To many of us, the fragmentation of American society is at least partly a
problem of color. Not black and white -- though racial divisions certainly
play a role -- but blue and red, as in blue and red states.
The TV networks
and every newspaper with a four-color press has used that imagery to portray
the nation as a patchwork of Democratic and Republican-leaning states.
I swallowed that convention myself until a wise friend put me onto a book he
read several years ago -- The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded
America Is Tearing Us Apart.
Ed Block recommended the book to me. Ed was head of public relations for
AT&T back in the golden monopoly days, when the position was like being
secretary of state for a small country.
He went on to counsel the top
management of other companies but was always available to advise those of us
who foolishly flattered ourselves that we succeeded him in the AT&T job. (It
was more like a tugboat riding in the wake of an ocean liner, but I
I'm waiting for Amazon to deliver the book, but a speech Ed gave two years
ago based on his reading and research has already given me lots to think
"For one thing," Ed says, "the idea of red states and blue states is an
over simplified, misleading myth. People don't live and vote in states, they
live and vote in communities within counties. In every one of these states
the voting outcome is determined by counties that are either heavily
Democrat or heavily Republican. When the distribution of voting preferences
is evenly divided among counties, what you get are the so-called swing
states. They are neither red nor blue."
"Aha," I say, "That's what gerrymandering does. Whoever's in power
redistricts any potential opponents into oblivion."
"Not so fast," Ed counters. "Republican Tom Delay is generally regarded as
the king of computer-generated redistricting, but his Texas district flipped
Democrat after he retired."
"So what accounts for it?" I ask.
"The Santini Brothers and their ilk. It's all those moving vans you see on
the highway," he says.
"Turns out that about five percent of Americans
relocate every year. They don't choose where to live on the basis of their
political preferences. But they do like to be around people with the same
level of education, similar jobs, and compatible life styles. This is the
Big Sort. It has created two Americas whose values are so clearly in
conflict. What we have fashioned is a tribal republic."
Ed admits that there are plenty of social scientists who dismiss the notion
that America is all that divided or polarized. Most of us are pretty close
to the center politically, they claim; it's just that the media focus on
wingnuts at the two extremes.
Ed concedes that there's an element of truth to that position. But over the
last 30 years or so, he's seen an increasing trend in people seeking the
comfort of like-minded churches, like-minded friends, and even like-minded
sources of news and entertainment.
"Most of us live in a giant feed back loop," he says, "an echo chamber,
hearing only our own thoughts about what's right or wrong reflected back to
us by the TV shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we
visit on line, the sermons we hear and the neighborhoods we live in.
"I find it extremely ironic that in the so-called 'information age,' our
best and our brightest seem intent on recreating a primitive tribal society
in which people who don't look like us, talk like us or think like us must
be regarded as hopeless misfits at best or, at worst, enemies to be
Ironies aside, our political parties are clearly exploiting this change,
feeding partisanship and division. And the media regurgitate it for the
This self-segregation probably wouldn't matter much if only a few Americans
lived in politically homogeneous counties. But the numbers are not small and
have continued to grow. Consider these statistics from The Big Sort that Ed
In 2004, 73 percent of U.S. voters lived in counties that had voted for the
same party's presidential candidate since 1992. Half lived in counties that
hadn't changed their vote since 1980; one-third, since 1968.
"We've become a country of tribes," Ed says. "These tribes are not
necessarily at war with one another. But they are defined by vastly
different assumptions, beliefs and lifestyles. They are drawn together by a
passionate advocacy for single issue causes that range all over the lot from
global warming to the latest fads in nutrition.
"These tribes don't think of themselves as blue or red or any other color
but they are very different from earlier generations of Americans. But
looked at up close, they don't come out of a one-size-fits-all cookie
cutter. The choices they make, the careers they pursue, the lifestyles they
prefer are by no means identical even though they may loosely share more or
less common value systems."
Now I know why so many us feel like we're caught in a replay of Custer's