Morris P. Fiorina: What Culture War?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Morris P. Fiorina, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of Political Science at Stanford, in the WSJ (July 14, 2004):

"There is a religious war going on in this country, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America."

With those ringing words insurgent candidate Pat Buchanan fired up his supporters at the 1992 Republican National Convention. To be sure, not all delegates cheered Mr. Buchanan's call to arms, which was at odds with the "kinder, gentler" image that George H.W. Bush had attempted to project. Election analysts later listed Mr. Buchanan's fiery words among the factors contributing to the defeat of President Bush, albeit one of lesser importance than the slow economy and the repudiation of his "Read my lips, no new taxes" pledge.

In the years since Mr. Buchanan's declaration of cultural war, the idea of a clash of cultures has become a common theme in discussions of American politics. The culture-war metaphor refers to a displacement of the classic economic conflicts that animated 20th-century politics in the advanced democracies by newly emergent moral and cultural ones. The literature generally attributes Mr. Buchanan's inspiration to a 1991 book, "Culture Wars," by sociologist James Davison Hunter, who divided Americans into the culturally "orthodox" and the culturally "progressive" and argued that increasing conflict was inevitable.

No one has embraced the concept of the culture war more enthusiastically than journalists, ever alert for subjects that have "news value." Conflict is high in news value. Disagreement, division, polarization, battles and war make good copy. Agreement, consensus, moderation, compromise and peace do not. Thus, the notion of a culture war fits well with the news sense of journalists who cover politics. Their reports tell us that contemporary voters are sharply divided on moral issues. As David Broder wrote in the Washington Post in November 2000, "The divide went deeper than politics. It reached into the nation's psyche . . . It was the moral dimension that kept Bush in the race."

Additionally, it is said that close elections do not reflect indifferent or ambivalent voters; rather, such elections reflect evenly matched blocs of deeply committed partisans. According to a February 2002 report in USA Today, "When George W. Bush took office, half the country cheered and the other half seethed," while some months later The Economist wrote that "Such political divisions cannot easily be shifted by any president, let alone in two years, because they reflect deep demographic divisions . . . The 50-50 nation appears to be made up of two big, separate voting blocks, with only a small number of swing voters in the middle."...

In sum, observers of contemporary American politics apparently have reached a new consensus around the proposition that old disagreements about economics now pale in comparison to new divisions based on sexuality, morality, and religion, divisions so deep and bitter as to justify talk of war in describing them.

Yet research indicates otherwise: Publicly available databases show that the culture war script embraced by journalists and politicos lies somewhere between simple exaggeration and sheer nonsense. There is no culture war in the U.S. -- no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of.

Certainly, one can find a few warriors who engage in noisy skirmishes. Many of the activists in the political parties and the various cause groups do hate each other and regard themselves as combatants in a war. But their hatreds and battles are not shared by the great mass of Americans -- certainly nowhere near to "80-90 percent of the country" -- who are for the most part moderate in their views and tolerant in their manner. A case in point: To their embarrassment, some GOP senators learned this week that ordinary Americans view gay marriage in somewhat less apocalyptic terms than do the activists in the Republican base.

If swing voters have disappeared, how did the six blue states in which George Bush ran most poorly in 2000 all elect Republican governors in 2002 (and how did Arnold Schwarzenegger run away with the 2003 recall in blue California)? If almost all voters have already made up their minds about their 2004 votes, then why did John Kerry surge to a 14-point trial-heat lead when polls offered voters the prospect of a Kerry-McCain ticket? If voter partisanship has hardened into concrete, why do virtually identical majorities in both red and blue states favor divided control of the presidency and the Congress, rather than unified control by their party? Finally, and ironically, if voter positions have become so uncompromising, why did a recent CBS story titled "Polarization in America" report that 76% of Republicans, 87% of Democrats, and 86% of Independents would like to see elected officials compromise more rather than stick to their principles?...

Republican strategists have bet the Bush presidency on a high-risk gamble. Reports and observation suggest that they are attempting to win in 2004 by getting out the votes of a few million Republican-leaning evangelicals who did not vote in 2000, rather than by attracting some modest proportion of 95 million other non-voting Americans, most of them moderates, not to mention moderate Democratic voters who could have been persuaded to back a genuinely compassionate conservative. These Republican strategists had better pray that their Democratic opponents indulge themselves and cater to the Michael Moore crowd. For if the Kerry-Edwards campaign can avoid capture by the wing-nuts in the Democratic base and credibly promise a strategy akin to Bill Clinton's triangulation, the myth of a polarized America will be exposed for what it is.

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