The Big Sort


There’s a political self-sorting process that is happening across America. Blue voters are choosing to live in “creative-class” urban oases, as red voters remain in rural areas. Minnesota native Aaron Spading, conservative church-goer turned far-left Powderhorn Park resident, guides us as we explore one of those blue-dots-in-a-sea-of-red. Meetings with family and old neighbors illustrate just how deep the political gulf between people can be, but the film ends on a hopeful note; where there is dialogue, there can still be community.

The Backstory:

In 2004, Bill Bishop coined the term ‘the big sort” (also the title of his book), describing the migration of Americans inspired by lifestyle choices.  “We have built a country,” Bishop wrote, “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.”  The political consequences?  “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”  The more we self sort and divide ourselves, in where we live, who we talk to, where we worship, and so on, the less bipartisan dialogue and compromise is possible.

About the Film:

So what happens when your political views change and suddenly you feel out of place where you grew up?

This is the story of Aaron Spading.  Aaron grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical church family living in a small Minnesota town.  His experience at Bible college led him to break with the politics he grew up with and later to move to Minneapolis.  Now he’s married and lives in the racially diverse Powderhorn Park neighborhood, an enthusiastic volunteer for Bernie Sanders.  The political contrast between the May Day celebration in his new home and his family and old neighbors back in Chisago City couldn’t be greater – and his journey back and forth illustrates what people have in common and just how deep the political gulf is in communities less than an hour’s drive apart.

About the Filmmaker: 

Heather Courtney is a 2014 Guggenheim fellow.  She won an Emmy, an Independent Spirit Award, and a SXSW Jury Award for her film WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM. The film received positive reviews from the New York Times and the Washington Post, and was broadcast nationally on the PBS program POV in November 2011.  It made several Top 10 films of 2011 lists, including Salon’s Best Non-fiction, and was supported by many grants and fellowships including from ITVS, the Sundance Documentary Fund, the United States Artists Fellowship, and POV/American Documentary.  Heather was also a fellow at the Sundance Edit and Story Lab.  She has directed and produced several other documentary films including award-winners LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE, and LOS TRABAJADORES, which were both broadcast nationally on PBS, and were supported by a Fulbright Fellowship and an International Documentary Association Award.

She is currently co-directing and producing (with Anayansi Prado) a Ford and Macarthur-funded feature documentary about undocumented immigrant students in Georgia. She currently splits her time on this project and freelance projects between Georgia, Austin and Washington, DC, and has been an adjunct professor at the University of Texas.

Post-Election Update

While Hillary Clinton was able to win the state in a closer than expected result, Republicans had a big night, increasing their majority the state House to 76 to 57 and capturing the state Senate by a single vote, 34 to 33, the best GOP result in a presidential election year, when Democrats tend to turn out, in years.  If anything, the urban/non-urban partisan divide probably got wider.  The only thing standing in the way of complete GOP state control is Governor Mark Dayton, whose second term is up in 2018, an off year election which usually favors Republicans.