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Issue No. 105 (March 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Politicians, pundits, and activists are having a culture war

The rest of us are nuanced or ambivalent and looking for new directions

Open the newspapers or log onto political Web sites and chances are good you’ll be clobbered by polarized -- and polarizing -- comments (“McCain Emphasizes Anti-Abortion Stance,” Boston Globe, March 17; 2007; “Brownback Supports ‘Homosexuality Is Immoral’ Comment,” TPMCafe.com, March 15, 2007; etc., etc.).

But talk with your friends or relatives about politics, and chances are good you’ll have an entirely different experience. An experience that reveals that most of them are nuanced or tentative or ambivalent about their beliefs . . . and ready to move in healing new directions.

Social scientists to the rescue

Morris Fiorina made that point in a modest college textbook debunking the “culture war” two years ago -- 116 oversized pages of small print, graphs, and charts. (The cover carried no blurbs and the top line promoted the “Great Questions in Politics Series.”) But Fiorina’s argument was so compelling that it caught on beyond the academy.

Now Fiorina’s book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, has been re-released in a revised, updated, and substantially expanded edition, with bigger print, smaller-size pages, and a commercially attractive cover (Pearson-Longman, 2nd ed., 2006, 234 pp.).

As a result, it is more convincing than ever. The argument is clearer and more systemic -- a whole new chapter has been added laying it out in full -- and telling evidence from the last Presidential election has been woven into the text. A new closing section draws on radical middle writings (including one from this Web site).

In addition, Fiorina’s work has been ratified and extended by another social scientist, Wayne Baker -- first in Baker’s scholarly book America’s Crisis of Values, 2005, and then in his paper “Purple America.”

You couldn’t ask for a more credible pair of authors. Fiorina is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and teaches political science at Stanford (after having taught three decades at Harvard and Cal Tech). Baker is a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research and Professor of Sociology (also Professor of Management) at the University of Michigan.

Just as important, both are caring people. Prof. Fiorina’s research focuses on the representation of citizen preferences. Prof. Baker’s specializations are “social capital” and cultural change.

Put Fiorina’s and Baker’s ideas together and you’ll not only see through the concept of the “culture war.” You also see that most of us in this country are achingly ready for the the kinds of healing and synthesizing political ideas that are meant by the term “radical middle.”

The “culture war” is largely a myth

Fiorina’s book contains a raft of factual evidence showing that the culture war is largely a myth.

For example, one table shows voters’ issue preferences in the year 2004. In the so-called “red” (Republican) states, 46% of voters felt immigration should decrease; in the blue states, 45% of the voters felt the same.

A whopping 72% of red state voters favored the death penalty. But a whopping 65% of blue state voters felt the same. And so on down the line of supposedly divisive issues.

On back of the front cover of the new edition there’s a map showing “red states” and “blue states” from the 2004 Presidential election. But on back of the back cover there’s a map showing shades of red-to-blue for each state depending on the percentage of the vote given to Republicans and Democrats in each state. That map looks largely purple (hence the concept “purple America”).

Even where differences among voters are pronounced, Fiorina writes, the differences are less than meet the eye:

They favor the right to choose [abortion], but only a small minority favors the right to choose in every conceivable circumstance. Overwhelming majorities regard rape, birth defects, and threats to the mother’s life and health as sufficient justifications for abortion, while clear majorities regard personal convenience and gender selection as insufficient. Opinion divides on justifications based on the mother’s age, financial condition, and marital status.

Fiorina even discusses (and endorses) studies showing that, contrary to claims of growing polarization, Americans have grown more alike in their views over last 25 years.

In his paper “Purple America,” Wayne Baker looks at values rather than attitudes (using data from the University of Michigan’s famously comprehensive World Values Surveys). “If there is a culture war,” he says, “Americans should be divided into two opposed moral camps: those with traditional values versus those with secular values. . . .

“[In fact,] most Americans share traditional values -- a constellation of values about God, country, and family -- and these values have been stable for decades.”

For example, 96% of us say we believe in God. “Religiosity is so high in America that it appears to have more in common with poor and developing nations than it does with rich democracies.”

Why we think there’s culture war

Fiorina and Baker both concede that we think there’s a culture war. And they both agree on the reason: it’s the elites that are divided. Specifically, the activists, the media, and the politicians are divided (or find it useful to emphasize and exaggerate our differences), and so the rest of us -- the nuanced or ambivalent 90% -- are dragged along in their wake.

Activists. “Political activists are not normal people,” Fiorina writes -- by which he means they are not typical or representative. For example, the delegates to the 2004 Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions (largely party activists) were 72% apart on the assertion, “Government should do more to solve national problems.” But Democrats and Republicans in the general population were only 13% apart.

Media. “Novelty and negativity are two characteristics that enhance news value,” Fiorina writes. “Another is conflict.”

Politicians. Although most people’s positions on the issues haven’t grown wider apart over the last 30 years (just the opposite, in fact), many politicians’ positions -- and the political parties’ positions -- have grown wider apart. Fiorina puts it nicely when he says, “A polarized political class makes voters appear polarized when they are not.” Our positions haven’t polarized, but our ballot choices have.

Baker offers a different, and complementary, explanation. Most of us not only have stable, traditional values, he says; most of us now have what he calls “self-expression” values:

Once material needs are satisfied and survival is taken for granted . . . self-expression values begin to emerge. . . . Self-expression values emphasize the quality of life (over consumption and pleasure), spiritual pursuits, tolerance of others and appreciation of diversity . . . , and concerns about the environment.

As human beings, most of us are consciously or subconsciously trying to reconcile our traditional and self-expression values. But what our political parties do is split apart our mixed values system, each embodying one set of values and projecting the other set onto the other side. Thus “the Republican platform is based on traditional values and neglects or even abridges self-expression values,” and the Democrat platform does the reverse.

Inevitably, polarization appears to be our lot in (political) life, and a “culture war” appears imminent.

How to address our real situation

Most activists, most media, and most politicians (including the Democrat and Republican party establishments) are uninterested in helping us engineer creative syntheses of personal values and political principles. Why should they be interested in that? The illusion of deep, inevitable conflict is their mother’s milk. It helps keep them front and center.

Fiorina and Baker would have us address our real situation.

Fiorina wants to make it easier for creative-centrists to win political office. To that end, he advocates nonpartisan party primaries (“blanket” and run-off primaries), which would allow inclusive and synthesizing candidates to win by attracting the support of independents and voters from other parties.

Fiorina also wants to bring more “normal” (typical or representative) people into the political process, in part by turning the Internet into some sort of democratic political tool.

Finally, Fiorina looks forward to the “possibility of a third-party or extra-party movement” that would provide a real alternative to the polarized positions of the major parties. If today’s political stalemate results from elite political polarization, then a mass, democratic political movement is what’s needed to offer “bold policy proposals to meet important problems.”

Baker looks deeper, to a change in our value sphere. Many of us are already attempting an “individual-level synthesis” of our conflicting traditional and self-expression values, he says. “The challenge to democracy is to find a synthesis of traditional and self-expression values that works in the political sphere, so that a new purple politics arises to match purple America.”


For an early and much abbreviated -- but on-line -- version of Fiorina’s argument, see Morris P. Fiorina, What Culture Wars?,” Hoover Digest (2004, No. 4).  For an early and much abbreviated piece on traditional vs. self-expression values, see Wayne E. Baker, "Is America Really Facing a Crisis of Values?," Dividend Magazine (Fall 2004).


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