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

There's much about the US this year that bears this out. Over the past couple of months, Bush has spent $50m on campaign ads designed to promote his opposition to gay marriage. As Wolfe's original research found, gay equality remains one of the issues on which middle America remains to be convinced; yet you would have to search long and hard to find many people who believe that gay marriage is the great dividing issue in America. At the margins, Bush's advertising may help to motivate some social conservatives to vote Republican, but mostly it has sunk without trace.

Which brings us to the paradox. If Wolfe is right, even this year, and most Americans are indeed part of the shared values of One America, then how does this square with an electorate that, according to most of the current opinion polling, is now so sharply polarized into Two Americas?

A possible explanation is that the polarization of 2000 and this year is simply untypical -- most US presidential elections are not nearly so close as the last one was and the next one promises to be. In that case, some special factor -- the disabling effect of the Clinton scandals on the Democratic cause in 2000, perhaps, or the mistrust toward Bush's Iraq policy and his tax cuts this time around -- may have made these two contests more impassioned than they might otherwise have been.

A second is that the practices of modern campaigning and media, by giving voters a relentlessly inaccurate picture of the choices they face, presenting their own candidate in an unbelievably favorable light and their opponent in an equally unbelievably negative light, conspire to create a polarized contest between core electorates and to drive down participation.

no monopoly

As US journalist Jack Germond says in his new memoir, the Republicans do not have a

monopoly on such tactics --

they just seem better at it.

There is, of course, a third possibility: that Wolfe's "one nation" theory is just wrong. In the end, though, a complete explanation surely also involves a critical assessment of the tactics of the Democrats, in particular the intellectual defensiveness that E.J. Dionne, in another necessary new book, Stand Up Fight Back, dubs "the politics of accommodation" and which Garry Wills, in a brilliant essay in the New York Review of Books, describes as Clinton's legacy of "omnidirectional

proneness to pusillanimity and collapse."

Dionne's answer has lessons not just for the Democrats but for the Labour Party. His argument is that progressive parties must not be so fearful about affirming the traditions from which they come, while simultaneously recognizing that the tradition is "pragmatic, experimental and open to new approaches."

In the US, writes Dionne, this means being more explicit about government's role to help the worse-off, protecting the courts from right-wing judges, reforming campaign finance laws, promoting "tolerant traditionalism" in social policy while, in international affairs, adopting a vigilant optimistic "Lockean" strategy based on alliances, democracy and justice.

Reading Wolfe, there is little doubt that this meshes with the "mature patriotism" and "tempered internationalism" which characterize middle-class America's view of the world and that a campaign based on such approaches would make Bush's re-election much more difficult.

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