State of the Union

Members of Congress may not come to the floor armed with pistols as they did in the days leading up to the Civil War, but their words are as toxic as any time since then. And we are — in many ways — a more divided nation than any time since then.

In interviews with political leaders, media analysts, and people in communities around the country, ABC News found what appears to be a new phenomenon: the polarization is feeding on itself. It’s not just politicians, business or religious leaders, liberals or conservatives — or the media: It’s each of us. And it’s alarming.

Bill Bishop, a reporter for the Austin-American Statesman newspaper in Texas, conducted a three-year investigation into America’s divide. Bishop reached back over the last 14 presidential election cycles and counted Republican and Democratic votes in all 3,100 American counties. The research yielded some startling information. “There’s a steady trend line of the country pulling apart, becoming more politically segregated. We call this “The Big Sort,” said Bishop.

State of the Union was first broadcast June 30, 2006 on ABC.


Producers, Sarah Koch and Martin Smith

Editor, Pagan Harleman

Director of Photography, Ben McCoy

Sound, Steve Lederer

Associate Producer, Margarita Dragon

Music, Askold Buk

Graphics, Stevie Clifton

Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings

Executive Producer, Tom Yellin


Montclair, N.J., is one of the many communities across the country that illustrates “the big sort” that Bishop observed. A generation ago the community’s vote was split 50-50 Democrat – Republican. But the 2004 election was a blowout: 78% for John Kerry.

It’s happening across the country. The number of Americans living in landslide counties has doubled over the last 30 years. Today, half of all Americans are living in polarized communities.

And to the political scientists who say this notion that we’re more divided than ever is just an absolute myth, Bishop says: “You have to look at the street level. You have to look at where people live. It’s not states. States are the wrong way to look at how people live. People live in communities. It’s at that community level that people are becoming more segregated.”

Bishop says part of it is just a natural part of social interactions. “Given a choice, people will choose to read, be among, watch, live with, worship with, vote with, people who are like themselves,” he said. And experiments conducted by ABC News reveal that like-minded people are pushed to more and more extreme positions when they group together. It has profound and troubling implications for the country.

Passionate political debates, well fought, are bracing and clarifying – what citizens are supposed to do – and the right to engage in those debates is exactly what our founders fought for. But have we become so divided that we aren’t really debating anymore? Just hunkering down, hoping our own side can overpower, rather than persuade our opponents?

The evidence we present in “State of the Union” suggests that’s exactly what’s happening.