If so many people want compromise in Washington, why is compromise so hard to achieve?
The temptation is to blame life inside the Beltway. Politics is, after all, increasingly a blood sport, driven by extremes and special-interest money. Redistricting has left fewer moderates in the Capitol. And the genteel Washington of yore — where lawmakers and spouses socialized across party lines, sharing cocktails and swapping ideas — has disappeared, replaced by a culture in which families stay in the district and members jet home each weekend.
Yet a number of political analysts and social scientists say the intransigence has as much to do with Americans outside the capital as lawmakers within it. If Americans want to know why their elected officials can’t compromise, these scholars and pundits say, perhaps they ought to look in the mirror.
“Americans are self-segregating,” said Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort,” a 2008 book that examined, in the words of its subtitle, “why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart.”
Mr. Bishop said Americans now choose “in their neighborhoods and their churches, to be around others who live like they do and think like they do — and, every four years, vote like they do.” He tested his thesis with an examination of the shifting geography of presidential politics, beginning in 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the presidency by the slimmest of margins, with 50.1 percent of the vote.
That year, 26.8 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties,” which voted either Democratic or Republican by 20 percentage points or more. By 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush split the popular vote, 45.3 percent of Americans lived in landslide counties. In 2008, the figure was 47.6 percent.
Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, reported the same phenomenon at the state level in his book “The Disappearing Center.” In the 1960s and 1970s, he said, big states like New York, California, Illinois and Texas were evenly split in presidential elections, making them battlegrounds. “Now,” Mr. Abramowitz said, “a lot of the big states are lopsided.”
Political clustering is reflected in religious participation and even shopping choices. David Wasserman, of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, recently calculated that 89 percent of the Whole Foods stores in the United States were in counties carried by Barack Obama in 2008, while 62 percent of Cracker Barrel restaurants were in counties carried by John McCain.
“If voters are seeking an explanation for hyper-partisanship and dysfunction, they ought to look down the street,” Mr. Wasserman said.