SEPTEMBER 10 AMERICANS
Lawrence Kaplan produces a stunning bit of data from some recent polls:
Fear of terrorism cuts across all demographic sub-groups. Yet a willingness to do something about it, to adjust our priorities, does not. The latest Pew survey, which asked respondents whether the president should focus on the war on terror or on the economy, reveals a puzzling trend.
Evangelical Christians, whites, residents of rural areas, southerners, and self-described conservatives evince more concern about the response to September 11 than do secular Americans, African Americans, residents of cities, non-southerners, or self-described liberals. In fact, the very city dwellers most at risk tend to attach the least importance to the war on terror. If these results seem more suited to a gun-control survey, consider another way of reading the same data. A Newsweek poll in November 2002 found that respondents who cited terrorism as the nation’s foremost priority voted Republican by a margin of three-to-one. In a similar vein, the Pew survey finds that Republicans split evenly on the question of the war on terror versus the economy, while only 18% of Democrats profess more concern with terrorism.
It hardly comes as a surprise, but the emergence of a partisan gap on a matter that supposedly transcends politics has come awfully quickly. All the more so, because one of the most popular analogies generated by the September 11 industry likened the new unity of purpose to that which prevailed after Pearl Harbor.
If you really wish to know what someone thinks about the war on terror, however, that person’s opinions about Monica Lewinsky and the Florida recount offer a more reliable guide. Were the cause something other than self-preservation, these cleavages might not mean so much. But when a global war becomes the exclusive property of one political party–and is treated, increasingly, as a touch-me-not by the other party–the whole enterprise risks forfeiting its legitimacy.
Yet the existence of a partisan divide between the two Americas isn’t nearly so important as the preferences that divide them.
When September 11 Americans look back at the attacks, they see an event that requires an overhaul of national priorities. When September 10 Americans look back at the attacks, they see an event whose significance is emotional, even spiritual, but most of all historical. What they do not see is the opening salvo of a years-long struggle, much less its implications for politics and policy.