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Political class is polarized, but the rest of us can think!
on November 16, 2004
This is a very brief and tightly argued book of enormous relevance to us in 2004. It makes the following remarkable points:
1. On close inspection of individual opinions, the vast majority of the electorate in the U.S. are *moderate*, not radically polarized into liberals and conservatives. That is, most of us are, as we would like to believe, capable of thinking independently for ourselves rather than strictly along party ideological lines.
We are a _closely_divided_ nation, as reflected in the very close recent elections, however we are NOT a _*deeply*_divided_ nation. That is, we are not really a nation of two distinct warring camps and a couple of swing states as the media sometimes present it for dramatic purposes. Fiorina sugests that we are actually something close to an ambivalent nation which divides itself in poltitical matters because we have no choice when presented with highly divided options.
2. The American public has *not* become dramatically polarized even over such hot topics as abortion. Rather, relatively small differences among us have been magnified by the rhetoric used to present the issues to us.
3. The political choices we have are determined by a distinct class of politicians, party activists, and interest group leaders, who *have* become increasingly polarized over moral and religious ideology as well as economic ideology.
4. A large part of the polarization of the political class has been the result of the realignment of the South, such that republicans aligned aggressive foreign policy with hostility to the welfare state, and democrats aligned antiwar sentiment with support of those at risk. This is represented particular well by the "gender gap" which widened at the same time this realignment or tuning of the ideologies of the parties was taking place.
Fiorina suggests that when Bill Clinton once said early in his presidency that he was Pro-Choice, but against abortion, most Americans knew what he meant, that most of us, liberal or conservative, do not want to legislate morality for others, even though we have a clear sense of what is right and wrong. Fiorina also points out for example that most 80% of us believe that abortion should be legal under some conditions (even if wrong), and illegal under others. The extremes at each end which promote unconditional rights for unborn babies or for mothers are roughly the 10% tail at either side of a normal curve.
Finally, he also provides data showing that the averaged opinions of self-identified liberals and conservatives regarding abortion differ only regarding under what specific conditions they think abortion should be legal, not the legality of abortion in general.
The result is that the supposed "culture war" is really a war between increasingly ideologically polarized political parties and their activists who arent really even aware of each others reasoning, with most of us in the middle getting hit by friendly fire from both sides, but being forced to choose between them.
The bottom line for Fiorina's argument here is that we are a nation currently creating unneccessary internal conflicts and indulging in "culture war" polarized issues like gay marriage or unconditional rights of various kinds that are really of concern to a relatively small and unrepresentative number of us. They are sold to us by political parties and the media because of their drama rather than their relative importance. It's hard for me to look at the political ads for either of the current candidates in 2004 without nodding agreement on this.
Our political system provides us with ideological extremism on both sides, and seems to have no desire or ability to change itself, whereas most of us caught in it would usually prefer pragmatic and non-ideological solutions to issues that address larger numbers of us.
I read this at the same time at Juergensmeyer's book "Terror in the Mind of God," and it is chilling how much the "culture war" among the political elites comes to resemble the "cosmic war" of good and evil that Juergensmeyer theorizes leads to real violence under some conditions. If Fiorina is right, we may not really have a (popular) culture war at all, but we could create one if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as we come to accept it uncritically.
If Fiornia had a solution for this centrally important problem, this book would merit 6 or 7 stars. However, just by pointing it out so clearly, it merits the highest rating I can give it.
Please read this important and timely book.