As we wrap up this series on Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, I’ll have to say that I think he makes a pretty convincing case that sorting has happened. One of the questions I have is whether or not this sorting indicates a significant cultural shift or whether it is part of some cyclical process that we will cycle out of.
If you are familiar with the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, then you know that they see a recurring cycle of four cultural “seasons” replaying themselves over about an eighty year period. (See The Fourth Turning) First comes the High when there is great unity and conformity. Second comes the Awakening where people begin to shake off what has become a stale reality and explore their inner world. Third comes the Unraveling where people become more and more individually focused, institutions and traditions crumble, and rancor over competing visions escalates. Fourth comes the Crisis that climaxes in some great secular event like a war or economic collapse that (usually) brings people together and results in a High. Strauss and Howe would say the most recent High was 1946-1964 (post WW II), Awakening was 1964-1984, and Unraveling was 1984-2001(?). We are presently in a Crisis era that will continue into the next decade.
Bishop’s notion of bi-partisanship from 1948-1965, followed by a period of growing partisanship, dovetails perfectly with Strauss and Howe’s schema. I don’t know whether there is four cycle pattern but I do think there is a tendency for an emerging cultural pattern to spawn its antithesis. The writer of Ecclesiastes recognized that there is, “A time to tear down and a time to build up,” so I suspect some of what we are witnessing is the natural ebb and flow of generational shifts.
That said, I think there is something unique happening as well. Over the past century or so, we’ve been witnessing the emergence of one post-materialist society after another; post-materialism being the circumstance where the great majority of the population has moved beyond the quest for basic material needs. These societies tend to exhibit similar patterns of decaying social institutions, hyper-individualism, and fertility rates well below replacement rate. There frequently seems to be cultural malaise and a quest for spirituality.
Conservative responses to post-materialism often blame government and various political forces for not conserving, if not intentionally destroying, social institutions and traditions. The answer is less government and more personal freedom. Liberal responses tend to appeal to a need for joint efforts (i.e., government action) to resolve problems, especially equitable distribution of society’s goods and amenities so individuals are free to become all they can be. The answer is more “joint action” so people can live with more freedom.
When we need food, shelter, and clothing for ourselves and our loved ones, we have a mission in life. Material need causes us to focus. But what about when are material needs are meet? What is the meaning of our possessions, our work, our very lives? Christian ethics and theology has been forged over two thousand years in societies where material survival has been the all consuming task of most people in society. Post-materialism presents a challenge and a spiritual crisis. Conservatives blaming big government for destroying institutions won’t answer these questions and neither will idealistic crusades against poverty or for the environment. In short, I do believe there is something more than a purely cyclical effect.
On the topic of consensus, one thing the book doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge is that bi-partisanship frequently doesn’t create the rosiest of worlds either. Let’s remember that the period of 1948-1965 was a time of tremendous peer pressure and conformity. Men and women were locked into artificial roles. Minorities were locked out of society’s major institutions and made invisible in the face of the great consensus. It was also this era of great consensus that gave us the likes of Joseph McCarthy and the persecution of the nonconformists. Dissent is needed to correct excesses. Consensus for consensus sake can be every bit as dangerous as partisanship.
Finally, I thought about the role the church plays in all of this as I read the book. I was particularly interested in the three elements Gordon Allport mentioned that needed to be present for opposing groups to constructively engage each other (see previous post):
Mutual regard as equals.
One the defining marks of the New Testament was that everyone was considered family – brothers and sisters with God as the father. Much to the concern of the Roman authorities, this resulted in slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and man and woman, all worshiping together.
Regular pursuit of shared goal.
Greg Ogden did a study of the Greek word koinonia in the New Testament. We usually translate this as “fellowship.“ Ogden learned that the New Testament never talks about fellowship or community for its own sake. Rather, in every instance, koinonia is something that comes from participation together toward a common end.
The early Christians had their problems but one of their most compelling testimonies to the Roman Empire was the way the loved and cared for one another.
The church has embedded in its very DNA the means to heal division and heal strife. It has done it in times past. The question is whether or not it can come to terms with the post-materialism it has become captive to and rediscover what it’s mission is.
Over the last half century we’ve witnessed a sorting phenomenon in American life. As noted in a earlier post, gathering of like-minded people tends to intensify and make more extreme the views of individuals. Sorting intensifies group norms and values which draws in more like-minded people who give stronger reinforcement to norms and values.
If sorting has been the problem, then surely mixing would be the solution? We mix people together, they become acquainted with each other, they learn to appreciate differences, and then they all get along better. This has been the driving force behind so much of the diversity movement. Does it work?
In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop points to social psychology experiments that show that simply bringing differing groups (not even necessarily opposing groups) together creates competition and opposition. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, concludes from a study of 31,000 people in 41 communities that diversity has social capital erodes with diversity and people tend to have less to do with each other. (See here , and here, and also here.) Simply mixing folks together doesn’t get it done.
Summarizing psychologist Gordon Allport’s (writing in the 1950s)necessary conditions for bringing opposing groups together constructively, Bishop writes:
This was also the key finding of Putnam, that there had to be a common mission or point of unity that integrated people together for diversity be productive. When such unity existed, diversity became an advantage.
Another key point Bishop makes points to the work of an anthropologist named Max Gluckman, also writing in the 1950s, who believed that, “Societies were successful and longstanding so long as they could devise mechanisms that kept simple conflicts from becoming cataclysmic.” (295) This usually happened by developing patterns of relating that made ndividuals friends in one context and enemies (or at least opponents) in the next. “Societies that controlled disputes ‘are so organized into a series of groups and relationships, that people who are friends on one basis are enemies on another,’ Gluckman wrote.” (296-297)
So does Bishop see signs of community developing that overcomes the sorting effect? He seems to believe that emerging churches are one venue. For purpose of illustration, he identifies Bluer, an Emergent congregation in Minneapolis, as one place where people are getting beyond the narrow identities that have divided red and blue communities. I’m not in agreement with Bishop here.
Emergent congregations, from what I can observe, are overwhelmingly white, middle class, twenty to thirty somethings, and with a decided bent toward intellectual and artistic pursuits. That doesn’t make them good or bad, but I don’t think it makes them emblematic of a new post-partisan world. It makes them another niche into which folks have sorted themselves.
Interestingly enough, one of the examples that Putnam gave of an integrating institution are some (and “some” is the operative word) evangelical megachurches. In his study, he found large congregations with several nationalities and ethnic groups represented, with people of varying economic status, united by a common vision of being the church. The point isn’t whether the vision is correct but rather the integrative power a common vision has.
In short, Bishop seems to realize that there needs to be some common value or vision that unites us and that there must be public venues where we partner with each based on these values and visions. I don’t find many solutions offered but I also don’t think that was the purpose of his book. He is holding up a mirror to who we are now.
Some final thoughts on the book tomorrow.
In chapters 10 and 11 of The Big Sort, Bill Bishop delves into the political consequences of sorting. Forty years ago there were a variety of community oriented organizations groups that included people from a broad range of backgrounds and views; groups like the Elks, Masons, Eastern Star, and veterans groups. Mainline denominations could be added to this list to. With the collapse of faith in social institutions that began in the late 1960s, these entities went into decline. New groups with specific agendas began to take their place in the 1970s.
The real growth in organizations seemed to come from the conservative world in the 1970s because, as Bishop notes, conservative had become all but excluded from “mainstream” political organizations and think tanks. Groups like the Heritage Foundation, John M. Olin Foundation, the Federalist Society, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, all emerged around this time to give voice to conservative ideas. In the meantime, the left was creating Common Cause, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The advantage the conservatives developed was that many voters perceived that establishment ideas had failed to address pressing problems and the intensity of dissatisfaction with these “liberal” ideas was strong.
Since at least 1970s, there has been a strong tendency by both extremes to attribute the ascendancy of their adversary’s views to political gurus and think tanks that masterfully manipulate and deceive the public. In the 1990s, the Clintons could talk about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” while conservatives saw James Carville, and other Democratic operatives, skillfully deceiving the public. Fast forward a few years and it is the puppet master George Soros creating a “vast left-wing” conspiracy while Svenagli-like Karl Rove mesmerizes people into divisive camps.
Fifty years ago, people shared relatively similar ideological filters and then quibbled about specific policies offered by candidates. As time has gone by, ideological differences have grown in both depth and intensity, sorting us into echo-chambers. Bishop writes:
Further, he writes:
Bishop demonstrates how this sorting process has worked to bump moderate politicians from congress in this graph (page 247):
There are a variety of interesting details in these two chapters concerning how sorting has affected politics. I won’t recount them all here. One of note was Bishop’s observation about the Democrats perception that, in the 2004 and 2006, Republicans were wining over voters on values issues. Closer analysis does not confirm this. What appears to have happened is that Republicans better segmented their constituencies and fired up the intensity of support. I suspect Obama learned this lesson and that, along with the timely collapse of the financial markets, this propelled him to victory.
Something I’ve noted concerning the sorting effect is the way people receive this book’s storyline. You need to know that Bishop considers himself an Austin, TX, liberal. When the book first came out last spring, liberals I encountered tended to praise the book and used it as evidence of the need for a new bipartisan era being touted by Obama. Conservatives tended to see the present political order as the natural way of the world and preferred to hold to the idea of a “vast left-wing conspiracy” as the source of discord. Now that Obama is president everything has switched. For liberals who know of the sorting idea, they’ve come to reject the thesis. To them, Obama’s election signals a return to the natural order of things with a few right-wing nut cases running around. While some conservatives I know have awakened to a parallel world of liberals and see Bishop’s analysis as insightful. Even the “The Big Sort” is affected by the big sort.
Writing in the early years of the twentieth century, sociologist Emil Durkheim described traditional culture in terms of “mechanical solidarity.” Like pieces of machine, the parts were interchangeable. Everyone did similar work, shared similar values, and lived in stable relatively isolated communities. Bill Bishop draws on the image of the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Each member is part of a collective that is cybernetically connected to all the others.
In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop writes:
Durkheim predicted that this transition to organic solidarity would result in a general sense of emptiness and disorientation. He called this “anomie.” People would seek out new ways to orient their lives. Some later sociologists, like Daniel Bell, expected that corporations would become the focal point of integrating life but with collapse of trust in institutions in the late 1960s that idea was abandoned. Instead, what we have seen with the advent of greater freedom and greater resources is that people are sorting themselves into like-minded communities to create the mechanical solidarity they have lost. Bishop observes, “Americans still depend on organic solidarity in their economic lives in their mixed and mixed-up workplaces. But in their social, religious, and political lives, they are seeking ways to rejoin the horde.” (217)
Bishop spends Chapter 9 highlighting a number of ways in which this impetus to find like-minded communities has evidenced itself. He offers an analysis of how Oregon politics has moved from being a state where there was widespread identification with environmental issues to being a state of heavily Democratic, more educated, and environmentally conscious cities, with a heavily Republican, less educated, environmentalism unfriendly rural population.
Bishop writes about population density and party affiliation. Places that vote heavily Republican tend to be the least densely populated areas and those that vote Democrat are the most densely populated. Thirty years ago the spatial arrangement was more balanced.
Then there is George Lakoff’s notion that parenting models divide by party affiliation. Republicans tend toward the “strict father” model (valuing respect, obedience, good manners, good behavior) and Democrats toward the “nurturing parent” (valuing independence, self-reliance, curiosity, being considerate). As recently as 1992, Bishop says there was little difference between parties on this issue. By 2004, how one answered on these issues was a better indicator of party than was income.
A study by Belgian demographer Ron Lesthaeghe is also mentioned. Lesthaeghe noted a trend in western European nations, where post-materialism arrived first, of women to have fewer (if any children) and to have them later in life than in previous generations. Reproduction fell below replacement levels, more people lived as singles, and marriage became optional. Bishop writes:
While Bishop doesn’t go into it in his book, this pattern is repeating itself all over the world where widespread prosperity emerges. Bishop notes that in the U. S., the more a location resembles western European nations in family formation the more Democratic they vote.
One observation I would add concerns the topic of globalization. The world is clearly becoming economically integrated. The fear by many is that this will result in the destruction of indigenous cultures, resulting in one bland homogenous world culture. In fact, the opposite appears to be happening. With greater economic strength, people seem to become more intensely connected to their culture and sub-cultures. They begin to assert themselves often leading to new cultural conflicts. Sorting may be on its way to becoming a global phenomenon.
Another area of life that has been affected by the sorting phenomenon is advertising. In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop writes that until the 1950s, most advertising for consumer products was through mass advertising. This applied to political campaigning as well. But by the summer of 2006, advertising and campaigning had become exercises in social segmentation and niche marketing.
“Between 1898 and 1902, in a massive wave of mergers, 2,653 firms consolidated into just 269.” (185) Large scale corporate capitalism has arrived. The focus was on large scale national advertising to develop brand loyalty. Advertising emphasized product features and price. Politics followed a similar model of developing a national bandwagon approach to garner support.
Donald McGavran begun writing about targeted models of evangelism in 1955 and a year later an adman named Wendell Smith introduced the idea of “market segmentation.” The old model tried to bend demand to the supply being offered by the big national brands. The new Segmentation model meant determining the demand of smaller subgroups and orienting supply to that demand.
Bishop writes, “The assumption at the time was that a rich person was simply a poor person with money.” (186) But research began to show that people at different income levels have distinct purchasing patterns. The shift began to move away from price and features toward presenting the product in a way that would connect with different social-class identities. Stores began to focus on developing identities that were welcoming to particular demographics. This consumer behavior was no doubt connected with the emergence of an affluent middle-class as the nation transitioned into post-materialism. (i.e., an era where basic material needs are no longer the central concern.) Thus was born the market research industry and its endless quest to subdivide consumers by various demographic variables. Aided by computer technology, advertising departments were capable of making ever more precise delineations.
Americans were turning into a nation of “hunter and gatherer” communities unified by common interests and identities. While marketing experts knew that consumers are drawn to materials that hone in on their likes and dislikes, beginning in the 1990s, a growing number of people became increasingly uncomfortable with trade-offs. Not only did they want information targeted at them but they did not want to hear about alternative points of view. They did not want to compromise with other people’s concerns. Thus, information sources that screened out “static” they didn’t want to hear have emerged as preferred information channels.
People have increasingly come to make their economic (and political) decisions based on lifestyle identities. As a result, psychographics has replaced demographics. This segmenting has deeply touched church life as well. Bishop writes:
Bill Bishop writes in The Big Sort:
Bishop relates a narrative that begins with 20th Century church growth guru, Donald McGavran. McGavran was as Disciples of Christ missionary who held degrees from Yale and Columbia University and spent most of his years in India. While the missions he was a part of often offered wonderful social services, he wasn’t saving many souls. He began applying anthropological/sociological insights to church evangelism in a culture deeply divided by economic class and caste, and he was successful. Upon returning to the United States in the 1950s, McGavran become convinced that his insights were needed to deepen and grow the American church. He was widely ignored.
The 1950s and early 1960s were the pinnacle of bi-partisan homogeneity. McGavran’s insights seemed pointless in a cultural that was unified behind Public Protestantism (church as a means of cultural transformation and cohesion) and Private Protestantism (church as a means saving souls and transforming individuals) was marginalized. But as we have seen, the cultural consensus began to break apart around 1965. Many became disillusioned with societal institutions, including the Mainline churches, and the previously isolated Private Protestants became sufficiently distressed that, after decades of exile, they began to make themselves known in the public square.
Suddenly McGavran’s ideas came into vogue. Drawing on aspects of McGavran’s teaching, notable pastors like Saddleback’s Rick Warren began employing McGavran’s insights to develop and grow his church. In Purpose Driven Church you will find Saddleback Sam and Saddleback Samantha described. These are fictional characters that exhibit lifestyle traits that would be typical of the people Saddleback wants to reach. This couple is to be kept firmly in mind in developing and executing every bit of work Saddleback does. This is, of course, borrowed directly from market segmentation efforts in the marketing world. Others predated Warren in this strategy and countless others have followed but without out a doubt it has created a large number of churches that are well attended.
The disappearing middle kept on disappearing over the last forty years and congregations in Mainline denominations began to succumb to the same segmenting principles. Many now gather around a collection of social justice causes (with politically left solutions), gay inclusion, or being green. I find that many of these congregations and their denominations hold themselves out to be ecumenical and to be seeking diversity, yet the only partners they seek out are those who also share these values and share a similar politically left orientation toward societal transformation. Ironically, embrace of “ecumenism” and “diversity” has become one more social segment around which to create a politically left homogenous community. And not being politically left means (in their eyes) you are opposed to God’s mission of societal transformation.
“Churches were once built around a geographic community, [Martin] Marty said. Now they are constructed around similar lifestyles.” (173) Bishop points to Martin Luther King’s observation that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour of the week and declares that now it is also the most politically segregated as well. He isn’t suggesting that most people look for a political position held by the congregation but rather they are looking for a church that comports will with their lifestyle; and political views correlate highly with lifestyle factors.
Bishop cites Eddie Gibbs in noting that McCavran’s views were never fully understood in North America. Bishiop writes, “Whereas McGavran was a missionary building bridges from castes or villages to Christ, today’s churches define tribes in the same way people are attracted to different sections of a shopping mall.” (179) Bishop also notes political scientist James Gimpel’s observations:
Bishop closes Chapter 7:
I might phrase Gibbs last observation a little differently. The church competes in a marketplace of idolatries and communities based on those idolatries. The church has no choice but to “market” itself in the world … not in the mistaken sense of equating marketing with advertising, but rather in the sense of being cognizant about the market and being strategic within the market. To do this well you must be crystal clear about the “product” you are promoting. If the product is Kingdom communities where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, and male and female,” then a marketing strategy that segments the church and intensifies divisions isn’t going to be successful. The church has had no choice but to market, but the American church (both Public and Private versions) has not understood the product it was to bring to market.
The U. S. A. has been undergoing decades of urbanization. First the migration was into densely populated urban areas. Then folks begin migrating out the suburbs, some by “white flight” as white upper and middle class families left ahead of the in-migration of ethnic minorities. In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop sees a new type of migration in recent years. People are sorting according to types of cities. Here are some of the sorting features.
The number of people earning a college degree has been steadily increasing. While cities have always had disproportionately higher numbers of college educated folks compared to rural areas, the percentage of folks who were college educated from one city to the next was not radically different. In 1970, 11.2% of the population had a college degree. For Austin, TX, it was 17% and for Cleveland it was 4%. Certainly a disparity but nothing like 2004 when the percentages were 45% for Austin and 14% for Cleveland. There are 62 metro areas where less than 17% have a college education and 32 where 34% have a college education. When you look at the concentration of young adults with college degrees, the sorting effect is even more striking from one city to the next. Not surprisingly, those cities with high-tech industries have been the magnates for the college educated.
Whites have left the older factory cities of the North and Midwest, as well as the largest metro areas like L. A., Chicago, and Philly, and headed for high-tech cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Austin, Seattle, and Minneapolis, or retirement/recreational cities like Las Vegas, West Palm Beach, Orlando, and Tampa. Blacks have moved to cities with strong black communities like Atlanta, Washington, New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Baltimore and Philadelphia. “Only 9 out of 320 cities lost black residents.”
“In 1990, young people were evenly distributed among the nation’s 320 cities. By 2000, twenty- to thirty-four-year-olds were concentrated in just a score of cities. … Eighty percent of the non-Hispanic whites ages twenty to thirty-four who moved during the 1990s relocated to the twenty-one highest in technology and patent production. “ (133)
Bishop examines patents filed per capita for metropolitan areas. High-tech cities have seen 100-200% increases in patents filed from the 1970s to the 1990s. Meanwhile, Cleveland saw a decrease of 14% and Pittsburgh 27%.
As you might guess, the high-tech cities have seen greater increases in wages than low-tech cities.
“Instead of people moving to corporations, corporations had begun moving to where pools of talent were deepening.” (135) The iterative effect of high-tech corporations concentrating in one area leads creative-class workers to locate in the area, which draws more high-tech corporations.
The result is that people are sorting into two general categories of cities:
High-Tech Cities (Compared to Low-Tech Cities)
Low-Tech Cities (Compared to High-Tech Cities)
What does all this mean in terms of worldviews and politics?
During the fall of 1974, in Kanawha County, West Virginia, a war broke out. Not a shooting war exactly but certainly major conflict. Schools were shut down and people went to jail for conspiracy to blow up school buses and burn down schools. The issue? Textbooks.
Fundamentalist pastor Marvin Horan led a crusade against what he saw as the local school district’s attempts to use anti-American and anti-religious school books. Scholars researching the events discovered that there was more to this conflict that than met the eye. Those who favored the new school books broadly shared similar views on a lengthy checklist of issues ranging from education, social services, the role of government, national security, and school prayer. Those that opposed the textbooks shared opposing views. The most telling finding? When asked to rank a list of values, those that favored the textbooks ranked the importance of a “saved, eternal life” at the bottom, and those that opposed to the textbooks ranked it at the top.
Bill Bishop uses this incident in The Big Sort to illustrate the emergence of the new partisanship. He writes about Martin Marty’s observation on how America became divided between two types of Protestantism.
Bishop sees the Kanawha County episode as an initial flashpoint of Private Protestants re-entering the arena to battle with what they saw as their oppressive dismissive treatment at the hand of the dominant culture, with the Mainline denominations as its handmaiden, and its New Deals, New Frontiers and Great Societies. Values, particularly religious values, began to emerge as the dividing line for partisan identification. As that division intensified over the years, people in our highly mobile society began to seek out (consciously or not) others who shared their views on life and sorted according to those values.
Bishop points out that conservative political activists didn’t create the Kanawha uprising but they did see an opportunity. By marrying this new activist distrust of intrusive government by Private Protestants with small-government, free market advocates, they could create a potent political force. The rest is pretty much history. I think one of Bishops most important observations on this topic is as follows:
A final side observation. Bishop points out that regular church goers vote conservative in large majorities in the U. S. But it is not only in America that we have seen the alignment of regular church goers with conservative politics. Bishop says studies show that every industrialized nation shows the same phenomenon. However, in highly agrarian societies the relationship is reversed. Bishop writes that this is the answer to Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? In the 1890s, Kansas was agrarian. Today it is not. Bishop does not explain the relationship but I would expect that agrarian societies (using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) are more preoccupied with economic outcomes while industrialized post-materialist societies are focused on identity and values.
Earlier in this Big Sort series we noted Bill Bishop’s observation that the first half of the 20th Century had been about economic specialization and the second half about social specialization. What drove this social specialization? Bishop calls it post-materialism. He writes:
While a high percentage of people identified with either of the two major political parties in the 1950s, there was such a bipartisan ethos that it really made little difference. (Both parties recruited Eisenhower to run for president.) Barely half of the electorate knew what “liberal” or “conservative” meant in the political arena. The era from 1948 to 1965 was the least partisan era of the modern Congress according to Bishop.
Beginning in 1965, people began disassociating from both major political parties; a trend that accelerated into the 1970s. This abandonment of politics was part of a larger disillusionment with social institutions including volunteer organizations and the church. There was a bipartisan anti-government feeling fomenting on the back of civil rights issues, the Vietnam War and corruption in politics. The old glue that had held the civic order together was crumbling.
Simultaneous to these events, Americans were becoming more affluent. As matters relating to basic material needs began to recede in importance, other concerns became more prominent. Using a Maslow Hierarchy of Needs framework, more attention shifted toward esteem and self-actualization at the top of pyramid.
A new ethos of political identification began emerging based more on self-expression and identity than on public policy. In the next post, we will see how Bishop characterizes this emergence, but now I want to make two observations.
First, Bishop’s analysis that 1948 to 1965 was a time minimal partisanship in terms of actual policy, sits well with other analyses of the era. However, it is important to reflect the means by which such an ethos was created. As Bishop points out, not everyone, including contemporaries of that era saw this state of affairs as healthy. Remember that this was the era of Joseph McCarthy, suppression of minority ethnic voices, and rigid gender roles. To be honest, this was the dark side of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” (born 1901-1924) who assumed the reins of power during this era. They had the ability to mobilize the masses toward big ideas (including big corporations, big government, big denominations, etc.) through rigid standardization of beliefs and behaviors, enforced by peer pressure and group solidarity. The inclination to think and act as one is a dual-edged sword. If you buy Strauss and Howe’s model of a repeating cycle of four generational archetypes, then the generation born about 1981-2001 (sometimes called the “Millennials” or “Gen Y”) will exhibit similar tendencies.
Second, I know that the idea of post-materialism is not without controversy. Yet the more I study the changes of the past fifty years, the more persuaded I become of this thesis. It has enormous implications for the life of the church. Most of recorded human history (and that includes the biblical context) has transpired in the context of societies where there was a tiny minority with great wealth and the masses living at, or barely above, subsistence. That context has shaped our values, traditions, and institutions in countless ways. How do we live in the midst of widespread affluence?
Nations that have achieved widespread affluence seem to follow a similar path toward the collapse of social institutions, fertility rates well below replacement rate, physical and health problems stemming from sedentary lives, and other maladies. Yes, there are always likely to be “the poor” in some relative sense, but poverty in terms of people living at subsistence is likely to become an increasingly small problem. Assuming that over the next century or two this affluence becomes a completely globalized phenomenon, what will it mean to Christian discipleship? I think we are in the early stages of wrestling with these questions.
We’ve seen in The Big Sort that over the past fifty years people have been geographically sorting themselves into likeminded communities. What are the social psychological consequences of such a phenomenon?
Bishop presents something called the “Risky Shit” effect. People have an innate need to find safety in groups. He reviews studies like the one where subjects are asked to consider options when a competent chess player draws the top ranked competitor for his chess match. He has a choice between a risky move that, if successful, will result in certain victory but, if unsuccessful, will result in certain defeat, or he could adopt a more conventional strategy. At what odds of success should the player take the risky option? (i. e., 10%?, 20%?, 30%? …)
Studies consistently point out that the group, after discussing the issue, will chose a more risky approach then the average of the answers the individuals privately reported before interacting. When the scenario is revisited from the standpoint of the chess champion, subjects privately take a conservative approach but after group discussion take a more conservative approach than the average of the individuals. Either way, subjects became more extreme in the direction of the average group opinion. You got group polarization.
Bishop doesn’t explicitly raise the issue but I would add that single-minded groups create shared narratives complete with heroes, villains, and storylines about the underlying forces driving events. This narrative becomes the lens through which all information is received (or rejected) and interpreted.
The consequences of homogenized regions are significant. For instance, with political parties, when one party becomes dominant in the community, those in the minority drop out of community involvement and may physically remove themselves from the community. The majority is decreasingly exposed to any contrary views. They become more committed and radical in their views. Often, a higher percentage of people vote in homogenous areas than in contested areas simply because it gives them feelings of solidarity with the group. Thomas Jefferson wrote 200 years ago that social isolation is the seedbed of extremism and social science is proving him right.
Other studies Bishop writes about showed that when it comes to news reporting people simply “… don’t believe what they see or hear if runs counter to their existing beliefs.” (75) Even if both sides of an issue are presented, people only give credence to the information that matches their views. This inclination is called confirmation bias; people look only for information that confirms their views. One researcher “… found that voters watch debates in order to reinforce what they already believe,” not to learn about issues. (75)
Thus, we end up with a baffled American public. So many of us live in our own echo chambers that when events that don’t conform to our narrative and our shared community experience, we conclude there must be some conspiracy or some minority radical element at work. “No one we know thinks like that and we’re normal.”
My experience has been that sometimes people become aware that they are living in an echo chamber and they’re no longer in congruence with the community. They break out of that community to find another that accepts them and makes them feel comfortable. They declare they no longer live in a narrow-minded echo chamber like the one they escaped. In reality, they’ve just swapped echo chambers and the only reason they don’t realize they are in a new one is because everything around them now tells them their perspective is “normal.” In the church world, I see this with mainliners who join evangelical mega-churches, evangelicals who become emergent, and with host of other switches as well. I see it with politics and other aspects of life as well.
Bill Bishop opens his book The Big Sort illustrating how counties have become more politically homogeneous. However, he points out that people generally didn’t choose to move where they did based on political criteria. They tended to move to places where they felt comfortable and their identity was reinforced. People with common lifestyles and identities tend to vote in similar ways. Therefore, even though choices were not political they had important political consequences.
Studying counties that had once been competitive voting districts, Bishop noticed an interesting pattern. Once a county began to tip one direction or the other, the rate of change seemed to accelerate. As homogeneity toward one view began to develop, seemingly people who shared emerging dominant view moved in and those with the minority view may have left.
Of particular interest is his observation that geography (i.e. where you live) matters more than other demographic data when it comes to predicting people's viewpoints. Bishop writes:
Looking at the counties that had lopsided vote margins in 2004 and working backward over the past sixty years, Bishop wanted to know if anything else had changed about the demographics other than political preferences.
Education –Democratic landslide counties saw a disproportionate increase in the percentage of the population with a college degree or higher.
Religion – Republican landslide counties had above average increases in church membership.
Immigrants – In 2000, 21% of the population in Democratic landslide counties was foreign-born American versus 5% in Republican counties.
Race – The white population was nearly equally divided across the four county groups (Democrat competitive and non-competitive; Republican competitive and non-competitive) in 1970. By 2000, 30% of whites lived in Republican landslide counties and 18 percent lived in Democrat landslide counties.
Today I’m initiating a series of posts on The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart. This book was published last year by journalist Bill Bishop and relies heavily on statistical analysis provided by retired University of Texas sociologist, Robert G. Cushing. Their conclusions are somewhat controversial but I believe they are on to something.
Bishop begins the book with a review of presidential elections over the last sixty years. Some elections have been competitive (i.e., victory margin of less than 10%) and others have not. Each election after 1984 has been competitive, including the 2008 election. But when we dig deeper into these competitive elections we notice something different at the local level.
Competitiveness within counties has changed significantly. Comparing two very close elections, 1976 (2.1% margin) and 2004 (2.5% margin), the number of counties that went in a landslide (20%+ margin) for either candidate rose from 26.8% to 48.3%. Here are the maps they use to illustrate their point (Source: thebigsort.com)
Some critics maintain that this is not necessarily a sign of some significant cultural impetus to sort. Two objections are usually raised.
First, some claim the map above is largely a result of gerrymandering. But as Bishop correctly points out, the purpose of gerrymandering is rarely to create supermajorities in a given district. Rather, the usual aim is to siphon off votes from an area where there is already a majority and move them to a less competitive neighboring district. Gerrymandering should have actually work counter to the sorting effect.
Second, some folks, particularly on the left, see a vast right-wing conspiracy foisted by a cabal of think tanks and political operatives over the past forty years to create division and win through divisiveness. While conspiracy theories are often comforting to minority views, and Bishop doesn’t deny the desire by some conservatives to achieve such an end, conspiracy has not been the issue. Rather, the conservative party has done a far better job of tapping into the divisions that have been emerging and exploiting them.
Instead, Bishop suggests:
While Bishop doesn’t directly make the claim, my suspicion is that people who are deeply partisan on the left or right are resistant to this interpretative model. When Clinton was president, the left saw the natural order of things playing out while the right saw a cabal of maniacal deceivers in power. Over the previous eight years shoes were on the other feet. Now the shoes have switched back again. I find Bishops analysis more plausible.