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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. 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.
At the time of every election, both the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates begin spouting their strong political platform. Somewhere along the line of American history, and perhaps it was once true, there arose the belief that a major difference exists between the two parties' beliefs. In their book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Morris P. Fiorina of Stanford University, Samuel J. Abrams of Harvard University, and Jeremy C. Pope of Stanford University combine polling data with a corresponding historical background to negate the common myth that Americans are deeply divided in their fundamental views. When comparing the platforms of today's candidates, they may not be far from the truth.
The term "cultural war" stems back to a speech made by Christian rightwing Pat Buchanan who stated in 1992, "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." Buchanan took the term from a 1991 book, Culture Wars by sociologist James Davison Hunter who divided United States voters into the culturally "orthodox" and the culturally "progressive." He believed that this rift would become larger over the coming decade.
Fiorina et. al. In Culture War? especially looked at beliefs concerned with critical issues such as abortion, gender, religion and homosexuality to determine the degree of rift between American voters. They found that most people stand in the middle of the political landscape, preferring centrist candidates from either party to the extreme partisans who often emerge from the primary process. It is the political parties and the media that have ignored this fact and distorted public perceptions. "The country is gray, not red or blue," said Abrams.
According to Fiorina, who specializes in elections, public opinion and Congress, "increasingly, we hear politicians, interest group leaders, and assorted 'activists' speak half-truths to the American people. They tell us that the United States is split right down the middle, bitterly and deeply divided about national issues, when the truth is more nearly the opposite."
For example, the Republicans, especially the religious right, expect that the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriages will sway voters one way or the other in this coming election.
What's missing is intensity," said Fiorina. "You can do a poll and find that 75% of the country prefers Coke to Pepsi, but that doesn't mean they feel all that strongly about it. I haven't seen any indication in the polls that this is a major issue for most people. Just the opposite: This issue comes in at or near the bottom when you go asking people what's important to them in this election."
In polls, a majority of residents express a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, while 50% of voters think well of Republicans.
The book Culture War? presented evidence that voters in red (Republican states) and blue (Democratic states) America are in fact quite close. Majorities in both places support stricter gun control as well as the death penalty; they strongly oppose giving blacks preference in hiring while also wanting the government to guarantee that blacks are treated fairly by employers. They are against outlawing abortion completely or allowing it under any circumstances, and their opinions on abortion have been fairly stable for three decades.
Across a range of other matters, blue and red state residents differ little, if at all," the authors reported. Looking at public opinion on a long list of issues, from school vouchers to estate taxes to Medicare prescription drug coverage, they said, "one wonders why anyone would bother separating respondents into red and blue categories, since the differences are so insignificant."
Similarly, the authors argue that for all the differences between the Democrats and Republicans, there is common ground. This is true even in the present election. For example, according to a recent Times/CBS News poll, big majorities in both parties believe major changes are needed in the health care system.
How is this myth of divisiveness perpetuated? According to Fiorina, the elected officials and party activists are the ones who are so divided, not the general electorate. The media also hype the "divided nation" idea. As he noted:
As we go on to this next election, you see more and more professional journalists talking about two nations, about the red and blue states. I've been looking at this for years and I always wonder where they get this data. At minimum it is an exaggeration; at worst, sheer nonsense. The country is not really polarized any more than 20 or 30 years ago.
In a Wall Street Journal article this year Fiorina stated that the "The journalistic drumbeat continues unabated." A November 2003 report of 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 continuation, or even 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."
Based on what I read in the book and what is taking place in the political world today, it seems that the authors are not far from the truth. For example, Fiorina recently cited a number of questions about current voting results: "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)?" Likewise, if nearly most voters have already decided their 2004 votes, then why did John Kerry gain a 14-point gain when polls offered the possibility of a Kerry-McCain ticket? Also, if voters' decisions are set in concrete, why do identical majorities in both red and blue states support divided control of the presidency and the Congress instead of unified control by their party?
Lastly, queried Fiorina, "If voter positions have become so uncompromising, why did a recent CBS story titled 'Polarization in America' report that 76% of Republicans, 87% of Democrats and 86% of Independents would like to see elected officials compromise more rather than stick to their principles?" Such results demonstrate that voters want to find a middle ground on which they can agree rather than extreme answers.
Fiorina has repeatedly raised another issue, which has made me look seriously and critically at today's political situation. He is deeply concerned about the increasing numbers of Americans who are withdrawing from politics and community affairs. The number of those voting in U.S. elections continues to dwindle. Likewise, those who have trust in the government has also declined -- and the present global situation, Iraqi war and questions about terrorism do not help this skepticism.
Fiorina is right. According to other studies I have read, millions of Americans are withdrawing from community affairs and politics. Discouraged voters stay home and are less likely to join with others about shared problems. In fact, Fiorina stated in his earlier book Extreme Voices: The Dark Side of Civic Engagement, the majority of people are not involved. Civic-minded individuals are in the minority. He added that this lack of involvement is not unusual. Throughout history, the level of participation in government has ebbed and flowed depending on the state of the country and the personal and political issues involved.
Many political scientists state that it is very important to determine why voting numbers have decreased, so that trends can be reversed. They stress that direct democracy keeps public life alive and institutions accountable to their constituents. The democratic process resolves conflict through participation, where community members analyze the issues and determine what they feel is in the best interests of the majority of the group. I believe that democracy is not an easy process -- finding something that is acceptable by a majority of individuals takes time and patience -- but it is crucial to the continued well-being of our country.
Fiorina has noted that one of the ways of changing the tendency toward non-involvement is to reduce the costs of time and energy required to participate politically. Although people scoffed at Ross Perot's idea of electronic town halls, there may be some truth to this. The fear, explained Fiorina, is when the activists are the ones who…[continue]
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