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

Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 9

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.

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.

Will it happen? There were signs in Boston last week that Senator John Kerry has begun to embrace some of this. But the picture is incomplete, there is a long way to go and -- as Germond reminds us -- the Republicans

are very good, and very ruthless, campaigners.