SMALL DIFFERENCES

Christopher Hitchens is bemused by the American political system and ponders an interesting question:

How is it that domestic politics in this country is at once so rancid and so banal, so embittered and yet so uninspiring? Why should it be that two parties with few if any essential differences are ready to speak of each other as if a cultural or even a civil war were only a few speeches away?

His short answer is that paid political operators are chiefly responsible.

Those in the unelected election business who become celebrities are sometimes quite willing to work for either party. Dick Morris, to take a notorious example, toiled energetically for Jesse Helms before being hired by the Clintons. David Gergen’s mysterious usefulness to a succession of Republican and Democratic Presidents will almost stand comparison with the mystical utility of the Reverend Billy Graham to Eisenhower and Nixon, Carter and Clinton. The self-satirizing summa of all this is the bizarre marriage of Mary Matalin and James Carville, who actually contrived to run opposing presidential campaigns in 1992 while still, at the end of the day, proving that the two parties were essentially in bed together.

The privatized and privateering class of spin doctors, advisers, consultants, fundraisers, and reputation mongers displays a weird combination of cynicism and naiveté. It knows better than anyone else what the candidates and parties are really like. But it is compelled, when disgust or alarm reaches a certain pitch, to act as if only a member of the “other” faction could stoop so low. This falsity and cheapness has now reached a point where, palpable as it is even to half indifferent readers and viewers, it may have become invisible to the participants themselves. Not long ago in this magazine David Brooks mapped a political sociology elaborating on the notion that the country was in theory divisible between heartland “red” districts and more coastal “blue” ones, the colors showing (rather counterintuitively, perhaps) a respective difference between Republican and Democratic areas. Soon afterward one of Bill Clinton’s reliable yes-men, Paul Begala, issued a response, asserting that it was in “red” districts that gay men like Matthew Shepard were lynched, or black men like James Byrd were dragged behind pickup trucks until they died.

Hitchens, who is arguably the best writer among all the political pundits, is on to something here. Still, I disagree to some extent with his premise. While I grant that, almost by definition, both parties in a two party system tend toward the proverbial “middle,” I would submit that the differences between at least their core constituencies are real and important. The social values of “Red America” and “Blue America” are small in comparison to the differences between America and, say, France. That does not render them insignificant.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. oceanguy says:

    Question: When did the Democrats get designated “blue” I distinctly remember, as a young Ddemocrat, brsitling at the Red areas on maps and charts in the media as being Democratic. I was offended that some people equated Democrats with Red Communists. At some point the media switched and started depicting Republican districts/States as red and Dems as blue.

    When was that?

  2. craig henry says:

    I’ve often wondered about that. It seems to me that Republican areas were blue during the Reagan elections…..

  3. craig henry says:

    D’oh! Google!

    If you Google for electoral maps on the images tab, you see that many still use blue=GOP tradition. But it appears that CNN reversed this in 1996 and 2000 and that is the map that people refer to.