'The Big Sort': Red and Blue Divide Neighbors, Too Look around your neighborhood. Chances are the people you live near are an awful lot like you — the same politics, same values, same way of life. The consequences of all this, argues author Bill Bishop, are dire.

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GUY RAZ, host:

It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Neal Conan is away, I'm Guy Raz. For the next few days I'll be keeping this chair warm to give Neal some much deserved time off. I hope you'll bear with me as I make my way through the clocks and buttons here in studio 3A.

Today we're going to be talking about America divided. Not just red state and blue state America, but increasingly red and blue neighborhoods. These are places where folks tend to vote the same way and share the same social and political values. It's a phenomenon reporter Bill Bishop calls "The Big Sort," the sorting of Americans into like-minded communities.

Bill Bishop has just published a book called "The Big Sort." He's our guest for part of this hour and he joins us from member station KUT in Austin. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BILL BISHOP (Author, "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart"): Hi, Guy.

RAZ: Now Bill, before we get into the conversation, I was hoping you could read a brief passage from the book, the part where you describe how you and your wife chose to move to the neighborhood in Austin where you now live.

Mr. BISHOP: Oh yeah, we came and my wife drew some little smiley faces on the neighborhoods where we felt comfortable. So this is the part from the book.

(Reading) We didn't intend to move into a community filled with Democrats but that's what we did, effortlessly and without a trace of understanding about what we were doing. We bought a house on one of those smiley-face streets. A shady neighborhood of dog walkers, Jane Jacobs-approved front porches, bright paint, bowling-ball yard art, and You keep believing... we'll keep evolving! Bumper Stickers.

In 2000, George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, took 60 percent of the state's vote, but in our patch of Austin, Bush came in third, behind both Al Gore and Ralph Nader. Four years later, eight out of ten of our neighbors voted for John Kerry.

RAZ: Bill Bishop is our guest for most of the hour. We'd like to hear from you, our listeners, as well. Are you a part of "The Big Sort"? Be honest with us. Have you made choices to live in a place where most people share your political values and your lifestyle? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also write about your experiences on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later on the program, the Opinion Pages and the legacy of Jesse Helms. But first, "The Big Sort." Bill Bishop is our guest, and Bill Bishop, in the 1976 presidential race, about a quarter - one out of four Americans lived in a community that handed a landslide victory to either Gerald Ford or to Jimmy Carter. Now, by 2004, half of Americans, one out of two Americans, lived in a county that handed a landslide victory to George Bush or John Kerry. What does that tell us about the way Americans are sorting themselves out?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, it's really a fascinating phenomenon that Robert Kushing(ph), the statistician I work with discovered, and it goes even further than that. I mean, 60 percent of U.S. counties haven't changed their presidential allegiance since before 1988. What it told us, especially when we looked at how the entire society was changing, was that people were finding their lives within smaller and more isolated and more like-minded communities. We don't think that people were looking around to be next to someone who agreed with them about single care health plans or Iraq policy. They were looking to be around those who were like themselves, and when you do that in our politics today, you end up being around people that vote the same way that you vote.

RAZ: And we'll talk more about some of those anecdotes, but Bill Bishop, how do we know that "The Big Sort" is really happening now, that people are moving to neighborhoods with like-minded folks?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, we can count - you know, there is no polling that asks people their political designation and also where they lived five years earlier. But we can look at where people move, and we can see that 70 percent of the people who left red counties, solidly red counties in the last 15 years, moved to other red counties. And you can see in the voting...

RAZ: In other words, conservatives moving to conservative counties?

Mr. BISHOP: People from conservative places, by and large, move to other conservative places, and we can see that states that change become more purple. Like Colorado, had huge influxes of people from blue counties. So the largest contributor of people in Colorado since the early 1990s was outside of the state, was L.A. County, California.

RAZ: But you're not seeing this at a statewide level, you're seeing this in neighborhoods, communities, really small, micro-targeted areas.

Mr. BISHOP: Right, and we're seeing it across the board. You see it within churches. Churches, since the mid-1970s, have been constructed around what's called in church growth circles the "homogenous unit principle," that churches grow faster if they design their services and their amenities and their preacher dresses like those - a target audience that comes into the church. And so my favorite example is one in Austin where there was a Presbyterian church where George Bush went to church and also where the current Republican governor goes to church.

RAZ: Rick Perry.

Mr. BISHOP: And then just a few miles away - Rick Perry - and it's, you know, big organ and handle, you know, coming in when the service begins, and just a few miles away there's another Presbyterian church where when I went, the opening hymn was by Sting, and the preacher talked about female mystics from the Middle Ages, and that week there was a workshop on Wiccans.

RAZ: The governors didn't show up in those churches, I guess.

Mr. BISHOP: The governor - yeah, I don't think the governor knew that those places - and the funny thing is people don't even know that these places exist. The thought of going to a church different from the one that you attend is just - you just can't understand it. So people in my neighborhood can't imagine going to a church festival, say, in a small town 40 or 50 miles away, and it's - that's why we - the subtitle is that the "Big Sort" is tearing us apart, and what it really is, is it's isolating us in a way that's destructive.

RAZ: And before I ask about why it's tearing us apart, I want to ask you about this idea that it seems logical. I mean, what's so bad about it? I mean, people logically want to live around those who are most like them.

Mr. BISHOP: And yet birds flock, and people don't marry those who are unlike themselves, they marry people exactly like themselves. What struck us was that this was increasing, not that people would find comfort around others like themselves, that's a natural human reaction, but that the numbers would be increasing and that it would be happening across the board, in churches, in clubs, in volunteer groups and in neighborhoods. So we think it's happening because people find comfort within - in a strange and often troublesome world, people have shrunk their lives to size of their communities, and ...

RAZ: But what's the problem with that? I mean, what are the consequences of it?

Mr. BISHOP: The consequences are we have incredible diversity within the country. We have Odessa, Texas is able to have a high school course on the Bible. Philadelphia, meanwhile, recently cut off their subsidy to the Boy Scouts because of the Boy Scouts' position on homosexuality. And so people have this - this is the good part, you have this incredible choice about where and how to live.

What happens nationally is that these different groups have no connection to one another and it makes it almost impossible for the country to come together on any kind of consensus on anything. As congressmen and women begin to represent these increasingly like-minded districts, it just make it difficult for them to compromise. The parties have become polarized and so thing break down on a national basis where they might move ahead locally.

RAZ: Let's go to the phones. Steve is on the line from Kentwood, Michigan. Steve, go ahead.

KAYLENE(ph) (Caller): Hello?

RAZ: Hi, is that Steve?

KAYLENE: Actually, no, it's not. It's Kaylene from Kansas City, Missouri.

RAZ: Hi, Kaylene, go ahead.


RAZ: Sorry about that.

KAYLENE: No, that's OK. Yeah, I agree with a lot of what you're saying. I actually was born and raised in southern California and I went to inner city schools and I grew up in the '90s and a lot of the schools I went to had moratoriums on at the level of, you know, ethnicity, and I moved to Kansas City with my fiance for work, and not knowing the area, we actually ended up moving to a pretty conservative area and right now we're actually looking to move more towards the city.

And it's really interesting because where I teach in the city is 98 percent black school, and I grew up in a setting in the inner city where it was very diverse and I saw the benefits of that, whereas people here, you see, you know, the schools are a majority of either a certain religious preference, like you said, or certain ethnic base. And I see how it's actually breaking them down because they're not able to see other ways of thinking and you almost get caught up in your own way of doing things instead of seeing outside the box.

Mr. BISHOP: And what do..

KAYLENE: Where the rest of the world lives.

Mr. BISHOP: And what do you look for when you move to a new neighborhood? I mean, are you looking for specific things aside from good schools? I mean, do you look for people who have certain political stickers on their car, certain kind of cars?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAYLENE: Sure. You know what, the big thing for us, for me and my fiance is we look for simple things and essentially crazy but manicured lawns, sidewalks. I know it sounds crazy but we really look at, you know, the types of cars that are in the driveway. If there's a big giant pickup truck or a big tractor trailer. We look for people who care about their property. We look at people, you know, and not necessarily - it's great to have political ideology that's the same but more instructive, the same values. And how about - you know, we care about the same types of things.

RAZ: And what - how would you describe those values?

KAYLENE: Taking care of personal property. And you know, our thing is we like to go out and walk around and we value whatever money we put into where we're going to buy. And I know a lot of places it's very different. We come from, you know, part of the country where the communities are master planned quite often, where you go to like middle America or you go to like the northwest where my parents retired and they look at master-planned communities as a sign of like, the Californians that are, you know, have gone crazy, like the concrete village. Whereas for us, we see it as a sign of kind of uniformity and a way to all come together and be more mobile.

And so it really - I like it because it - to me, it offers a way to get to know people better. But I definitely am one of those people where I like to see a lot of diversity. But it does, as we're in our mid- to late 20s, it really helps when we're around people that are, you know, of the same age.

RAZ: Well, thanks so much for the call, Karen, is it?

KAYLENE: It's actually Kaylene.

RAZ: Kaylene. Thanks so much for the call. The book is titled, "The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart." More with Bill Bishop in a moment. We'll ask him, what do we do about it? How do we unsort America? Our number, 800-989-8255. I'm Guy Raz. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Guy Raz here in Washington, D.C. We're talking about "The Big Sort." That's what Bill Bishop calls the phenomenon of clustering in America. More and more people live in areas where their neighbors are an awful lot like them in terms of their politics and their values and their beliefs. And this clustering, he argues, is tearing the country apart.

Bill Bishop is with us this hour. You can read an excerpt from his book, "The Big Sort," on our web site, that's at npr.org. Are you part of "The Big Sort"? Be honest with us. What choices have you made to live in a place where most people share your political values and your lifestyle? Our number, 800-989-8255. Email us at talk@npr.org. And you can also share your experiences with us on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Bill Bishop, when did this all begin, this "Big Sort" phenomenon that you describe?

Mr. BISHOP: We think it began in the mid-1970s. Actually, we think it began earlier than that in the mid-1960s when the old structures of society kind of came apart. People began to drop out of those clubs that Robert Putnam has written about, "Bowling Alones" peaked.

RAZ: "Bowling Alone," right, yeah.

Mr. BISHOP: "Bowling Alone" peaked in the mid-1960s. Also peaking in the mid-1960s was church membership and traditional denominations. After the 1965, people began to withdraw from those Presbyterian churches and Lutheran churches and Presbyterian churches and divorce rates began to climb and newspaper penetration began to decline. And also in the mid-1960s people began to lose trust in government. And as all those structures began to crumble, when society came back together again in the 1970s, it was on a more local, more personal basis. It was based more on the politics of self-expression rather than economics. So I think we're looking at a 30-year process here.

RAZ: I want to read an email question now from Alan in New Brighton, Minnesota. He asks, "Are people sorting themselves out or are the politicians simply rearranging the districts, in other words, gerrymandering, which creates the impression of a "Big Sort"?

Mr. BISHOP: Right. We looked at counties, so counties did not change boundaries. But there is a debate on gerrymandering, and I think most political scientists have concluded - although most journalists have not concluded the same thing - is that gerrymandering has not led to an increase in like-minded districts. Districts have become more like-minded over the years, but gerrymandering is not the cause. The cause is places becoming increasingly like-minded and it happens at every level of geography.

States - in 1976, the average difference between Gerry Ford and Jimmy Carter at the state level was about eight points. By 2004 it was over 14 percentage points, and so it's - we always want to blame someone else for our troubles but that, you know, this is something, really, that we've created.

RAZ: Let's go to a caller. We've got Keith on the line from Grand Junction, Colorado. Keith, go ahead.

KEITH (Caller): Yeah. I was actually calling because I kind of live in a conservative little area in Colorado, and my wife and I are trying to purchase a house right now and we keep looking all around and one of the things that we keep saying to each other over and over again is the fact that we have to get out of this conservative little hole that we live in. And I don't really foresee a lot of, you know, negativity coming out of that.

I know that part of what you were saying was that it was ripping the country apart, but I think people are getting much, much, much more comfortable when they're surrounded by a political view that they're comfortable with and they - we're both kind of in the position where neither one of us feels real comfortable talking politics or anything like that in our workplaces or any of those kind of things because most of the folks around here do not hold our beliefs.

RAZ: That's an interesting point, Bill Bishop, that Keith raises. He says he feels more comfortable talking to people who think like he thinks. I mean, isn't that normal?

Mr. BISHOP: Yes, and this is the phenomenon that political scientists have known for the past 50 years, that political minorities in heavily majority districts vote less. David Campbell at Notre Dame has found that they actually are less likely to participate in community events or community projects. And people do exactly as Keith described as they withdraw. They keep their mouth shut. They don't talk up at book club or at Rotary during - at noon, and that's a problem.

RAZ: And you...

Mr. BISHOP: I mean, it really does...

RAZ: Yeah, no, go ahead.

Mr. BISHOP: It really does happen exactly as Keith described.

RAZ: And you describe in your book, Bill Bishop, how this phenomenon actually creates kind of extreme - political extremism. It sort of erases the moderation.

Mr. BISHOP: On the opposite side what happens is that like-minded groups over time become more extreme in the way they're like-minded. So one classic experiment had students in France who dislike the United States were put into a room and asked to talk about America and two hours later they come out and they dislike America more. And so as communities, as neighborhoods become more like-minded, they become more extreme. So in my neighborhood it's not enough to say, I disagree with George Bush, it's that George Bush needs to be impeached. There needs to be a criminal investigation, you know, it's - you can't - you don't want to be mistaken for a Republican in a heavily Democratic area so you move a little bit to the extreme so you'll fit in.

RAZ: Keith, thanks so much for the call.

KEITH: OK, thanks so much for your time.

RAZ: Right. Let's take another call. Let's go to Esther. Esther is with us from Chicago. Esther?

ESTHER (Caller): Yes, I'm here. Hello?

RAZ: Hi, go ahead, you're on the air.

ESTHER: OK, my question has to do with the way in which private, religious schools accelerate that sense of this segmentation of society and teach children to only be comfortable with others who agree with them both politically and in terms of religious beliefs.

RAZ: And Bill Bishop, you talk a lot about religion and the church in your book. How does that factor in?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, this works - I think what Esther describes happens, but I think it happens in every group that is like-minded and homogenous. You're taught to be afraid of the other or you're just afraid of the other. But what Esther describe is this process, this sorting process that's taken place over the last 30 or 40 years, which is that we've lost the middle of American society. We've lost the common school and the common church and the common meeting place in the neighborhood, and we've replaced it with religious schools or with Montessori schools or with clubs that are more ideologically pointed, and this is sort of a general phenomenon and she describes the general result.

RAZ: Esther, thanks so much for the call.

ESTHER: Thank you.

RAZ: Bill Bishop, there's a fascinating graph in the book, "The Big Sort," and it shows how members of Congress who have been described as moderates have decreased dramatically since the 1948 Congressional session. 2005, only about 10 percent of members of the House of Representatives classified as moderates. Is that, in a sense, a symptom or an outcome of "The Big Sort"?

Mr. BISHOP: That's a reflection of "The Sort." As places become more homogenous they elect more homogenous - or more ideologically extreme representatives. And we saw it in 2006 and the elections before that and so today, literally, in Congress, these are things that Keith Poole(ph) at University of California, San Diego has put together. There is no Democrat who is more conservative than the most liberal Republican. There's literally no overlap in Congress between the two parties and it just makes it tough for any decision to be made, for any compromise to be reached.

RAZ: Let's take another caller. Lynn(ph) is on the line from San Antonio, Texas. Lynn, welcome to the show.

LYNN (Caller): Thank you. I have a couple of comments. I'm wondering if part of the thing is that politicians have appealed to the extremes to get elected. I'm a liberal who lives in a very conservative area and I find that really, on most issues, on many issues, there - I can compromise. I can see, you know, that we really feel that certain things are important or that we want the same things. But it's gotten to the point where people can't talk to each other. And then the other thing is, do you think that people when they're living near conservative people because of peer pressure become more conservative?

RAZ: Bill Bishop?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, I think that people - conservatives as a group become more conservative if they are a group, and liberals become more liberal because of this process, the group polarization that we talked about earlier. But I think Lynn is - it's interesting. Mixed company tends to moderate opinions and Lynn obviously lives in a mixed kind of city south of here and neighborhood and she has - her view of things is that there are ways to compromise, and I think it's that kind of rubbing - democracy isn't suppose to be comfortable. We're not supposed to be always happy with the results. We're supposed to hear this constant clashing of opinion. And it's when we don't hear the differences that we get into trouble, and I think Lynn's example is one where - something we should learn from.

RAZ: Lynn, thanks so much for the call.

LYNN: Thank you.

RAZ: Bill, I want to ask you about the strange thing that we have. I mean, we have access to so much information, so many different ideas and opinions and media outlets and Internet sites. And yet you say, by and large, fewer and fewer Americans are exposed to diverse and different viewpoints.

Mr. BISHOP: Yeah, especially people who have been to grad - people who have been to graduate school have the least diverse discussion-mates when it comes to politics. It's people who have not graduated from high school who have the most diverse political lives in our country. And - but people do not - given a choice of reading material, people will pick the reading material on the net or the newspaper delivered at the door that agrees with them. And it's even turned out that Democrats are increasingly less likely to listen to George Bush give his State of the Union Address, just as Republicans were - were growing not to hear - not to listen or tune in Bill Clinton when he gave his State of the Union Address. We just don't want to hear opinions that disagree with us. It's just too uncomfortable.

RAZ: Let me read an email from Steve in Madison, Wisconsin. He writes, "I have lived in both red and blue states. Currently I live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is considered a very liberal and progressive city. At first I found Madison a comfort, the feeling of being amongst my people once more. However, I have become quite bored of the pretentious, liberal homogeneity separated in degrees by bumper-sticker mentality. I'm looking forward to moving back to a red zone to work with the people seeking resistance to my ideas, while suggesting my ideas as a true challenge to me and them, where real ideas are born." Do you hear that from people?

Mr. BISHOP: I feel that sometimes myself. My wife and I used to own a weekly newspaper in a small Texas town, and we miss the diversity that we had in a town of 3,500 that we miss, that we don't have in a town of 1.7 million.

RAZ: We are talking with Bill Bishop. He is the author of the new book, "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart." He's at member station KUT in Austin. You can join the conversation, as well, by giving us a call. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And let's take another call. Doug is on the line from McAlester in Oklahoma. Doug, go ahead.

DOUG: Yes, I believe that a real cause for the separation, red state, blue state, is the way the media is the primary problem, I believe, because there is so much media avenues out there, in order to gain an audience. You start segmenting your audience and catering to them, which reinforces - as you know, as you've mentioned, audiences do like to listen to what they believe in.

So they're gravitating towards Fox, let's say, for the right, or MSNBC for the left, and it reinforces and emboldens our positions and our biases. And that's where we become reluctant to negotiate terms, because we believe so strongly in this - by being reinforced through the media.

And I'd like to hear whether or not you believe in that. If we just had two soft drinks, we would say nothing, as an example, Coke is the real thing, as an example, or the Pepsi generation. But if you've got a lot of competition, it's just a natural thing to find your audience and keep them and cater to them, and that has caused this big rift in our country.

RAZ: Doug, thanks so much for the comment.

Mr. BISHOP: Good description, Doug. Essentially, what he's saying is that our political life has taken on the color of our commercial life where we have 50 different kinds of Hamburger Helper and we get exactly the kind of product that we want, and I think that's exactly right.

In the 2004 campaign, the Bush campaign was really brilliant in applying these kind of micro-targeting techniques that had been used in the commercial world for decades, to be able to deliver a message specifically to a person, to deliver the message a person wanted to hear. And I thought after that campaign there would be a revolt, you know, the people would say, no, you know, democracy is supposed to be about persuasion, it's supposed to be about two sides debating the issues and people making choices out of the result of that debate.

And instead what we have is left-wing bloggers, and Karl Rove agree that we need candidates adept at micro-targeting and segmentation and all those other kinds of marketing techniques that Doug described that really tend to separate and polarize us.

RAZ: Bill Bishop, if "The Big Sort"contributes to increasing extremism in America, how do we get out of it? How do we undo it? How do we unsort? What's the prescription to change this trend?

Mr. BISHOP: Well, a couple of things can and will eventually happen. I mean, right now, all our issues are so lined up. There was a really interesting county commissioner in Oregon who told me that the anti-abortion people in his state no longer ask him about abortion, they ask him about property rights. Because they know that his answer about property rights will foretell what he thinks about abortion. And - and what we have are all these issues that are all lined up with party. So what we need are issues that arise that don't have a home within the party, and that hasn't happened yet. And - but it will. That's how classically these things begin to disassemble.

The other thing that I think is going to happen is that another generation is coming up that is not all that happy with our boomer notions of right and wrong and left and right. I spend a lot of time with kids in the emerging church, very biblically-oriented churches but not judgmental. These are kids that grew up in the mega-churches and in the religious wars of the 1980s and '90s and they're sick of it, and they don't ...

RAZ: And not necessarily liberal or conservative.

Mr. BISHOP: No, no, both. And they're comfortable with difference and they're comfortable with ambiguity. And I think that's what we need is more comfort with ambiguity.

RAZ: Bill Bishop is the author of the new book, "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart." There is an excerpt of the book - from the book, rather, at npr.org. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Bill Bishop, it was a real pleasure having you.

Mr. BISHOP: Guy, thank you very much.

RAZ: Coming up, how Jesse Helms made a difference in America. The Talk of the Nation Opinion Page is next. I'm Guy Raz. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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