John Leo

The more polarized American society becomes, the more we see intellectuals explaining that this polarization isn’t real -- it’s just the swordplay of media and political elites.

Each new bundle of evidence saying "We’re deeply divided" is closely followed by some prominent commentator saying, "No, we’re not." Last month, the Pew Research Center released a major survey of today’s political landscape. The title of the study said it all: "Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized." Andrew Kohut, director of Pew, told me the anger level is so high that if the demonstrators of 1968 had felt like this, "there would have been gunfire in the streets."

Not so, wrote Robert Samuelson, one of our best and most balanced columnists. He thinks the polarization of the 1960s was much worse, while stridency today is in large part an attention- grabbing strategy adopted by commentators, academics and advocates. This would not seem to account for the upsurge of bitterness and angry rhetoric, though the appearance of two polarizing presidents in succession is clearly a factor.

Behind the smoke and fire, Samuelson thinks, most Americans are tolerant, moderate and in broad agreement on many issues. That was the conclusion of the chief spokesman for the no-polarization argument, sociologist Alan Wolfe of Boston College. After a broad study of middle-class Americans, recounted in his influential 1998 book, One Nation, After All, Wolfe concluded that the culture war is "being fought primarily by intellectuals."

Is this really so? If polarization is essentially confined to a small numbers of actors clashing swords in front of klieg lights, why do polls show that the number of centrists and swing votes are dwindling? This would explain why both parties seem to spend so much time and money appealing to their base -- they are no longer convinced that there is much of a middle to appeal to. I’m told by a reliable source that Karl Rove is working with data showing that true swing voters are down to 7 percent of the electorate. (Kohut says nothe percentage of legitimate swing voters is at least 20 points higher.)

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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