Americans Are Polarized for Good Reason

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