As the nation’s attention reluctantly turns to the political parties’ conventions, with their scripted suspense and stage-managed sentiment, it is important to keep in mind that these are phony representations of American political life. But the slick video profiles, the teary appearance of a beloved party elder -- these are not what is most phony about the conventions.
This gathering of America’s civic tribes -- and the reporters who love them -- in separate cities for days of synchronized cheering and jeering is the embodiment of a great American myth: that the nation is divided into “two Americas,” polarized between “red” and “blue” camps that have fundamentally different values and moral outlooks. Each of the nominees will tell our allegedly divided country that he, and he alone, can manage to unite America for the next four years.
The idea that there is vast war over the moral and spiritual compass of the nation is a dramatic narrative, and it has dominated popular political analysis for nearly two decades. It makes for potent, inflammatory political commercials. It just doesn’t have the added virtue of being true.
In 1991, a scholar at the University of Virginia named James Davison Hunter coined a term that has haunted us ever since in his provocative book, “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” His argument was that America’s history of religious pluralism had devolved into two antagonistic movements, one progressive and the other orthodox or fundamental. But Hunter also noted, “In truth, most Americans occupy a vast middle ground between the polarizing impulses of American culture.” That was and remains the case.
But at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, Pat Buchanan fired the phony war’s first shot in anger. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” declared Buchanan in prime time. “It is a cultural war.” The assembled press corps loved it. And red and blue bruises have distorted the American body politic ever since.
Poll after poll, focus group after focus group show that the vast majority of Americans -- the Silent Majority, perhaps? -- are pragmatic, independent and un-partisan in their basic views. They are eclectic: “liberal” on some matters, “conservative” on others. They are not slaves to that hobgoblin of small minds, consistency. On fundamental matters such as belief in equality for women and minorities, or how large a role religion and family play in individuals’ lives, the consensus among voters is broad. Unlike other times in U.S. history, there simply are no issues such as slavery, Prohibition or Vietnam that inspire violent protest or social disruption.
In his 2005 book, “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” Stanford University political scientist Morris P. Fiorina showed that when you examine the actual views of Americans, “voters are not deeply or bitterly divided.” This held true even on the issues that are supposedly the most contentious: abortion, immigration and gun control. To analyze the most polarized recent presidential election, that of 2000, Fiorina divided the nation into Democratic-voting “blue” states and Republican-backing “red” ones -- and found that voters in these supposedly warring camps had much in common. On immigration, for example, he found 41% of blue-state voters wanted it reduced, as did 43% of red-state voters; 43% of blue-state voters believed protecting the environment should trump protecting jobs, as did 42% of red-state voters. And 62% of voters in red and blue states believed that Americans should tolerate each other’s moral views. Fiorina also has found that these patterns held through the 2004 election.
In fact, it’s because we agree on so much that our elections are so close. Fiorina’s “sorting” theory of voter behavior explains it with a certain simple elegance: Voters dislike both parties equally. And since the widespread disenchantment of Watergate, they trust neither party with great power. So in election after election in which most voters face only two choices, both unpopular, their votes understandably get sorted into two roughly equal halves.
Extremists, however rare, are becoming more common and, importantly, more rabid. Analyzing survey data from the National Opinion Research Center, political scientist Arthur Brooks discovered that the percentage of people who described themselves as either “extreme liberals” or “extreme conservatives” grew a stunning 35% from 1972 to 2004. Still, as a percentage of the total population, the extremist factions -- right and left combined -- remain a small slice, 6.6%. These civic slivers obsess disproportionately on whatever issues are most divisive at the moment, while the majority of voters stick with basic economic and national security concerns.
Extremists, Brooks also found, have grown more intolerant and prone to “personal demonization.” Pollsters use something called “feeling thermometers” to gauge how people react to others. Extreme liberals and extreme conservatives are now essentially dead to one another, as Tony Soprano might have put it. That is new.
The political elite and the politically engaged are, of course, much more likely to be on the extreme wings than the majority. These also happen to be the people who not only go to conventions, but whom the cable news bookers corral to argue about politics on their shows. Increasingly, they are also the people who host television and radio talk shows, who publish blogs and who make civic noise.
But they are not us. Despite the stories we will read, hear and see this week and next, Americans are a much more pragmatic, moderate and independent crowd. But we do need to be careful not to pick up the intolerance and bad manners of those who seek our votes.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of Digital Media for National Public Radio and the author of “Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.”