A fascinating new book argues that Americans are forming separatist ‘lifestyle tribes’, cut-off pockets of like-mindedness within towns and cities. How did this happen – and how can it be challenged?
Almost everyone has heard of the Republican Party ‘red states’ and the Democratic Party ‘blue states’ in America. But the meaning of these labels has changed over time. ‘Red’ and ‘blue’ no longer refer just to states (as in whether a majority in any one of the 50 states will vote for one party or another), but also to groups of people: for example, we now speak of ‘blue pockets’ within red states, and vice versa.
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Moreover, ‘red’ and ‘blue’ have evolved beyond party identification per se, to a whole array of associated characteristics and views – liberal/conservative, urban/rural, atheist/church-going, pro-gun-control/gun-owning, and so on.
At the same time, marketing firms and pollsters have been telling us that people within traditional demographic groupings – such as gender, race or age – display less uniformity in behaviour, and so these categories are less helpful ways of understanding trends. These categories have been overtaken by a proliferation of micro-groups based on lifestyles: for example, the city of Portland, Oregon is said to be based on ‘books, beer, bikes and Birkenstocks’ (and no prizes for guessing which side of the red/blue divide they fall on).
Now comes along a fascinating book that contends that these types of divisions in America have become more entrenched than ever. In The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop argues that Americans are increasingly clustering into enclaves of the like-minded – with people who share the same ways of life, beliefs and political views. In other words, the same lifestyles. This leads to a splintering of the country, as those whose lifestyles are different are likely to live in another area, which itself is likely to consist mainly of the like-minded.
So much for red/blue states, or even counties: Bishop finds that Americans are forming separate tribes in their neighborhoods, churches and volunteer groups. He describes how, after the invasion of Iraq, his neighbors in a section of Austin, Texas got together and decided to print anti-war t-shirts and bumper stickers. The agreed-upon slogan was simply ‘78704 PEACE’. ‘In Austin, zip codes have political meaning’, writes Bishop.
Bishop’s distinctive contribution is to highlight that Americans are increasingly seeking out the like-minded, and picking up and moving to live with them.
He first began his research on city growth dynamics in a series of articles for the Austin American-Statesman in 2002. With the assistance of Robert Cushing, a retired professor of sociology from the University of Texas at Austin, Bishop analysed migration patterns within the country. Historically, the US has witnessed greater internal movement than other developed countries, but the extent of that movement has increased even more in recent years. Bishop cites a statistic which shows that, over the past three decades, ‘more people moved from one county to another in a single year than new population was added nationally in four years’.
Bishop was surprised to find that the reasons people were moving had changed. Previously, most moves were related to income, such as relocating to take a better-paying job. He discovered that money still matters, but ‘culture, faith and politics’ had become more important than economics in determining the exact location. People seek out those with similar lifestyles: ‘The flows were selective, and they varied by personal characteristics, not broad demographic descriptions.’
The trend has gone so far that developers are now building ‘lifestyle communities’. A developer in Orange County, California, surveyed likely residents about their beliefs and values, asking how strongly people agreed with statements such as ‘we need to treat the planet as a living system’ and ‘I have been born again in Jesus Christ’. The result was different ‘communities’: ‘Covenant Hills’ for the faithful (big family rooms and traditional suburban architecture) and ‘Terramor’ for the ‘cultural creatives’ (bamboo floors and a ‘culture room’ instead of a family room). Bishop writes: ‘More than 16,000 people live in the subdivision now, and what’s vaguely creepy (well, maybe not so vaguely) is that people drive in the same entrance and then split off into neighborhoods designed for different lifestyles and values.’
A key indicator that Bishop uses to ascertain the degree of like-mindedness is voting patterns in presidential elections. In particular he analyses ‘landslide counties’ – counties where one party won by 20 percentage points or more. In the 1976 election between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, just over 26 per cent of the nation’s voters lived in landslide counties; by 2004, nearly half (48.3 per cent) lived in communities where the election wasn’t close at all (even though, if you looked only at the overall result, the 2004 election was one of the closest in history).
But voting patterns are not the only indicator of cultural similarity, and as Bishop notes, the ‘Big Sort’ is not ‘about how Americans vote every couple of years. It is a division in what they value, in how they worship, and in what they expect out of life.’
Bishop also argues that the clustering is not an entirely conscious decision-making process. He tells the story of when he and his wife first moved to Austin and were driving around house-hunting. They sought a neighbourhood that ‘felt comfortable, seemed right’. Sure enough, the one they picked (Travis Heights) turned out to be the most liberal area in town, perfectly in line with their political views, even though that wasn’t one of their criteria.
People don’t need to check voting records before deciding where to live, says Bishop, because ‘it’s simple enough to tell a place’s politics just by looking’. As marketing firms found when researching voters during the 2006 mid-term elections, being a Democrat or Republican today indicates a complete lifestyle package:
‘Democrats want to live by their own rules. They hang out with friends at parks or other public places. They think religion and politics shouldn’t mix. Democrats watch Sunday morning news shows and late-night television. They listen to morning radio, read weekly news-magazines, watch network television, read music and lifestyle publications, and are inclined to belong to a DVD rental service. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to own cats.
‘Republicans go to church. They spend more time with family, get their news from Fox News or the radio, and own guns. Republicans read sports and home magazines, attend Bible study, frequently visit relatives, and talk about politics with people at church. They believe that people should take more responsibility for their lives, and they think that overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorists. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to own dogs.’
‘None of this is particularly shocking’, says Bishop (well, I for one hadn’t heard about the cats and dogs). But, he adds, ‘what is new is that some of us appear to be acting on this knowledge’ – that is, people are moving to escape Republicans and join towns with more Democrats, and vice versa.
What is also interesting is that, as residential segregation according to lifestyle increases, other forms of segregation are lessening. Racial segregation, in particular, has declined.
So, does it matter that communities are becoming more homogeneous? Yes, Bishop argues, because the process of clustering has very negative consequences for civic relations and political life. As the subtitle of his book puts it, ‘the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart’.
Due to clustering, Americans are less likely to encounter someone with different views in their town, and this contributes to a distorted view of the nation overall. As the playwright Arthur Miller put it during the 2004 general election, ‘How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?’ For a long time it’s been said that Miller’s Manhattan is an ideological as well as physical island; Bishop’s point is that now the entire country is made up of such islands.
Bishop says that, with less exposure to, and interaction with, those who don’t share the same cultural activities or views, ‘others’ are less well-known and people assume the worst about them. Republicans in clustered communities are more likely to think that all Democrats are extreme liberals, and isolated Democrats seem to think Republicans are gun-toting rednecks. Americans are forming ‘balkanised communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible’, says Bishop.
A dead giveaway is when one group in Bishop’s research will start talking about another as ‘those people’, as if they were from another planet: ‘Pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.’ However, Bishop does not elaborate upon how nasty these conversations (or actions) can become, precisely because they are so personal. In particular, he does not address the discussion of how blue liberal elites look down on red conservative workers as inferiors, which has been a debating point in recent elections, including the current one (1).
Bishop also writes about ways, other than residential segregation, in which people are self-selecting to limit their exposure to diverse views. Following territory well-ploughed by other writers before him, he cites the explosion of media outlets, such as hundreds of cable TV channels and the internet, and how people choose the news that fit their existing outlook. ‘We now live in a giant feedback loop’, he says.
Bishop is particularly concerned about the consequences of community clustering for politics. Here he is a less steady guide than when discussing the basic trends. Bishop cites such problems as a ‘growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible’, and ‘politics so polarised that Congress is stymied’. He ties these political developments to his main thesis, the clustering of the like-minded. In particular, he notes that, without any counter-balance, people within ideologically homogeneous communities tend to develop more extreme views and, in turn, elect politicians who share those zealous outlooks. This leads, Bishop says, to bitter partisanship in Congress and an inability to solve pressing national problems.
In this regard, Bishop criticises those who, like the academic Morris Fiorina, stress that political leaders are to blame for partisanship. Fiorina is the much-cited author of The Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, and his main thesis is that most Americans hold moderate views on most policy issues, and that it is elected officials and their parties who push extreme divisions (2). Bishop believes that the process is both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’, and he essentially thinks that voters get the officials they deserve: ‘They represent us, and they represent a people who don’t know and don’t understand those who live just a couple of miles away.’ (3)
But in his discussion of politics, Bishop confuses policies with lifestyles – or, to put it another way, issues discussed in political terms versus issues discussed from the perspective of lifestyle. This is disappointing, because elsewhere in the book Bishop seems to appreciate the distinction, such as when he writes ‘elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life’. In this respect, what Bishop and Fiorina are arguing is not mutually exclusive: Fiorina says that most Americans have middle-of-the-road views on policy issues, but we also know that elections and politics generally today are not contested on the basis of policies, but instead they are arenas for the expression of lifestyle choices. I can agree with Bishop that we shouldn’t one-sidedly focus on a ‘top down’ process, and that the interactions between elected officials and the electorate work in both directions in a complex manner. But the important point is that this interaction is now more likely to be mediated by means of lifestyle connections than shared views on policies.
Furthermore, when bemoaning extreme views and partisanship, Bishop slips into a well-worn discussion today on so-called ‘hyper-partisanship’ (4). At worst, the participants seem to throw their hands up and say ‘oh why can’t we all get along?’. In fact, there is nothing wrong with extreme ideas or with partisanship – so long as we are debating real political and economic ideas. The problem with the extremism and partisanship of recent years is that it has to do with lifestyle, not policies – which accounts for the petty nature of many of the squabbles in Washington.
Bishop is also less sure-footed when he ventures to explain why Americans are seeking refuge in like-minded enclaves. The primary rationale he puts forward is economic. He postulates that postwar prosperity meant that Americans had the freedom to decide on careers and where to live: ‘Freed from want and worry, people were reordering their lives around their values, their tastes, and their beliefs.’ But he also presents a socio-cultural argument: that in the 1960s, trust in institutions fell dramatically and traditional ways of life were called into question. People found the process of change disorienting and a cause of anxiety. In a ‘post-material world’, they had the freedom to move to try to find security.
All of these are reasonable factors to consider, but they fall short of a full explanation. In particular, Bishop’s account downplays developments in politics – most notably, the demise of the contestation of ideas following the end of the Cold War. Politics appears exhausted, devoid of big ideas, and in such an environment it is not entirely surprising that individuals would turn inward, focus on lifestyle, and hunker down in their neighbourhoods.
Bishop’s explanation, focused on the 1960s, also does not account for the noticeable hardening of lifestyle politics in recent years. This form of ‘politics’ became most prominent during the 2000 and 2004 elections, when parties no longer believed it was possible to win over others and focused on invigorating their bases. For example, President George W Bush’s adviser Karl Rove pursued a ‘51 per cent’ strategy – rather than appeal across the board, the Republicans were content in securing their base as long as they won, no matter how slim the margin. In 2004, battlelines were drawn over lifestyle issues – abortion, guns, gays, and so on. Voters said that a major factor in determining which president they selected was on the basis of who they could identify with on a personal level. Many liberals criticised Bush in cultural terms (dumb Texan) rather than on the grounds of policy disagreements.
What’s confusing is that the greater attention paid to elections more recently gives the appearance of a reinvigoration of politics, when in fact it is the opposite. People have turned away from what is traditional politics – engaging in debate, seeking to win others to your reasoning – and towards the pursuit of lifestyle. Many have become totally disengaged from the political process (or only tune in when election time rolls around), but those who do enter the arena today are more likely than not to do so from the perspective of lifestyle. In particular, many use party political affiliations, or support for particular candidates, as a key component of their personal identity, of defining who they are. Those who have the most t-shirts and bumper stickers might seem like the most ‘political’, but they are not expressing a desire to engage in politics, they are flashing their badges of identity to the world. These types are in fact the least political – they prefer not to talk to others with different views, or if they do, they simply shout at them.
An interesting question is whether this year’s election contest between Barack Obama and John McCain will overcome the divide in politics Bishop discusses, and render his book effectively past its sell-by date. Both candidates preach against ‘hyper-partisanship’ and polarisation, and both present themselves as centrists willing to buck their parties’ hardcore constituents. Moreover, a greater number of people say they are exasperated with the knock-down, drag-out culture wars.
But, if you look more closely, you can see politics is, if anything, becoming more, not less, viewed through the prism of lifestyle. Consider the Democratic Party primary: Obama gained the support of certain cultural types, and Hillary won the support of other cultural types. In fact, it was remarkable how the red-blue divide, which was originally a divide between parties, had now become so ingrained that it had infiltrated the Democratic Party itself. The controversy around Obama’s ‘Bittergate’ comments (that white workers ‘cling to guns or religion’) showed that this issue still touches a nerve in society. Finally, the basis of Obama’s support seems to be more on the grounds of ‘he’s like me’, rather than ‘I agree with his ideas’. Notice how many liberals expressed shock at Obama’s apparent ‘flip-flops’ on issues recently, even though it is clear from Obama’s political history and writings that he has always been an opportunist (5).
Like other popular sociology works in recent years – such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, and David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise – Bishop’s book is likely to become an important reference point. For this reason, and because there is much of value in it, I recommend reading and debating The Big Sort – preferably with someone who doesn’t share your lifestyle.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.
The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bob Bishop and Robert G Cushing, is published by Houghton Mifflin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) See Barack Obama and the politicisation of lifestyle, by Frank Furedi, 9 June 2008
(2) Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, by Morris P Fiorina, Samuel J Abrams and Jeremy C Pope, Longman, 2005.
(3) General Cluster: Bill Bishop on ‘The Big Sort’, Express Night Out, 25 June 2008
(5) See Who is Barack Obama?, by Sean Collins, 6 June 2008.
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