"All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning."
Culture War? Hardly.
It’s a War on Ambiguity
Posted 10:30 p.m., May 13, 2005
There is a religious war going on in this country, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this was is for the soul of America.
-- Pat Buchanan,
1992 Republican National Convention
You have the far left at 15 percent, you have the far right at 15 percent and there is 70 percent of us in the center.
-- Jesse Ventura
We hear a lot about this "culture war" supposedly raging around us. And if you do no more than follow the news, you easily could end up believing that we are, as a society, at war with ourselves. If you go even further, spending hours monitoring your state's Legislature on public access TV--as I’ve been doing--you might come away convinced Armageddon is upon us.
But think hard. Outside of state legislatures, party conventions and caucuses, 527 ads and the floors of Congress, where is this war actually being engaged?
Have you ever fought in it? I sure haven’t.
True enough, I live in a comfortable, moderate little Minnesota suburb, so I'm not exactly surrounded by people whose lives and activities pivot on prickly political partisanship. Still, I've been known to get around--business conventions, vacations, story assignments, what have you. I’ve encountered folks from red states, blue states, purple states, sometimes within their own native borders.
So far, I have yet to witness a single skirmish in the culture war, at least not one in which the combatants were not political insiders.
I think I know why. It's because there is no culture war in America.
I’m not saying there is no conflict under way. There absolutely is. But it's not about culture. It's all about attitudes. Because even as our crime rates plummet and our cities enjoy a period of relative harmony throughout most--though by no means all--of the nation, U.S. politics has rarely been more corrosively divided.
The war that is under way is being fought by those on the political extremes, at the partisan fringes, against everybody else. And it's not a war against cultural alignments.
It's a war on ambivalence.
Hey, Don’t Just Take It From Me
I’ve been bouncing this idea off people for a couple of months now, since it first occurred to me on Feb. 7 when I was in Washington, D.C., sitting in on a private conference at the Brookings Institution that was attended by Humphrey Institute Policy Forum fellows. (This year, I am one of the Humphrey policy fellows.)
At the time, we were listening to Sarah Binder, a big-brained senior fellow at Brookings. She was describing for us how partisan the Congress has become, how the moderates who once were the vanguard of public policy at virtually all layers of government have gradually fallen away to the point where they now are an endangered species. (The U.S. Senate, for example, sports exactly four Republican members still brave enough to declare themselves “moderate.”)
I knew all that, but hearing her say it sparked the question in my mind. Why?
There are a lot of potential answers. Some are provided in the 2004 book, “Culture War?” by researcher Morris P. Fiorina, which takes on the myth that America is “divided down the middle” politically, using data analysis to illustrate that the political class has simply distorted Americans’ actual views.
“Many of the activists in the political parties and the various cause groups do, in fact, hate each other and regard themselves as combatants in a war. But their hatreds and battles are not shared by the great mass of the American people … who are for the most part moderate in their views and tolerant in their manner. 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 crossfire while Maoist guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other.”
-- Morris P. Fiorina,
In a great column published in the January Atlantic, Jon Rauch traces the end of moderation to an ironic source. It was the defeat, decades ago, of the “smoke-filled room” system of politics, a system dominated by power players within the parties. It was patently unfair and undemocratic, Rauch notes, but it was efficient, and in a strange way, possibly healthier than what we have now. It forced parties to take coalitions into account. The moderates simply had to be accommodated in order for the power players to maintain their status and to get the people’s business done.
That system was overturned by that great experiment in pure progressive democracy, the primary election. The system was fairer on its face, certainly far more democratic. No longer would stogy-chomping political bosses conspire to determine which candidates would lead given tickets. Now candidacies were open to everyone. Except, not really.
The rise of primary elections was meant to democratize the process of nominating candidates, and so it did; but hard-core ideologues--with their superior hustle and higher turnouts--proved able to dominate the primaries as they never could the party caucuses and conventions. As the power of the machines declined, ideology replaced patronage as the prime motivator of the parties' rank and file. Volunteers who showed up at party meetings or campaign offices ran into fewer people who wanted jobs and more who shared their opinions on Vietnam or busing. With parties and patrons no longer able to select candidates, candidates began selecting themselves.
-- Jonathan Rauch,
The Atlantic Monthly,
What occurs to me is that this whole dynamic leads to a place where there is virtually no space available to people see both sides of an issue, who aren’t particularly adamant one way or the other about the overheated social quandaries—those, in other words, who are mostly ambivalent. Which, as Fiorina suggests, probably means most of us.
Let’s say you’ve thought through the issue of gay marriage. Maybe you’re a little taken aback by the idea, maybe, at worst, you’re even vaguely disturbed by it. But heck, it seems to be on its way, and you figure you’ll probably learn to adjust. Anyway, on balance, it probably makes sense in the end. Everyone should have the same basic rights, even if it’s a case--forgive the phrase--of different strokes for different folks. With that kind of ambiguous attitude, where do you fit in today’s political system?
Let’s say you’ve given some thought to abortion. You see it as a tragedy, something that you can hardly say you “support”—and something that ought not to be used in place of condoms or the pill as a form of “birth control.” And certainly not a right equivalent to free speech. But you also see it as a kind of necessary evil, a way to show hard mercy to children who otherwise would be born unwanted into an unpitying world. You view abortion the way you see divorce—something that should hardly be celebrated, but something that, in some cases, is the only sane thing to do. Where does your ambivalence fit?
Let’s say you’ve thought about the environment. Certainly, nature needs to be preserved. Green plant life produces our oxygen, after all, we do need it. But business and jobs matter, too, and you think we need to use those resources, albeit wisely. Teddy Roosevelt understood this. So can’t we all just get along, without sneaking logging trucks onto nature preserves or concocting myths about endangered owls to tie up the courts? But try to sell such compromise to either a Republican or Democratic caucus.
You can’t. As Rauch told me in a recent email, “Activists on both extremes conspire against the middle.”
Damn You, Ambivalent Center!
The real political power therefore belongs to the fringes, which can afford to ignore the bulk of voters without fear of losing their status. They can count on a motivated cadre of supporters, and can even actively discourage the squishy middle from showing up at the polls by making each election a screechfest between two shrill major-party foes.
“I think you’re right that the voters and the public generally are less polarized than we make them out to be, that they have, if anything, strongly ambiguous views,” agrees Brookings’ Binder. “The problem is that the choices they’ve been given are not ambiguous, they’re very clearly to the right or very clearly to the left.”
No less a figure than Dick Day, the maverick Republican Senate minority leader in the Minnesota Legislature, agreed with my argument when I ran it by him yesterday. “I think you’re absolutely, 100 percent correct,” Day says. “It has divided everybody here.”
Day, for instance, acknowledges there is an abortion litmus test among aspiring Republicans. Day, who thinks that on most issues he could be considered an independent, might be vulnerable to ouster by his own party, but for the fact that the Republican position on abortion happens to match his own. So he is insulated.
But others are not. “When we’re out actually getting candidates,” he says, “there are certain candidates that we can get endorsed, and certain candidates can’t.”
It’s not healthy, Day insists, and the picture needs to change. In particular, he says, his party has to look beyond its evangelical base and reach out to minorities. And Democrats, if they want to move away from polarity, will have to learn to speak to citizens’ spirituality, and not be so insistently, relativistically humanist, he indicates.
It’s a laudable, honest sentiment. The problem, Binder says, is that there is hardly any chance it can happen.
“You need to have some incentive for politicians to move to the center,” she says. “But if activists who are so extreme provide the footwork and the money, then it’s really hard to get away from that system, unless you have something like redistricting or shuffling of districts” so that elections once again can become competitive.
(Recall that this is what the most interesting politician in America today, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is attempting to do. But, alas, California’s major parties--particularly the Democrats--are finally figuring out how to dampen the reform-minded Governator’s populist thrust.)
So is there any hope?
Yes, says Arne Carlson, the Republican former Minnesota governor who, like Schwarzenegger, had to battle both parties to stay afloat in his state’s polarized political system. But the hope Carlson sees is the kind that might have to rise from ashes.
“Economics will ultimately overtake both [major parties],” says Carlson, who now considers himself a “small-i” independent. “The United States has some very serious economic problems that it’s going to have to face in the years ahead. And once those problems come to the forefront, then we won’t see too much importance in the issue of gay marriage. You’ll start to focus on what is important.”
Is he talking about an economic apocalypse on the scale of the Great Depression?
“Well, I hope it isn’t massive,” Carlson says, without denying the possibility. “It may be a minor stroke. But it’s going to get our attention.”
-- Kevin Featherly