Divided Electorate Displays Political Preference
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images file
Some political scientists say Americans aren’t nearly as polarized as bumper stickers like these would have you believe. Instead, they say, voters are pragmatists who want problems solved but must choose between a limited number of polarized options.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 1/19/2005 4:49:55 PM ET 2005-01-19T21:49:55

Robert W. Mitchell and Bryan Holloway were good friends. They taught social studies across the hall from each other at West Stokes High School in King, N.C., played basketball together after school and shared a conservative Christian outlook on politics.

Things began unraveling when Mitchell, a Democrat, and Holloway, a Republican, won their parties’ respective nominations to serve in the state House. At first, they agreed that their general election face-off would not damage their friendship. It would be “a teachable moment,” as Larry Cartner, superintendent of the Stokes County schools, told The Winston-Salem Journal.

That it was.

Holloway, who had already knocked off the powerful Republican incumbent in his primary, published an ad in the local paper alleging that Mitchell favored destroying embryos for stem-cell research. Calling the claim an outright lie, Mitchell filed a complaint with the State Elections Board accusing Holloway of using school materials and student labor to produce flyers. That, Holloway said, was a lie.

Holloway went on to win in the solidly Republican district. Mitchell went back to his classroom. As family men who are proud of their public Christianity, the two have tried to patch things up, Mitchell said this week.

Mitchell chose not to pursue his complaint against Holloway, and no “hostility or tension” lingers. But “certainly things will never be the same between us,” he said in an e-mail interview. Holloway did not reply to a request for an interview.

“Voters claim they don’t respond to such negativity — yet I think we simply need to look at who wins, what the tone of their campaign was, and then we’ll realize that at the root of political success lies elements of extreme division, negativity and fear,” Mitchell said.

Tut tut
Glance at any newspaper and you will read some pundit or another harrumphing that American voters are irretrievably divided, leading to ever more poisonous political rhetoric.

As a result, America is “deeply divided” (Fox News, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, BBC). Or “bitterly divided” (CBS News, Chicago Tribune, Tampa Tribune, PBS, Economist, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Time, Newsweek, Denver Post, Boston Herald, Detroit News, Newsday, Dallas Morning News).

Americans are “weary” (Chicago Tribune) of firing at one another across “fierce political divisions” (MSNBC.com).

Right diagnosis, wrong patient
But no matter what TV talkers and articles like this one may insist, people who study such things for a living say it just isn’t so. Americans aren’t irreconcilably divided over politics. It’s the politicians who are irreconcilably divided over America.

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“Social scientists have known for at least 50 years that the vast stratum of people who are heavily involved in politics are not representative of the vast bulk of the population,” said Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University whose latest book, “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” makes a compelling case that pundits and journalists have it all wrong.

“We talk about the difference between closely divided and deeply divided,” Fiorina said in an interview. “What’s really happening in American politics is the parties have really diverged. The candidates are further apart than they used to be. You see a lot of changes, and everyone assume it’s with the voters, but it’s with the elites, not the voters.”

Video: Political divide?

The intense scrutiny of a campaign in the modern media heightens impressions of conflict, obscuring the reality that most Americans don’t pay much attention.

“What happens is the people right at the top talk only to each other,” Fiorina said. “The media talk mainly to them, as well. The reporters don’t spend enough time in Safeways or Wal-marts.

“Even when they’re on the campaign trail, they ride the plane. They meet the same kind of people in Iowa and New Hampshire that they run into in Washington or New York. They never get out to see how little the average person thinks about a lot of these issues and how basically moderate and reasonable people are.”

‘Passions demand that there be conflict and polarization’
In Fiorina’s eyes, “the population is really pragmatic — we’ve got this problem here; how do we solve it? But you’ve got these two ideological camps in the parties that go to war about unsolved problems.”

Their war in 2004 was especially bloody:

  • There was Al Gore warning voters not to re-elect the Bush administration, which “dare not admit the truth lest they look like complete fools.” He piled on: “Are they too dishonest or too gullible? Take your pick.”
  • There was Alan Keyes, the Republican nominee for the Senate from Illinois, dismissing gays and lesbians — specifically the vice president’s daughter — as “selfish hedonists” and his opponent, Barack Obama, as “a socialist and a liar.”
  • There was Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who remarked that his Italian-American opponent looked “like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons” and that his staff had beaten Bunning’s wife “black and blue.” Kentucky Democrats retaliated by encouraging rumors that Bunning was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness.
  • There was former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello, seeking to regain the job by denouncing his opponent, Anibal Acevedo Vila, as a “scorpion.” Acevedo Vila responded that Rossello “represents the worst of our past,” accusing him of flagrant corruption. The two men had to be restrained after nearly coming to blows at a televised debate.
  • The Senate race in South Dakota between Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Republican John Thune got so nasty — with Daschle running an ad calling Thune “dishonest” and one from Thune accusing Daschle’s wife of exploiting their marriage to boost her lobbying career — that a member of the state Republican Party’s Executive Board resigned in protest. She said the campaign threatened to destroy young people’s faith in politics.
  • And then there was the Seattle Weekly, an acid-edged alternative newspaper, which asked on its cover: “Is Bush the Antichrist?” — complete with an altered portrait of the president sporting devil’s horns. The conclusion: probably not, but he and his church are certainly “Antichristlike.”

Robert Mitchell, the state House candidate in North Carolina, said rhetoric like that made it easy for commentators to write off the whole country as a lost cause. But that’s a lazy way of looking at things.

Commentary that divided America into a red camp and a blue camp was just “hype,” said Mitchell, who pointed out that even though Bush easily won North Carolina, voters there elected a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

“For the people who eat, sleep and ooze politics, of course they’re going to seize on the political divisions as being deep and significant because their own passions demand that there be conflict and polarization,” Mitchell said. “But the ‘red and blue’ divide is a bit overblown if one bothers to look more deeply into it.”

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