From Scott Stossel's review of The Big Sort (Bill Bishop & Robert G. Cushing):
We can no longer even agree on what used to be called facts: Conservatives watch Fox; liberals watch MSNBC. Blogs and RSS feeds now make it easy to produce and inhabit a cultural universe tailored to fit your social values, your musical preferences, your view on every single political issue. We’re bowling alone — or at least only with people who resemble us, and agree with us, in nearly every conceivable way.
This separation into solipsistic blocs would perhaps not be so complete if people of different political views or cultural values at least lived within hailing distance, and encountered one another on the street or in the store from time to time. But, increasingly, they don’t. Over the last decade, as 100 million Americans have moved from one place to another, they’ve clustered in increasingly homogeneous communities. This is where “The Big Sort,” which grew out of a series of articles that Bishop, formerly a reporter at The Austin American-Statesman, wrote with Robert Cushing, a retired sociologist and statistician from the University of Texas, is both wonkiest and most original. Working with a team of collaborators (including Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class”), Bishop and Cushing swam around in different sets of data — voting records; I.R.S. income figures; patent filings; poll numbers from advertising firms — to figure out how thoroughly, and in what ways, Americans had sorted themselves. Their conclusion: “By the turn of the 21st century, it seemed as though the country was separating in every way conceivable.”
... “We have built a country,” Bishop writes, “where everyone can choose the neighbors (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: 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.”
...Gerrymandering — the redrawing of political districts by partisan legislation from above — partly accounts for increasing polarization. But the more significant force, Bishop argues, has been movement from below. In 1976, the year in the postwar era when the average American was most likely to live alongside people of the opposing political party, barely 26 percent of us lived in counties that went in a landslide for one presidential candidate or another. In 1992, nearly 38 percent of us lived in a “landslide county.” By 2004, nearly 50 percent did.
Does this balkanization matter? Bishop argues convincingly that it does. Psychological studies suggest that the mere fact of division, even when there is no substantive content to it, can be corrosive: in a series of experiments in the 1950s and ’60s, groups of similar people arbitrarily divided into subgroups quickly exploded into conflicts of “Lord of the Flies”-like intensity. Other studies have shown that when relatively like-minded people are grouped together, they don’t settle around the average point of view of the individuals in the group but rather become more extreme in the direction toward which they’re already inclined. This gives clustering a powerful self-reinforcing quality, and helps explain how American counties have hardened into such immovable political clumps. “It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a frat boy, a French high school student, a petty criminal or a federal appeals court judge,” Bishop writes. “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”