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A Closer Look At The Red/Blue Cultural Divide:
It Is Mostly Hokum


Friday, Dec. 03, 2004

The 2004 post-election map, with all those red states filling the middle of the country, gives the appearance of a very divided America. Pundit and commentators have talked endlessly of the two Americas. A closer look, however, shows the nation not anywhere near to being as deeply divided as many would have us believe.

In truth, it is not the overwhelming majority of Americans who are pushing the claim of these rifts -- cultural and political differences supposedly tearing our country apart. Rather, for this theory, we can thank the chattering class: the journalists, writers, religious leaders, politicians, along with various advocate activists and some social commentators. It is, as Vice President Spiro Agnew once famously said, the nattering nabobs of negativism.

The Great Conservative Backlash's Bait-and-Switch

Thomas Frank, in his recently published What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, explores the so-called cultural divide. Frank seeks to understand why so many who vote Republican do so against their own economic interest - for any benefit tax cuts might grant them, is overwhelmed by decisions against spending on programs that could help them. His answer is this: We are experiencing a great conservative backlash, in which cultural values have become more important than economic fundamentals.

According to Frank, conservatives, lately, are constantly being newly minted. Mainly, they are middle-class working Americans. And at the polls, they are voting their backlash cultural reactions, time and time again. Yet they never get satisfaction because, from their perspective, the culture only becomes worse and worse. And so they go back to the polls.

Remarkably, these voters - according to Frank's account -- either don't notice, or don't care, that those who make the culture worse are the very same people who profiting from their voting practices.

As Frank explains, "Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regime of low wages and lax regulations."

Yet voters do not seem to mind: Frank finds that these new conservatives consistently ignore the bait and switch

: "The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration everywhere from media to meat-packing. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining." (Emphasis in original.)

As Frank explains, a key part of the whole bait-and-switch, one of the tactics that maintains the illusion, is to make a big deal out of the red states/blue states divide. This television graphic has provided conservative activists with a rhetorical device which they have used (and continue to use) effectively to marshal their followers.

The Not-So-Great Divide: Retro versus Metro America

Frank says, however, that the red states/blue states dichotomy is, in the end, fallacious -- although this fact has not limited its usefulness to conservatives. For example, in 2000, Frank tells us, the "red-state narrative brought [the appearance of] majoritarian legitimacy to a president who had actually lost the popular vote."

As a partisan weapon, the dichotomy has evolved. Now it pits the vast heartlands against the urban sophisticates: Fords and Chevys versus Volvos and BMWs; Mel Gibson versus Michael Moore.

Not surprisingly, since Frank understands the red/blue divide is bogus, he is highly critical of the much (and cleverly) advertised book The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America. Reviewing the book -- as part of an extended essay in The New York Times Book Review on the "American Psyche" -- Frank writes, "Despite its … extreme vulnerability to refutation, the red-blue narrative held the punditry in such awe that, inevitably, it generated its precise antithesis." That, he says, is the theory that surfaced in The Great Divide -- written by a team of three economists, a pollster and two researchers led by the Cambridge-trained billionaire and founder of the University of Phoenix, John Spreling.

In making short shrift of The Great Divide, Frank is at times a bit harsh -- given that it's evident that he found invaluable material in the book -- just as I did. (The accompanying website is also very useful.) Indeed, Spreling's work takes an approach not dissimilar from that of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whom Frank cites with seeming approval in his footnotes of his own book.

Spreling labels the red states "retro," and the blue states "metro." But Frank amends these characterizations, based on his analysis of The Great Divide. Frank describes the retro folks as "[farm] subsidy-hogging boors" and the metro crowd as "the effete blue-staters of conservative propaganda [who] are transformed into a thoughtful, enlightened producer class."

In the end, these contrasting approaches to the divide - Spreling's and Frank's - only illustrate that if you take a red states/blue states view of America, you can interpret that divide in almost any way that you choose. Spreling, and his team, have excellent credentials. As does Stanley Greenberg, a pollster who has uncritically accepted the premise that America is divided in his new book, The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How To Break It.

But Thomas Frank is the one who gets it right: Regardless of how one might spin the red-blue divide, it really is not the cultural and political division it's cracked up to be.

The Data Sharply Belie the Claim of "Two Americas"

Hard data simply do not support the two Americas view of our nation.

Consider, for instance, the work of Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina, who dissects virtually all the relevant data in his pamphlet Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.

Professor Fiorina nails it. Only those who simply seek to perpetuate the myth will ignore his work - which is based strictly on the facts.

"Americans are closely divided, but we are not deeply divided," Fiorina writes. "And we are closely divided because many of us are ambivalent and uncertain, and consequently reluctant to make firm commitments." He finds that "we divide evenly in elections or sit them out entirely because we instinctively seek the center while the parties and candidates hang out on the extremes."

As he has explained - commenting, on NPR, on the 2004 election results -- it is the chattering class that gives the impression of great division. "The people you see on the talk shows and calling in are simply not representative of the broader population," he observed. "They are, on the whole, much more extreme in their views, much more intense in their views and much louder. The bulk of the population still, as it always has been I think, is generally centrist, moderate if you will."

Based on polling data, Fiorina puts the lie to the claim of a great divide. He concludes - and convincingly proves - that "[t]he myth of a culture war rests on misinterpretation of elections returns, lack of hard examination of polling data, systematic and self-serving misrepresentation by issue activists, and selective coverage by an uncritical media more concerned with news value than with getting the story right."

In 1998, Alan Wolfe, a political scientist who is presently the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, reached similar conclusions. His excellent work on the divide is entitled One Nation, After All -- What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About: God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left, and Each Other.

Yet in a recent book review, following the 2004 election, Wolfe seemed to pull back from his own work. Indeed, he seems to be offering a "mea culpa" for his title referring to "one nation, after all." He shouldn't be: He is still correct.

Some critics discounted Wolfe's findings - as Fiorina notes - "as reflecting only the views of 200 middle class suburban families." But Fiorina's data -- "based on an examination of the views of tens of thousands of Americans questioned in national surveys" - only confirmed Fiorina findings. (Granted, Fiorina did not have the 2004 returns when he wrote, but did the nation really morph so dramatically in such a brief time?)

In short, the data show that the culture war is not arising from a genuinely divided America. Rather, it is a tool of those political and cultural activists who seek to keep things stirred up, and a creation of a news media more interested in covering conflict than sorting facts from fictions. In short, the cultural polarization of America is a myth.

What The Numbers Tell Us: A More or Less United America

Of course, it's true that there have been regional shifts of political parties: No one would deny that. But are they seismic shifts - tremors emanating from a deeper rift? No: That is nonsense. In fact, the available polling shows that all the noise about our supposed political divide is coming from partisans and the media, while in reality - the hard evidence, not the parallel reality created by constant spin -- the nation remains largely in the center and thus, mainly united.

Donald Wolfensberger -- director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center - takes the same view of the data in the Autumn 2004 Wilson Quarterly. Wolfensberger notes that Harris polls "reveal an amazing uniformity from the 1970s through today on how people describe their own political philosophy. Around 40 percent of those polled have consistently called themselves moderates, roughly 33 percent conservatives, and 18 percent liberals."

And contrary to the appearance of an increasingly divided nation, in truth, fewer and fewer people identify themselves as partisans. In 1969, when Harris began collecting data, 81 percent of Americans claimed party membership. (It broke down this way: 49 percent Democrats; 32 percent Republicans; 19 percent Independents). In 2003, though, the statistics were very different. Only 61 percent identified with a political party. (This time, it broke down this way: 33 percent Democrats; 28 percent Republicans; 28 percent Independents.)

With nine more percent of us - tens of millions more - now identifying themselves as Independent, are we really becoming a more partisan and divided nation? Of course not.

The evidence is overwhelming: The so-called culture split is largely nonsense, pure hokum. We should not let pundits divide America by falsely claiming there is already a deep rift, and then trying to deepen it.

Telling two people they are natural enemies is a good way to make them suspicious of each other. Telling two segments of the population the same thing, doubtless has the same effect. The more we think of our nation as two inimical constituencies, the less we will be able to fight genuine enemies outside our borders - such as the terrorist network that still persists.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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