Washington is polarized and it may be all our fault

A conversation with author Bill Bishop

There was a time when Americans weren’t so intensely divided as we are today. In fact, says journalist and writer Bill Bishop, from World War II to the mid 1970s, Americans’ attitudes about culture, family and politics grew more alike.

Then things started to change, Bishop says. Politics split us up, became harsher and more polarized. At the same time, economic forces and rising standards of living sparked a huge increase in people’s mobility; it’s no longer common to spend your life in one town, one church or one company.

That new mobility added to Americans’ separating political views as people moved to regions, cities and neighborhoods in which they felt comfortable -- surrounded by people of a similar world view.

Bishop outlines this process in his book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” This week on the DecodeDC podcast, Bishop brings a fresh perspective on the polarization of politics, suggesting that, rather than point fingers at Washington, we ought to take a look in the mirror.

The act of voting has new meaning for Americans, Bishop argues, now that we’ve clustered together among people with similar world-views.

“Politics becomes more about expressing the self rather than policy or decisions that Congress makes,” he tells host Andrea Seabrook. “People vote to reinforce their identities rather than to change policy.”

The surprising conclusion to Bishop’s thesis is this: Today’s intensely partisan Washington may look grid-locked and broken, but it’s actually doing exactly what Americans’ have asked of it. In Bishop's words, “It’s representative government at its best.”

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