How divided is America?

Two US commentators give opposing views.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

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Alex Gourevitch and Alexander Kippen will be speaking at the session Divided America? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London, 29-30 October 2005.

Alex Gourevitch

After the 2004 election, many were convinced that the USA was more divided than ever. In fact, the problem in US politics is not that it is too divided, but that it isn’t divided enough. A recent study by Morris Fiorina, Culture War?, shows that public opinion on many of the culture war issues, like abortion and gay rights, is in the middle, not at the extremes.

Politics itself has narrowed to a small set of issues mainly dealing with lifestyle and personal behavior. There is no principled disagreement about the role of the state or the market. There is general acceptance of the market not as the best, but as the least bad form of economic organisation.

Meanwhile, both sides see an expanded role for the state. In a fit of Keynesian pump-priming the Republicans have expanded defence spending, passed massive agricultural subsidies and bailed out major airlines. This supposedly libertarian party also endorses regulation of abortion, marriage and sexuality. Democrats also seek to expand regulation of the market, and promote the regulation of various private activities such as smoking, alcohol, pornography, even the way we sort our rubbish. The disagreement is mainly over which personal lifestyles to promote and which to reject.

US politics has lately been acrimonious, but this should not be confused with ideological polarisation. The emotion arises from the fact that personal matters have become the subject of public debate, leaving people feeling personally attacked rather than politically challenged. The condition for these issues being politicised, however, is general acquiescence to the main principles of social organisation. All sides share a pragmatic approach to the state and market, leaving little room for substantive political debate.

But the absence of serious ideological divisions in society also causes fragmentation within political regimes. A simple comparison between George W Bush and Ronald Reagan illustrates the point.

The Reagan coalition was a famously fractious assortment of libertarians, traditionalists, religious conservatives, big business powerbrokers, right-wing populists and the Republican establishment. In spite of the many conflicts within this broad church, they were forced to maintain some degree of collective unity because they shared a fundamental anti-communism, and more broadly anti-labour orientation. Whatever their differences, they limited the open expression of internal conflicts for the sake of a common, right-wing goal.

Bush, on the other hand, has difficulty holding his Republican coalition together. Even before the Iraq war, he lost the support of the Republican establishment, expressed in public denunciations by Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, both members of the first Bush’s administration. By the time the war began, Bush lost the libertarians, represented in the opinions of Reason magazine and the Future of Freedom Foundation. He also lost many traditionalists, like Pat Buchanan, press secretary for Reagan, who was so incensed that he started his own magazine, The American Conservative, and refused unambiguously to endorse any candidate in the 2004 elections.

Big business powerbrokers have also been increasingly been hostile to Bush. Even religious conservatives are now unhappy with the president, because of his failure to nominate clear culture warriors for either of the two Supreme Court positions.

Unlike Reagan, Bush has been unable to find a principle that unifies his party, and every policy he attempts only seems to alienate another constituency. In fact, Bush’s deathgrip on the war on terror reflects not a clearheaded pursuit of a principle or goal, but the fact that he can find little else to give meaning to his presidency.

Far from deeply divided, America is politically fragmented. The acrimony arises from a lack of substance. The most strident critiques of the administration come from within its own party, not from the opposition. Serious opposition, meanwhile, is hard to find. And the general effect is to induce cynicism about politics among the general public. America needs more politics, not less.

Alexander Kippen

There is a philosophical fault line that runs through the history of the USA. Today we call it Red v Blue. The issues change but the fault line remains. Superseding organised politics, the differences are primarily over how best to live. Is marriage restricted to a man and woman planning children? Should Washington spend your money to help the poor? Is organised religion nonsense or salvation?

The US political party system is only a subset of these expressions. When the party system does attach to these disputes we see legislative fights over issues like gay marriage, tax policy, and school prayer.

The Bush administration owes its re-election in part to successfully integrating lifestyle issues like religion into its 2004 platform. White House strategist Karl Rove connected with Christian conservatives. He didn’t invent them though, and nor will they vanish when he’s gone. Politicians play their part, sometimes exaggerating social cleavages, but these differences trace to the country’s inception.

This fault line is never straight. It meanders, vanishes at times – as in the near unity of purpose following Pearl Harbour – moves in and out of the political system, sometimes contradicts itself, but never dies.

It started with division between Jeffersonian and Federalist founders over the appropriate role of national government – whether it should it be a confederacy of sovereign states or a federation with strong central authority. The dispute was acrid. Anti-federalists accused the likes of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton of near sedition – traitors to the ‘Spirit of ’76’ and its Declaration of Independence.

The 1787-1788 constitutional convention in Philadelphia gave the federalists their strong central government but could not mend the philosophical differences that fractured the founders over the question of central authority. Seven decades later these differences became the Civil War, a clash in part over the most notorious of the irreconcilable differences – slavery.

In the next century, the slavery argument became the segregation argument. And in the 1960s you still heard segregation defenders talk of protecting ‘states’ rights’ – an issue central to the war that had ended 100 years earlier.

Today the watered down version of the segregation debate is over affirmative action. You can also connect US history’s dots of division over issues like routing out domestic communists in the 1940s and 50s, war with Vietnam and Watergate in the 1960s and 70s. Today war in Iraq fractures the country. Is it an invasion or a defence? These disputes express the fundamental rift in the philosophy that defines the nation.

The fault line is often expressed outside the party system altogether. When Rosa Parks sat down in the front of a Montgomery Alabama city bus in 1955 she fought a local segregation battle nearly a decade before national politicians had picked sides. Entertainers today square off when comedians like John Stewart routinely skewer Bush and when Dennis Miller routinely jabs liberals.

Political and news media strategists work hard to sell their lifestyles. That’s why NBC national television newsreader Brian Williams routinely points out that he was a college dropout who now loves stock-car racing. That’s why Bush walks the way he does and spends summer holidays in a dusty Texas town where temperatures frequently exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re calibrating their images to sell to a lifestyle.

The latest US Census Bureau findings on lifestyle contrast the lands of the Red and the Blue. Unmarried couples made up more than seven per cent of households in northeastern Blue states like Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. That’s about double the rate of unmarried couples living in southern Red states like Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi.

In Blue New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, about five per cent of babies are born to teenage mothers. More than twice that many babies are born to teen mothers in Red states like Georgia and Louisiana in the south, Texas and Wyoming in the west. Couples in Blue California and Connecticut typically marry four years later than couples in Red Idaho and Oklahoma.

Differences over how to live and the policy battles that result don’t follow neat lines and often change economic lanes. Bush beat John Kerry among middle-income voters earning $30,000 to $75,000 a year. Still, there’s a reason why people visiting each other from places like Seattle and Kansas City feel like they’ve each landed on Mars. That’s the divide. It’s as old as the country.

Alex Gourevitch is a writer and lecturer. Alexander Kippen is a political journalist and consultant. They both will be speaking at the session Divided America? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London, 29-30 October 2005.

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Topics Politics


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