Debunking the myth of a polarized America. By Morris P. Fiorina.
“There is a religious war going on in this country, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”
With those ringing words insurgent candidate Pat Buchanan fired up his supporters at the 1992 Republican National Convention. To be sure, not all delegates cheered Buchanan’s call to arms, which was at odds with the “kinder, gentler” image that George H.W. Bush had attempted to project. Election analysts later included Buchanan’s fiery words among the factors contributing to the defeat of President Bush, albeit one of lesser importance than the slow economy and the repudiation of his “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge.
In the years since Buchanan’s declaration of cultural war, the idea of a clash of cultures has become a common theme in discussions of American politics. The culture war metaphor refers to a displacement of the classic economic conflicts that animated twentieth-century politics in the advanced democracies by newly emergent moral and cultural ones. The literature generally attributes Buchanan’s inspiration to a 1991 book, Culture Wars, by sociologist James Davison Hunter, who divided Americans into the culturally “orthodox” and the culturally “progressive” and argued that increasing conflict was inevitable.
No one has embraced the concept of the culture war more enthusiastically than journalists, ever alert for subjects that have “news value.” Conflict is high in news value. Disagreement, division, polarization, battles, and war make good copy. Agreement, consensus, moderation, compromise, and peace do not. Thus, the notion of a culture war fits well with the news sense of journalists who cover politics. Their reports tell us that contemporary voters are sharply divided on moral issues. As David Broder wrote in the Washington Post in November 2000, “The divide went deeper than politics. It reached into the nation’s psyche. . . . It was the moral dimension that kept Bush in the race.”
Additionally, it is said that close elections do not reflect indifferent or ambivalent voters; rather, such elections reflect evenly matched blocs of deeply committed partisans. According to a February 2002 report in USA Today, “When George W. Bush took office, half the country cheered and the other half seethed”; some months later the Economist wrote that “such political divisions cannot easily be shifted by any president, let alone in two years, because they reflect deep demographic divisions. . . . The 50-50 nation appears to be made up of two big, separate voting blocks, with only a small number of swing voters in the middle.”
The 2000 election brought us the familiar pictorial representation of the culture war in the form of the “red” and “blue” map of the United States. Vast areas of the heartland appeared as Republican red, while coastal and Great Lakes states took on a Democratic blue hue. Pundits reified the colors on the map, treating them as prima facie evidence of deep cultural divisions: Thus “Bush knew that the landslide he had wished for in 2000 . . . had vanished into the values chasm separating the blue states from the red ones” (John Kenneth White, in The Values Divide). In the same vein, the Boston Herald reported Clinton adviser Paul Begala as saying, on November 18, 2000, that “tens of millions of good people in Middle America voted Republican. But if you look closely at that map you see a more complex picture. You see the state where James Byrd was lynch-dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart—it’s red. You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay—it’s red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees—it’s red.”
Claims of bitter national division were standard fare after the 2000 elections, and few commentators publicly challenged them. On the contrary, the belief in a fractured nation was expressed even by high-level political operatives. Republican pollster Bill McInturff commented to the Economist in January 2001 that “we have two massive colliding forces. One is rural, Christian, religiously conservative. [The other] is socially tolerant, pro-choice, secular, living in New England and the Pacific Coast.” And Matthew Dowd, a Bush reelection strategist, explained to the Los Angeles Times why Bush has not tried to expand his electoral base: “You’ve got 80 to 90 percent of the country that look at each other like they are on separate planets.”
The journalistic drumbeat continues unabated. A November 2003 report from the Pew Research Center led E. J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post to comment: “The red states get redder, the blue states get bluer, and the political map of the United States takes on the coloration of the Civil War.”
And as the 2004 election approaches, commentators see a continuation, if not an intensification, of the culture war. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman wrote in October 2003, “The culture war between the Red and Blue Nations has erupted again—big time—and will last until Election Day next year. Front lines are all over, from the Senate to the Pentagon to Florida to the Virginia suburbs where, at the Bush-Cheney 2004 headquarters, they are blunt about the shape of the battle: ‘The country’s split 50-50 again,’ a top aide told me, ‘just as it was in 2000.’”
In sum, observers of contemporary American politics have apparently reached a new consensus around the proposition that old disagreements about economics now pale in comparison to new divisions based on sexuality, morality, and religion, divisions so deep and bitter as to justify talk of war in describing them.
Yet research indicates otherwise. Publicly available databases show that the culture war script embraced by journalists and politicos lies somewhere between simple exaggeration and sheer nonsense. There is no culture war in the United States; no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of.
Certainly, one can find a few warriors who engage in noisy skirmishes. Many of the activists in the political parties and the various cause groups do hate each other and regard themselves as combatants in a war. But their hatreds and battles are not shared by the great mass of Americans—certainly nowhere near “80–90 percent of the country”—who are for the most part moderate in their views and tolerant in their manner. A case in point: To their embarrassment, some GOP senators recently learned that ordinary Americans view gay marriage in somewhat less apocalyptic terms than do the activists in the Republican base.
If swing voters have disappeared, how did the six blue states in which George Bush ran most poorly in 2000 all elect Republican governors in 2002 (and how did Arnold Schwarzenegger run away with the 2003 recall in blue California)? If almost all voters have already made up their minds about their 2004 votes, then why did John Kerry surge to a 14-point trial-heat lead when polls offered voters the prospect of a Kerry-McCain ticket? If voter partisanship has hardened into concrete, why do virtually identical majorities in both red and blue states favor divided control of the presidency and Congress, rather than unified control by their party? Finally, and ironically, if voter positions have become so uncompromising, why did a recent CBS story titled “Polarization in America” report that 76 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of Independents would like to see elected officials compromise more rather than stick to their principles?
Still, how does one account for reports that have almost 90 percent of Republicans planning to vote for Bush and similarly high numbers of Democrats planning to vote for Kerry? The answer is that while voter positions have not polarized, their choices have. There is no contradiction here; positions and choices are not the same thing. Voter choices are functions of their positions and the positions and actions of the candidates they choose between.
Republican and Democratic elites unquestionably have polarized. But it is a mistake to assume that such elite polarization is equally present in the broader public. It is not. However much they may claim that they are responding to the public, political elites do not take extreme positions because voters make them. Rather, by presenting them with polarizing alternatives, elites make voters appear polarized, but the reality shows through clearly when voters have a choice of more moderate alternatives—as with the aforementioned Republican governors.
Republican strategists have bet the Bush presidency on a high-risk gamble. Reports and observation indicate that they are attempting to win in 2004 by getting out the votes of a few million Republican-leaning evangelicals who did not vote in 2000, rather than by attracting some modest proportion of 95 million other non-voting Americans, most of them moderates, not to mention moderate Democratic voters who could have been persuaded to back a genuinely compassionate conservative. Such a strategy leaves no cushion against a negative turn of events and renders the administration vulnerable to a credible Democratic move toward the center. Whether the Democrats can capitalize on their opportunity remains to be seen.
Morris P. Fiorina is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Wendt Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. An expert on elections, public opinion, and the US Congress, his research focuses on legislative and electoral processes with an emphasis on the ways in which political institutions and procedures facilitate or distort the representation of citizen preferences. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences.
This essay originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2004. It is adapted from the new book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, by Morris P. Fiorina, with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, published by Pearson Longman. New from the Hoover Press is Varieties of Conservatism in America, edited by Peter Berkowitz. To order, call 800.935.2882.