Not Divided After All?

NYT — A Nation Divided? Who Says?

If you’ve been following the election coverage, you know how angry you’re supposed to be. This has been called the Armageddon election in the 50-50 nation, a civil war between the Blue and the Red states, a clash between churchgoers and secularists hopelessly separated by a values chasm and a culture gap.

But do Americans really despise the beliefs of half of their fellow citizens? Have Americans really changed so much since the day when a candidate with Ronald Reagan’s soothing message could carry 49 of 50 states?

To some scholars, the answer is no. They say that our basic differences have actually been shrinking over the past two decades, and that the polarized nation is largely a myth created by people inside the Beltway talking to each another or, more precisely, shouting at each other.

These academics say it’s not the voters but the political elite of both parties who have become more narrow-minded and polarized. As Norma Desmond might put it: We’re still big. It’s the parties that got smaller.


Most voters are still centrists willing to consider a candidate from either party, but they rarely get the chance: It’s become difficult for a centrist to be nominated for president or to Congress or the state legislature, said Morris P. Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“If the two presidential candidates this year were John McCain and Joe Lieberman, you’d see a lot more crossover and less polarization,” said Professor Fiorina, mentioning the moderate Republican and Democratic senators. He is the co-author, along with Samuel J. Abrams of Harvard and Jeremy C. Pope of Stanford, of the forthcoming book, “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.”

“The bulk of the American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the cross-fire while Maoist guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other,” the book concludes. “Reports of a culture war are mostly wishful thinking and useful fund-raising strategies on the part of culture-war guerrillas, abetted by a media driven by the need to make the dull and everyday appear exciting and unprecedented.”


Further evidence of a truce comes from Paul DiMaggio, a sociologist at Princeton, and colleagues who have studied attitudes toward a wide range of issues like race, crime, the role of women and the welfare state. They looked at various demographic divisions – by race, age, sex, education, religious denomination, region – and found that gaps among groups have been constant or shrinking for the past three decades.

“The two big surprises in our research,” Professor DiMaggio said, “were the increasing agreement between churchgoing evangelicals and mainline Protestants, even on abortion, and the lack of increasing polarization between African-Americans and whites. Evangelicals have become less doctrinaire and more liberal on issues like gender roles. African-Americans are showing more diversity in straying from the liberal line on issues like government programs that assist minorities.”

Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, reached similar conclusions in his 1998 book, “One Nation, After All,” which called the culture war largely a product of intellectuals.

“Compared to earlier periods – the Civil War, the 1930’s, the 1960’s – our disagreements now are not that deep,” Professor Wolfe said last week. “Indeed, it is only because we agree so much on so many things that we can allow ourselves the luxury of thinking we are having a culture war. When one of society’s deepest divisions is over stem cells, that society is pretty unified.”

It’s certainly true that we’re reaching consensus on previously divisive issues. Then again, that’s always been the case. There’s not a lot of debate over whether we should re-institute slavery or deny women the franchise these days. So, if one looks at issues that divided us a generation ago, it’s not surprising that progress has been made in reaching accomodation. But new issues emerge continuously and it is over them that the debate occurs.

The fact that only a handful of states are considered “in play” in presidential elections anymore is a pretty good indicator that we’re divided. That doesn’t mean that we’re in danger of a civil war or even that things are acrimonious compared to previous eras, such as the late 1960s. Still, the debate is much less civil than it has been in all but a few eras of our history and the nature of the discourse, because of the ability to narrowly target one’s audience on niche programming, is much coarser than it has been in living memory.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hal says:

    the nature of the discourse, because of the ability to narrowly target one’s audience on niche programming, is much coarser than it has been in living memory

    True enough, but we did have this little thing called the Iraq war. A contentious and still hotly debated subject. It’s not like flag burning or gay marriage or whether we should have abortions. It was a very unusual event that was extremely emotional – to both sides.

    And when you start throwing patriotism into the mix – i.e. where the stance on the Iraq war becomes a defining issue of such – people are going to get hot under the collar. Throw in a highly visceral issue of sanctioned torture and it would be stunning if people didn’t start shouting.

    These may be one or two issues out of a million that people mostly agree upon, but they mean a lot to both sides of the isle.

  2. Rich Gardner says:

    I could boil this article down to simple economic theory. Special interst groups and the media have a great interest ($$$) to promote the idea of a divided nation. It gets them donations and viewers. So the folks working in these fields get more pay.

    BTW, the entire article is very worth reading.

  3. Moe Lane says:

    Well, on the one hand, my girlfriend and I went over to a barbeque last Saturday hosted by a strongly Democratic blogger, and everybody involved had themselves a fine time.

    On the other hand, this simple fact was apparently bemusing as all get-out to certain of Kevin Drum’s comment section. 🙂

  4. Dean Esmay says:

    You know I’ve never met anyone (including myself) who thinks anyone’s stance on the Iraq war–at least in terms of for or against–defines anyone’s patriotism. I suppose there might be such folks out there, but I’ve never met any of them.

    I do question the patriotism of people who harp on failure, ignore successes, and call our leaders liars or, worse, compare them to Nazis, when they simply disagree with them. Because that’s demoralizing and unnecessary. Ditto people who call America a “terrorist nation” or claim we are merely going to war because we are racists or want oil–and that is stuff I’ve heard constantly, and that too strikes me as unpatriotic. For such things go well beyond, “I don’t believe this was the right war,” or “I believe we should conduct ourselves differently,” that’s just saying hateful things about your country.

    But getting people to understand that distinction is a constant challenge.

  5. Dean Esmay says:

    Er, that should be “getting SOME people to understand that distinction is a constant challenge.”

    Most people I know get it perfectly. You don’t liken America or its President to Nazi Germany, or an oppressive imperialist hegemonic power only interested in oil, or uncritically accept claims that our troops regularly massacre innocent civilians, and then get to call yourself a patriot.

    Mind you, there is no law saying you have to be a patriot. You can hate your country all you want–that’s your right as an American, after all. But I’m trying to imagine saying to my son, “You’re a vile, hateful, murdering rapist, the worst and most horrible person on the planet, but don’t question the fact that I love you.” Uh, riiiiiight….