June 14, 2004

America: Not So Polarized After All

The conventional wisdom - which isn’t half as wise as conventional wisdom thinks it is - says Americans are more politically polarized than ever, at least since the days of the Civil War. Left-wing Bush-haters compare the president to Adolf Hitler while the more obnoxious partisans on the right denounce the Democratic Party as a near-treasonous de-facto ally of Osama bin Laden. The leftovers of the 1960s culture war are warmed up again and again in the microwave, as if we hadn't yet had enough of it all twelve years ago when Pat Buchanan railed against the liberal side at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston.

(And let me tell you something, folks. The vast majority of people in my generation think the culture war is idiotic. It's just not relevant to people who are 30 years old. The whole "values" debate is an eye-rolling intra-Boomer squabble spawned from, apparently, Woodstock or something. I don't know a single person my age, other than myself, who has ever used the phrase "culture war" in a sentence. And politics comes up a lot in my circle. The culture war is old. It's older than we are. Knock if off, already.)

We keep hearing about the Red States versus the Blue States, as if it means something important. Oh sure, there's something to it. No doubt California is a different place from Oklahoma. But it seems so overblown to me. My own state of Oregon was only declared “blue” after first being lumped in with the red. Al Gore squeaked past George W. Bush from behind in 2000 by a minuscule percentage only as the last votes were counted. I live in a seriously blue neighborhood in a heavily blue city. But my state is only half blue. It's actually purple. Or checkered. Or striped. Or something.

Anyway, John Tierney in The New York Times cites the work of several political scientists and says the whole polarization concept is a load of fatuous nonsense. It’s the polical elites (who apparently include activists, intellectuals, pundits (ahem), and apparatchiks) in both parties who are polarized. Meanwhile, most Americans are in basic agreement about most things.

[D]o Americans really despise the beliefs of half of their fellow citizens?

[…]

To some scholars, the answer is no. They say that our basic differences have actually been shrinking over the past two decades, and that the polarized nation is largely a myth created by people inside the Beltway talking to each another or, more precisely, shouting at each other.

These academics say it's not the voters but the political elite of both parties who have become more narrow-minded and polarized. As Norma Desmond might put it: We're still big. It's the parties that got smaller.

[…]

"If the two presidential candidates this year were John McCain and Joe Lieberman, you'd see a lot more crossover and less polarization," said Professor Fiorina, mentioning the moderate Republican and Democratic senators. He is the co-author, along with Samuel J. Abrams of Harvard and Jeremy C. Pope of Stanford, of the forthcoming book, "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America."

"The bulk of the American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the cross-fire while Maoist guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other," the book concludes. "Reports of a culture war are mostly wishful thinking and useful fund-raising strategies on the part of culture-war guerrillas, abetted by a media driven by the need to make the dull and everyday appear exciting and unprecedented." [Emphasis added.]

Maoist guerillas and right-wing death squads, eh? Odd metaphorical choices for writers who say we aren’t really even polarized in the first place. But I get (I think) what they’re saying. It gets easier every day to find political hacks who describe their opponents using just such language. If it’s true that we’re mostly centrists, whichever party knocks this off first could mop the floor with the other.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 14, 2004 11:23 PM
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