Republican-evangelical connection of recent years.

Bishop (and many pundits who want to do away with the Electoral College) complains that most states aren't political battlegrounds, but from 1860 through 1924 fewer than a third of Electoral College votes came from competitive states. All eight of the Republicans who moved into the White House by election during that period were from the crucial battleground states of Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio.

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Bishop does note accurately that segregation by education has increased, as those with advanced degrees cluster and intermarry. He makes some other worthwhile points as well but doesn't examine the way the Democratic Party in the 1970s moved away from the 1940s-1960s consensus by becoming socially liberal and internationallypacifistic. That contributed to voter polarization, particularly because a responsive GOP temporarily stopped being merely a slightly-less-spendthrift party and took a stand on vital issues such as abortion.

A deeper question is whether good fences hurt or help American politics. Bishop thinks enclaves are politically bad, but political theorist Robert Dahl wrote over three decades ago that a "pattern of cleavages"-by faith, geography, race, class, and political party-had been a source of stability for the United States. James Madison had forecast the same in his famous Federalist Paper #10: Factions could help rather than hinder America's republican democracy, because in our large country no one faction would be able to gain a majority and establish itself as dictator. Competing interests would have to converse and compromise. My tendency is not to defend enclaves, since a mix of people makes life more interesting, and I'm loving New York's diversity: Think of a good salad as opposed to a wedge of lettuce. But we should maintain our freedom to live in city or suburb: The Big Sort, in that sense, displays the left's drive for equality as opposed to the right's emphasis on liberty.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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