Splitting society, not hairs

Posted: Dec 07, 2003 12:00 AM

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.)

Like most analysts who say they see no polarization, Samuelson cites America’s great improvement in racial attitudes and increased tolerance for homosexuals. True, but left unsaid is that a fierce and apparently growing majority of Americans oppose gay marriage (up 6 points to 59 percent, according to Pew) and an even larger percentage of the public opposes racial preferences. (Wolfe found that 76 percent of blacks and 83 percent of whites oppose preferences even when the euphemism "priority" is used in the question). These are not random findings but hot-button issues in a continuing war over basic values. If the left keeps using the courts to impose minority opinions on unwilling majorities, conflict will broaden and intensify.

Consider too the growing polarization that pits secularists against religious people. In the 2000 senate race in New York, two-thirds of secularists voted for Hillary Clinton and two thirds of religious people voted for Rick Lazio. This kind of split showed up in House races around the country in 2000, says Louis Bolce, an associate professor of political science at Baruch College in New York City. The Pew study shows that the most religious states vote Republican, the least religious go Democratic.

More and more, religiously committed people tend to vote Republican, largely because of "the increased prominence of secularists within the Democratic party and the party’s resulting antagonism toward traditional values." That’s the judgment of Bolce and his Baruch colleague, Gerald De Maio, in "Our Secularist Democratic Party," an article in the conservative intellectual journal, The Public Interest.

The gap started opening at the 1972 Democratic convention that nominated George McGovern: a third of the white delegates were secular, compared with 5 percent of the general population. By 1992, the year the culture war is said to have broken into the open, 60 percent of first-time white delegates to the Democratic convention were secularists or nominally religious people who said they attend services five times year or less.

The secular-religious gap, larger than the gender and class gaps journalists like to focus on, is simply not on the media radar. Bolce and De Maio think the Republicans became the traditionalist party almost by default -- it had less to do with Republican efforts than the impact of secular progressives on the Democratic party. Many secularists in the Republican party are leaving to vote Democratic. The most intensely religious Democrats are heading the other way. The obvious word for a shift like this is polarization.