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Bishop: The Big Sort

A couple of years ago a friend of ours popped a CD of praise music into the CD player at her moms group meeting, and one of the other moms responded with something like

Oh let’s not listen to that; we wouldn’t want anyone to think we support the war in Iraq.

At the time the connection struck me as odd; I mean, I don’t especially like contemporary praise and worship music, and I don’t and never have supported the Iraq War, but I didn’t see the two as related. I mean, “Here I Am To Worship” dates from December 2001 [link] and the Iraq War didn’t begin until March 2003 [link]. Etc.

The link came to mind repeatedly as I read Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart [link]. Credit where due: I first heard about this book on Brian Daugherty’s blog [link]; see also [link]. Bishop’s main thesis is that there are basically two kinds of voters in the United States, and they tend to live in homogeneous communities consisting of exactly one kind of people: those who vote the way they do.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but then Bishop is engaging in a vast oversimplification. For some reason the 2000 Presidential election separates the past, loosely defined, from the current era, loosely defined, in the minds of many people, and Bishop is one of those people. He talks confidently about Red States (states whose Electoral College votes were casts for George W. Bush in 2000) and Blue States (similarly Al Gore) and suggests that the people who cast their votes for Bush or Gore live in increasingly separate worlds; not just Red or Blue counties, but Red or Blue precincts, neighborhoods, social circles, and churches.

It is of course the last part (Red Churches, Blue Churches) that interests me, and I think it’s worth a post of its own. But that’s not this one.

Reading Bishop’s book I wondered why he chose the method he chose; why 2000? Why Presidential voting results? Because after all not many people actually take their primary identity from this distinction. I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the pastor at the church I attend tends to vote for Democrats or Republicans. When we had two the prevailing rumor was that one voted one way, the other the other. I never found out which was which.

I am tempted to conclude that this is because

  1. The data is available, more or less. The 2000 campaign was national and was much more data-driven than the 1996 campaign.
  2. Elected offices are very important prizes to modern people. They’re not just positions of power, influence, and indirect wealth; they represent our faith in the modern nation-state if not modernity itself.
  3. In many areas in 2000 the Republicans did a very good job of exploiting existing affinity groups. This was apparently part of the genius of Karl Rove.

So when we learn for example that Republicans were able to sniff out religious conservative voters by asking questions about land use and property rights (page 231) maybe it’s reasonable to conclude that the story above about praise music and war support isn’t so strange; it’s just a matter of an amateur doing the same thing for free a professional does for money. Or votes.

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