Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2004 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
Exploding the myth of 'deep divisions'
(KRT) My state's red, and I'm blue.
I'm a liberal in a conservative land, alienated from the mainstream that apparently now flows past me on the right. I'm roadkill in the culture war that ravages my deeply divided, polarized country.
Except that all of this -- the notion that we Americans are bitterly split as never before over social issues, standing on opposite sides of a gaping chasm screaming at each other -- is a lot of hooey.
As methodically documented in a tidy book titled "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America," (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) the United States remains a nation of moderates and centrists, even on the issues that supposedly divide us most profoundly: abortion, religion and homosexuality. The vast majority of us prefer the sensible, practical, middle ground - no matter where we live, no matter what faith we profess and practice, no matter which broad ideology we seem to embrace.
"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," writes Morris P. Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University political scientist who wrote the book with Samuel J. Abrams of Harvard and Jeremy C. Pope, also of Stanford. Their analyses draw on authoritative non-partisan surveys of public opinion conducted at regular intervals over the last 30 to 50 years.
"There is little evidence that Americans' ideological or policy positions are more polarized today than they were two or three decades ago, although their choices often seem to be." The explanation, he writes, is that "a polarized political class makes the citizenry appear more polarized, but it only that - an appearance." In other words, "it is not voters who have polarized, but the candidates they are asked to choose between."
The red-state/blue-state divide doesn't withstand close scrutiny -- red states being those, like Missouri, that voted for candidate George W. Bush in 2000; blue states those, like Illinois, that tipped for then-vice-president Al Gore. Yet even when people in these areas collectively disagree on issues, the differences are mostly a matter of degree.
According to the University of Michigan's National Election Study for 2000, 48 percent of voters in blue states felt that abortion should always remain a legal option; 37 percent of voters in red states agreed. In blue states, 73 percent of voters believed that gays should be protected from job discrimination; in red states, it was 62 percent. And 62 percent of voters of both "colors" endorsed the importance of showing tolerance for the moral views of others.
Hardly the bare-knuckles brawls showcased on talk radio and cable news.
Attitudes about abortion likewise defy stereotypes, especially when surveys avoid the loaded questions used by both pro-life and pro-choice partisans to get the results they want. Indeed, there's been little change in the answers Americans have been giving since 1973 to researchers for the University of Chicago's respected General Society Survey.
Asked whether a pregnant woman should legally be able to get an abortion if her health is "seriously endangered," about 90 percent say "yes." More than 80 percent say "yes" if the pregnancy is the result of rape or if tests indicate a strong probability of serious birth defects. Approval rates dip below 50 percent when reasons relate to low income levels, the woman's marital status or simply a desire for no more children.
Red states, blue states, the deep South, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Republicans, Democrats, independents_substantial majorities say "yes" to the availability of legal abortions in cases of rape, birth defects and danger to the mother's life and health. Only small minorities believe abortions should be available under all circumstances or unavailable under any circumstances.
"The broad American public is not polarized on the specifics of the abortion issue," Fiorina writes. "They believe that abortion should be legal but that it is reasonable to regulate it in various ways. ... In sum, public opinion on abortion does not support militants on either side of the issue."
Fiorina argues that American politics has been hijacked by "purists" who, by definition, represent extreme positions. "Because purists hold their views more intensely than ordinary people do, their operating style differs from that of most people," he writes. "Their opponents are not just misguided or misinformed, but corrupt, stupid, evil, or all three. There can be no compromise because truth does not compromise with error."
Seeing abundant evidence of this extreme mindset in the policies and practices of George W. Bush, mainstream Republicans have begun to speak out. On Sunday, the Tampa Tribune newspaper declined to endorse Bush for re-election, criticizing him for mishandling the war in Iraq, failing to keep prior campaign promises and violating many of the basic tenets of conservatism. The paper, which has endorsed every Republican presidential candidate since 1952 except Barry Goldwater, stopped short of endorsing Sen. John Kerry.
Closer to home, the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune endorsed Bush in 2000, but not this time. "In many ways, today's Bush cadre is anything but conservative," wrote publisher Henry J. Waters III in his Sunday endorsement of Kerry. "They favor big government, deficit spending and vast intrusion by Big Brother."
And in an extraordinary free-lance essay published in The New Republic, Robert A. George, an editorial writer for Rupert Murdoch's right-wing New York Post, savaged Bush's betrayal of conservative values.
A political convention is the last place you'd expect to find anyone rising above crass party politics, but in his keynote address at the Democrats' gathering last July in Boston, Illinois' Barack Obama struck a deep and resonant chord that transcended the false rhetoric of division:
"The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states," he proclaimed, "but I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome G-d in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services