Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Pragmatism unites the States

Americans are less polarized than politicians indicate, but the power of a cunning political campaign endures

By Martin Kettle  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


Six years ago, the US sociologist Alan Wolfe published One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About, an essential text for understanding the pulse of modern America.

What makes it important is that Wolfe painted a picture radically at odds with the exaggerated perception, both in the US and abroad, of the US as a nation of entrenched and embattled ideological extremes.

In fact, Wolfe argued that middle America was not so much a land of culture wars as of cultural pragmatism. "I have found little support for the notion that middle-class Americans" -- a category within which three quarters of all Americans define themselves -- "are engaged in bitter cultural conflict with each other over the proper way to live," he wrote.

"Reluctant to pass judgment, (Americans) are tolerant to a fault," he concluded. "Not about everything -- they have not come to accept homosexuality as normal and they intensely dislike bilingualism -- but about a surprising number of things, including rapid transformations in the family, legal immigration, multicultural education and the separation of church and state. Above all moderate in their outlook on the world, they believe in the importance of leading a virtuous life, but are reluctant to impose values they understand as virtuous for themselves on others; strong believers in morality, they do not want to be considered moralists."

Wolfe's book came out at the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and his findings were

vindicated by the response of public opinion to the president's misdemeanors. While Republican fanatics used the affair to try to drive the president from the White House, moderate middle America failed to rise to their bait. Instead they kept former US president Bill Clinton's wrongdoings in proportion and rallied behind him, just as a reading of Wolfe's book suggested they might.

election year

But that was then. In this election year, the talk is of a deeply divided nation, of a Disraelian Two Americas, the title of a recent book by the pollster Stanley Greenberg. Six years on, in the wake of the split-down-the-middle presidential election of November 2000, in the light of the ideological drivings of the Bush administration and, above all, in the confrontational aftermath of Iraq, how does Wolfe's late-1990s vision of a tolerant consensual America stand up?

When I put this question to him last week, Wolfe argued that the past four years have confirmed rather than destroyed the essential thesis of his book. By any standard, he reckons, Americans are less divided in their view of life, the nation and the world, than they were in the past. One nation, after all, again.

The essence of Wolfe's case is that the great wedge issues of the late 20th-century culture wars have simply shrunk in significance.

The most important of these, as always, is affirmative action on race, where the US Supreme Court has managed to strike a sensible compromise. Nor, he argues, does abortion still have the divisive potential of the past, though if a

re-elected US President George

W. Bush attempts to nominate a Supreme Court dedicated to overturning the Roe versus Wade judgment that legalized abortion of 1973, that could change. Having won the political argument over what it calls partial birth abortion, though, Wolfe reckons the right is less angry than it was.

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