Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Exaggerating the significance of shallow differences"

Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter wrote in his 2004 What We've Lost that Americans 'are more divided than at any time since the Civil War'. American observers of the political follies are inclined to agree. Mistakenly, it appears.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life this week issued a report on its national sample of 2,003 American adults and their attitudes towards a range of hot-button social issues. The study finds Americans becoming slightly less tolerant towards legal abortion. But while still opposing same-sex marriage, “Americans, by 54 percent to 42 percent, have come to support civil unions that would provide gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights as married couples,” the New York Times reported, noting “Americans are less likely to think that sexual orientation can be changed than they were a few years ago.”

If anything, the study’s results show that American attitudes are far more moderate (or maybe conflicted) than ideologues on either side of the liberal/conservative divide would have us believe.
Public attitudes across a set of five issues that have been the focus of intense political activity in recent years -- gay marriage, adoption of children by gay couples, abortion, stem cell research and the morning-after pill -- show a mix of conservative and liberal majorities. On none of the five issues does more than 56% of the public line up on one side of the question or the other …

Just over one-in-ten Americans (12%) takes the conservative position on all of these items, and a somewhat larger number (22%) take conservative positions on none of the items. Thus, much of the public falls between the extremes on this collection of issues. About one-third of the respondents (34%) are squarely in the middle, taking two or three conservative positions out of a possible five; 16% are mostly liberal (taking only one conservative opinion) and 16% are mostly conservative (taking four conservative opinions).
Even on abortion Americans remain about evenly divided, yet according to the report:
[T]wo out of three Americans (66%) support finding “a middle ground” when it comes to abortion. Only three-in-ten (29%), by contrast, believe “there’s no room for compromise when it comes to abortion laws.” This desire to find common ground extends broadly across the political and ideological spectrum. Majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%) favor a compromise. So do majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives. More than six-in-ten white evangelicals also support compromise, as do 62% of white, non-Hispanic Catholics.
The Pew report concludes,
Despite talk of "culture wars" and the high visibility of activist groups on both sides of the cultural divide, there has been no polarization of the public into liberal and conservative camps.
This comes as a shock to faux-populist talk radio and Fox News hosts for whom the culture wars meme is the foundation of their infotainment empires. Outrage sells advertising. Consensus is a yawner.

Geoffery Nunberg noted this week on Fresh Air (and in his book Talking Right) how conservatives – so boastful of their supposed dominance of “the marketplace of ideas” – have consciously worked at reducing policy disagreements to caricatures of their foes’ “tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving” lifestyles. Nunberg observes, this “fascination with lifestyles always leads to exaggerating the significance of shallow differences."

Pew’s study suggests those overhyped differences are a mile wide and an inch deep. . Dispel that "divided nation" myth by highlighting common ground, and Democrats can begin reclaiming the middle and leave Republicans to their unshakeable 16%.

If America is going to survive its red/blue period, it needs to get past the vacuous silliness of reducing political disagreements to matters of consumer preferences of the kind David Brooks described in Bobos in Paradise or Claritas Marketing uses in naming market segments “Young Digerati,” “Golden Ponds,” and “Shotguns & Pickups.” Or for that matter, the microtargeting categories in the Republicans’ Voter Vault or the Democrats’ Datamart databases.

The marketplace of ideas this is not.

Somehow I don't think Republicans mean to reduce their conservatism to -- per the National Review's Rod Dreher -- "accepting bad beer, lousy coffee, Top-40 radio, strip malls, and all popular manifestations of cheapness and ugliness as proof that One Is Not an Effete Liberal."

Cheez Whiz, Rush?

(cross-posted at Daily Kos)

No comments: