Alan Wolfe: The Referendum of 2004

Alan Wolfe, for the Wilson Quarterly (6-18-05):

[Mr. Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His latest book, Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It, has just been published.]

The presidential election of 2004 is widely regarded as one of the most important in the past 100 years. But its importance does not derive from clear ideological differences between the candidates and the parties. For example, the two candidates generally agree about longer term goals in Iraq, however much they disagree about appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court or the rollback of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The election is important, rather, because the candidacies of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry have been framed by two different theoretical understandings of the nature of American society. The victory of one or the other will go a long way toward resolving whether we are a deeply polarized nation, with little hope of reconciliation, or a fundamentally unified one, whose disagreements are not all that deep.

Never before have Americans been polled so much, subjected to so many focus groups, and broken into so many different demographic categories. And yet we still lack consensus on some of the most basic questions of political science. Take what should be a simple one to answer: Have we become more conservative? Clearly the answer is yes if we look at which party dominates the White House, holds majorities in both houses of Congress, and elects the most governors. Yet conservatives do well in politics because they have, under both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, not only expanded the size of government—a traditional liberal inclination—but adopted policies associated with their opponents, such as Medicare reform. To further complicate the problem, the country may have become more conservative on some issues, such as distrust of government, while becoming more liberal on others, such as increased support for the principles embodied in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which many conservatives opposed), or for greater religious and moral tolerance.

To qualify as polarized, people must be divided into competing camps. Yet without a clear sense of what those camps stand for, it can hardly be surprising that social scientists have reached different conclusions about to what extent—and even whether—Americans disagree with one other. No one doubts that there are red states, which voted for Bush in 2000, and blue states, which voted for Al Gore. Nor can one ignore that there exist popular cable television talking heads who clash vehemently on every political issue under the sun. But there’s no civil war taking place in the United States, and we may be not nearly as divided as we were when anti-Vietnam War protestors confronted supporters of the war in the 1960s and ’70s. As partisan and contentious as our news media have become, by another good measure of political division—the number of Americans whose lives have been lost over political disagreements—we are at a relative low point in our history.

No wonder, then, that when political scientists examine the issue of polarization, they come up with contradictory findings. Whatever the extent of the culture war in the nation, there’s deep division among those of us who take its pulse. I know this from personal experience. In 1999 I published One Nation, After All, which reported the findings of interviews I had conducted with 200 middle-class suburbanites in Massachusetts, Georgia, Oklahoma, and California. I concluded that, when it came to some of the deepest moral issues with which human beings concern themselves (obligations to the poor, respect for the religious convictions of people who adhere to faiths different from our own, welcoming immigrants to our shores), the people with whom I spoke had few fundamental disagreements. The culture war was alive and well inside the Beltway, I decided, but elsewhere we were one na­tion, struggling to find common ground. I was not the only social scientist to come to this conclusion. Sociologist Paul DiMaggio examined quantitative data about American public opinion and found roughly what I had found through my reliance on data from interviews. Even on the issue of abortion, which I had chosen not to study, DiMaggio concluded that there was a rough consensus that it was wrong, though allowable under certain circumstances...

... Consider the two main themes developed by Republicans against Kerry: that he is one of the most extreme liberals in the Democratic Party, and that he cannot be trusted because he’s a flip-flopper.

Charging someone with liberalism assumes that Americans know what liberalism is, and that they think ideologically when they think about politics. For some voters, this is undoubtedly the case. When they hear the word liberal, they think of a civil libertarian opposed to capital punishment, or someone who wants to raise their taxes, and they look immediately to the other candidate. But political scientists have often found that Americans rarely think in ideological terms—especially as those terms are defined by pundits and philosophers. By trying so hard to characterize Kerry as a liberal, the Bush camp is placing its bet on one interpretation of how Americans think about politics and not another. Is the choice correct? We won’t know until the returns are in.

The charge of flip-flopping also carries with it a set of assumptions about how and why people act politically. The charge is an example of negative campaigning, understood in the technical sense of a campaign strategy that focuses critically on the record of an opponent. Though America is far from facing anything like a civil war, negative campaigning assumes that people believe politics to be a rough-and-tumble human activity; one tries not only to win, but to leave one’s opponent bloody and bruised. There’s little talk of bipartisan cooperation, or of the need to resolve differences and get on with the business of the country once the election is over, or of respect for traditional rules of the game that define certain kinds of conduct as unwise or unethical. (“Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” former secretary of war Henry L. Stimson once said of our enemies; imagine anyone applying that rule to domestic politics today.) War is the most polarizing of all human activities, and though negative campaigning may stop well short of actual war, its reliance on martial tactics and language assumes that people believe passionately enough in winning an election to justify any means of achieving victory. Do people really hold such passionate beliefs? Once again, we don’t know. But this year’s Republican National Convention provided numerous examples of one party attacking the candidates of the other in exceptionally harsh terms. If the election proves those attacks to have been successful, we’ll know a lot more.

John Kerry never calls George Bush a conservative in the way Bush calls him a liberal. Of course, that may be because conservatism is more popular than liberalism, at least as Americans understand the meaning of the terms. But it’s also clear that Kerry has opted for a strategy quite different from the one chosen by Bush. Kerry did not decide to downplay ideology for moral reasons; instead, he made a tactical calculation that without votes from the center of the spectrum, he could not win the election. From a sociological perspective, his motives are irrelevant. Kerry bet that people care about things other than a candidate’s worldview when they make their voting decisions, which is one reason he surrounds himself so often with veterans and talks so frequently of values. If Kerry, who is a liberal, succeeds in winning a large number of votes from those who are not, or who aren’t sure what the term liberal means, he will have demonstrated that Americans are looking for a leader who wants to bring them together—with one another and with peoples around the world.

The situation involving negative campaigning is more complicated, for once one candidate opts to attack, the other has little choice but to respond or to be accused of wimpishness. We saw a perfect example of this in the attempts by groups close to the Bush campaign, such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, to attack Kerry’s war record and subsequent antiwar activities—to which Kerry eventually responded by citing Vice President Dick Cheney’s five deferments from military service during the Vietnam period.

Yet significant differences between the two parties remain. Kerry chose as his vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, who is strongly identified with delivering positive and upbeat messages; even his widely publicized campaign speech emphasizing that there are two Americas was designed to make the point that there really should be only one. Bush’s advertisements have focused on Kerry’s record, while Kerry’s advertisements have focused on—Kerry’s record. Nominated by an unusually united Democratic Party, Kerry has relatively little need to fire up his base with anti-Bush attacks, especially if the harsh language might turn off the centrist voters he seeks. Kerry’s strategy of appealing to the Center hinges on a great un­known: the number of Americans who consider themselves undecided, and the direction they will swing if appeals are made to them. But that very unknowability is what makes the difference between a negative campaign and a more positive one so interesting. Only in retrospect will it be clear which was more in accord with popular sentiment.

Viewing elections as a way of understanding ourselves may seem an exotic activity, of interest only to social scientists and not to the general public or the candidates, who are focused more on winning. But even in the days before regression analyses and Gallup polls, our presidential elections helped us name the kind of people we were. When politics was a more gentlemanly affair, we went through an “Era of Good Feeling.” Before the Civil War broke out, war had already broken out among—and within—the political parties; Lincoln won the presidency with only 40 percent of the popular vote. There have been times in American history when partisan passions were muted, electoral campaigns uninteresting, and the winners undistinguished, and other times when campaigns fired the public imagination, invective flew, and the winners got to shape the future.

In the current age, there’s no doubt that politics matter greatly to those who are deeply immersed in politics. Nor is there any doubt that Americans are faced in 2004 with choices that have demonstrably important consequences for the future of their country. What’s not clear is whether ordinary Americans are caught up in the passions that motivate our political and media elites. Nor are we any closer to solving the longstanding mystery of what motivates people to go to the polls and cast their ballots. But because each new election tells us a little more about who we are, we’ll have a better sense, when this year’s election is over, of whether the purported cultural divisions that have dominated our society for more than two decades will continue, or even be exacerbated, or whether they’ll begin to recede into insignificance, in the face of all that unites us

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