A nation undecided, not a nation divided

A nation undecided, not a nation divided

: I’ve been arguing for months, since the primaries (here, here, and here), that we are not a nation divided, we are a nation undecided.

Finally — finally — I have a story to link to that agrees with that argument. The cover of this weekend’s NY Times Week in Review by John Tierney says — at last — that this red v. blue war we’re supposedly waging is a product of the wishes of politicians. He neglects to say that it is also the figment of the wishful imagination of journalists raring for a fight to cover.

Most voters are still centrists willing to consider a candidate from either party, but they rarely get the chance: It’s become difficult for a centrist to be nominated for president or to Congress or the state legislature, said Morris P. Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“If the two presidential candidates this year were John McCain and Joe Lieberman, you’d see a lot more crossover and less polarization,” said Professor Fiorina, mentioning the moderate Republican and Democratic senators. He is the co-author, along with Samuel J. Abrams of Harvard and Jeremy C. Pope of Stanford, of the forthcoming book, “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.”

“The bulk of the 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,” the book concludes. “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.”

The book presents evidence that voters in red and blue America are not far apart. 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’re against outlawing abortion completely or allowing it under any circumstances, and their opinions on abortion have been fairly stable for three decades. Virtually identical majorities of Blues and Reds don’t want a single party controlling the White House and Congress.

Right. We’re Americans, not extremists.

There’s more. Paul DiMaggio, a sociologist at Princeton, says:

“The two big surprises in our research,” Professor DiMaggio said, “were the increasing agreement between churchgoing evangelicals and mainline Protestants, even on abortion, and the lack of increasing polarization between African-Americans and whites. Evangelicals have become less doctrinaire and more liberal on issues like gender roles. African-Americans are showing more diversity in straying from the liberal line on issues like government programs that assist minorities.”

Alan Wolfe of Boston College “called the culture war largely a product of intellectuals.” He said that gay rights could have been a dividing line but that’s not proving to be the case.

But now, he says, it will probably be a minor issue.

Opinion on gay marriage and civil unions has fluctuated over the past year, but a Gallup poll last month showed increased support, with more than a third of Americans in favor of gay marriage and about half in favor of civil unions. The long-term trend has been to a great tolerance toward gays. The percentage of Americans favoring equal rights for homosexuals in employment has risen since 1977 by more than a third to about 80 percent today.

Support for gay rights has become especially strong among young voters, which suggests that the trend will continue.

“Gay rights could prove to be the issue that ends the culture war,” Professor Wolfe said. “If gay marriage does not become a polarizing issue in 2004 – and it does not look like it will – there are no wedge issues left.”

The article goes on to blather rather unhelpfully on possible causes and disagreement; that’s what editors think these articles have to do. It’s still a good and important and overdue piece.

But there is still a big story to be reported and written here: Are we really a nation divided? And if not — and I see evidence here that we are not — then how did this become the accepted wisdom of media and politics? Who benefits from this chronic illusion of internal war? Who helped foster this myth? What questions did reporters and editors fail to ask? When we concentrate on disagreements in a democracy, are we painting democracy as a failure? But when we concentrate on the agreements in a democracy, don’t we instead paint a picture of the shared values of the nation?

And why aren’t media reporting — admiting — today that we are a nation? Just that: A nation.

We are America. Today, of all times — as others attack us because we are American — it is vital that we acknowledge our nationhood and define it, not out of patriotism or ethnicity (we have none) but as a matter of principle, the principle we are defending and fighting for.

We are not a nation divided. Hell, we are not even a world divided. Most Americans, most people, are just people trying to get through a day and a life and do the decent thing and improve their future and avoid politics. It is a mistake — it is a damned and dangerous lie — to paint the extremists as normal, whether those extremists are of political or religious.

We’re not red v. blue. We’re Americans. It’s the world vs. America. It’s Islamic nut jobs vs. America.

There’s the story that needs reporting.