Americans Are Polarized for Good Reason

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Americans
are politically polarized, the pundits tell us, and the numbers
bear out their claims. In a March USA
Today/CNN/Gallup Poll
, 91% of Republicans approve of President
Bush's performance, while only 17% of Democrats agree.

The
divide goes deeper than preferences for the White House's next tenant.
Working from a December 2003 survey which finds that Americans passionately
disagree on the Bush presidency, gay marriage, gun ownership, religion
and other matters, pollster John Zogby writes,
“the United States is slowly cleaving into separate nations culturally.”

Americans
don't even follow their opponents' arguments. Valdis Krebs, a Cleveland-based
network analysis expert, reports a
study
of online book purchases reveals that people almost exclusively
buy political books that confirm their own beliefs.

A
few observers think the political divide is overstated. In a syndicated
column, NPR correspondent Eric Weiner claims
that America is “a nation that agrees on the vast majority of issues
while it indulges in a loud – and mostly meaningless – shouting match
over the few issues that divide us.”

But
people battle over things they consider important, whether or not
dispassionate observers agree. Societies have been torn apart by
disagreements that seem irrelevant to outsiders. Hutus and Tutsis
slaughtered one another over differences
rooted in ancestral political and economic rivalries.

A
more convincing critique points out the unlikelihood of millions
of Americans splitting evenly into two camps, each allied with a
major political party. Such a simplistic division demands we believe
that all supporters of gun rights also oppose same-sex marriage,
and that all supporters of abortion rights want higher taxes. Rev.
C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith
Alliance, acknowledges the country's political mosaic, telling
the Newhouse News Service that rather than two Americas “there are
probably three, four or five.”

However
many camps there are, it's apparent that Americans nurse bitter
disagreements and increasingly see political battles in terms of
good vs. evil. In truth, despite Mr. Weiner's rosy outlook, government
has so intruded into every nook and cranny of modern life that Americans
have real reason to fear the outcome when their opponents control
the levers of political power.

Take
the controversy over gay marriage as an example. Politicians debate
the merits of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but
there's no real reason that marriage of any sort should be a public
policy issue. New York didn't require marriage licenses until 1908
and many states that required licenses earlier provided for private
alternatives, such as publishing banns.

Likewise,
private ownership of firearms and personal use of marijuana were
regulated by states and localities, if at all, into the 1930s. Entangled
in federal law in 2004, guns and dope now serve as defining issues
for many Americans, and can decide the outcome of elections.

Even
Americans' mealtimes are subject to official scrutiny. The federal
government is rolling out an advertising campaign to nag people
about their eating habits, and some public health groups want to
impose high taxes on so-called "junk food" to discourage
its consumption.

Who
can blame Americans for being at-daggers-drawn when marital arrangements
and lunch menus are at the mercy of the victors in the next election?

In
his 1955 book, The
Origins of Totalitarian Democracy
, historian Jacob L. Talmon
wrote
that liberal democracy “recognizes a variety of levels of personal
and collective endeavour, which are altogether outside the sphere
of politics.” In contrast, “totalitarian democracy treats all human
thought and action as having social significance, and therefore
as falling within the orbit of political action.”

That
sounds familiar. Over the years, Americans have turned a country
in which most areas of human life "are altogether outside the
sphere of politics" into one in which every detail of life
is treated as "falling within the orbit of political action."

It's
not that the government never meddled in personal matters in the
past, but such efforts were always divisive – like Prohibition. With
a laundry list of Prohibition-level controversies at stake in every
modern election, opposing factions can't afford to lose at the polls.

If
high stakes explain the growing bitterness between America's political
factions, the solution is clear: lower the stakes. Get government
out of any area of human life where its presence isn't essential.
Why wage electoral campaigns over the definition of marriage when
you can get politicians out of the marriage business entirely and
leave relations between consenting adults to the people involved?

There
are enough divisive issues in which government can't help but be
involved – such as defending the country against terrorism and invading
countries that have nothing to do with terrorism – that we don't need
to seek out new grounds for domestic conflict.

Shrinking
the role of government won't make people stop arguing, but it will
improve the chances that they can afford to lose an occasional argument.

March
30, 2004

J.D.
Tuccille [send him mail] is
an Arizona-based writer and political analyst.


        
        

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