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Political Split Is Pervasive
By David Von Drehle, Washington Post Staff Writer
First of three articles
The past decade has been one of the most eventful in American political history, from the Republican takeover of Congress to the presidential impeachment, the resignation of two speakers of the House, the deadlocked presidential election, the 2001 terrorist attacks, the wars in Iraq (news - web sites) and Afghanistan (news - web sites), and more.
And yet, like a bathroom scale springing back to zero, the electorate keeps returning to near-parity. It's happening again: A little more than six months before Election Day, numerous polls find President Bush (news - web sites) in a very tight race with Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry among a sharply divided electorate. A large number of voters -- seven in 10, according to one Pew Research Center poll -- say they have already made up their minds and cannot be swayed.
What explains it? From Congress to the airwaves to the bestseller lists, American politics appears to be hardening into uncompromising camps, increasingly identified with the two parties. According to a growing consensus of political scientists, demographers and strategists, the near-stalemate of 2000 -- which produced a virtual tie for the White House, a 50-50 Senate and a narrow Republican edge in the House of Representatives -- was no accident.
This split is nurtured by the marketing efforts of the major parties, which increasingly aim pinpoint messages to certain demographic groups, rather than seeking broadly appealing new themes. It is reinforced by technology, geography and strategy. And now it is driving the presidential campaign, and explains why many experts anticipate a particularly bitter and divisive election.
Political scientists and practitioners often speak of "Red-Blue America," evoking maps of the 2000 election returns; indeed, the phrase is used so loosely that it has spawned a competing pundit class devoted to knocking down oversimplifications of the idea. In articles Monday and Tuesday, The Washington Post will publish portraits of Americans from the reddest of red zones, the home district of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), and the bluest of blues, the San Francisco neighborhood of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
But first, it's useful to examine the Red-Blue division -- what it is, where it came from, how it has deepened and what it might mean.
Hans Noel, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is the author of a paper called "The Road to Red and Blue America." In an interview, he said, "Most people say they are 'moderate,' but in fact the country is polarized around strong conservative and liberal positions." For the first time in generations, he said, those philosophical lines correspond to party lines. The once-hardy species of conservative Democrats -- so numerous in the 1980s they had a name, "Reagan Democrats" -- is now on the endangered list, along with the liberal "Rockefeller Republicans."
"It has taken 40 or 50 years to work itself out, but the ideological division in America -- which is not new -- is now lined up with the party division," Noel said.
At the same time, more and more Americans in a highly mobile society are choosing to live among like-minded people. University of Maryland political demographer James Gimpel has documented the rise of a "patchwork nation," in which political like attracts like, and ideologically diverse communities are giving way to same-thinking islands. A recent analysis sponsored by the Austin American-Statesman, comparing the photo-finish elections of 1976 and 2000, made this clear. While the nationwide results were extremely close, nearly twice as many voters now live in counties where one candidate or the other won by a landslide. Person by person, family by family, America is engaging in voluntary political segregation.
Bush and Kerry embody the role of mobility and personal choices in creating the Red-Blue nation. Two Establishment scions, similar in background and education, who parted ways after being at Yale University together, one headed to Red country and the other to Blue. Millions of voters have now made similar choices, which in turn echo and reinforce their initial beliefs and preferences.
As John Kenneth White, author of "The Values Divide," put it in an interview, "The reds get redder and blues get bluer."
This reality is already visible in the presidential campaign. Kerry supporters routinely attack Bush with the familiar Red stereotypes -- he is, according to the charges, ignorant, belligerent, a cowboy, a religious zealot. Likewise, Bush supporters brand Kerry as elitist, a snob, lacking conviction and unpatriotic.
Onto those stereotypes the campaigns have begun layering issues well-known for firing up the Red and Blue camps: taxes, gay rights, abortion and the United Nations (news - web sites), to name a few. Occasional speeches may pay homage to broad, unifying themes, but the campaign day to day seems intended to deepen, rather than erase, the rift. This suggests candidates resigned to a tight finish. Indeed, Bush political chief Karl Rove has predicted a razor-thin margin in the 2004 race almost from Day One of the administration, never wavering even when his candidate was riding near-record approval ratings.
Twenty years ago, Republican President Ronald Reagan (news - web sites) swept 49 states in his reelection landslide. Today, the sheer number of voters who already tell pollsters they will not consider voting for Bush suggests how difficult it would be to win that sort of broad mandate. Instead, strategists for Bush and Kerry are focused on a short list of hard-fought states.
As it becomes more difficult to reach across the party line, campaigns are devoting more energy to firing up their hard-core supporters. For voters in the middle, this election may aggravate their feeling that politics no longer speaks to them, that it has become a dialogue of the deaf, a rant of uncompromising extremes.
Finally, because the Red-Blue divide so often follows very personal values -- matters of philosophy, spirituality, morals and taste -- the coming election appears primed to leave the losing faction not just disappointed, but angry. There's a reason why the last two presidents, Bill Clinton (news - web sites) and George W. Bush, have driven their opposition into fits of loathing: Politics in Red-Blue America is less the art of compromise than a clash of cultures.Parallel Universes
The Red-Blue thesis has a range of critics, from well-read sophisticates in Red zones who resent being stereotyped to liberals who feel the framework unfairly portrays them as cut off from Main Street America. Some critics feel the model wrongly avoids talking about the millions of eligible citizens who don't show up as either color, because they don't vote.
Actually, Red zones and Blue zones are demographically similar in many ways. Lots of Red voters live in Blue country, and vice versa. Gallup pollsters have emphasized what they call "purple states," a geographically diverse atlas in which the total votes cast for Bush and Vice President Al Gore (news - web sites) in 2000 produced a statistical deadlock: Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
The notion of two tribes unhappily sharing a country is gaining strength among analysts, however. "It's huge," Noel said. "People in these two countries don't even see each other." And that's partly because of political segregation.
Consider the 1960 presidential election -- another virtual dead heat. Democrat John F. Kennedy captured states in nearly every region of the country. By contrast, in 2000 Democrat Gore was shut out of the South, the Plains states and -- with the exception of New Mexico -- the Rocky Mountain West.
The states Gore picked up from the 1960 Republican column were likewise concentrated in certain regions: the West Coast, the Great Lakes and New England.
According to a recent survey by pollster John Zogby, voters in states that went for Bush were, by clear statistical margins, older, more likely to be married, less likely to join a union, more likely to be regular churchgoers -- mostly at Protestant churches -- and far more likely to be "born again" Christians.
Another prominent opinion sampler, Stanley B. Greenberg, has made similar findings. Blue Americans, he concluded, are most likely to be found among highly educated women, non-churchgoers, union members and the "cosmopolitans" of the New York area, New England and California.
"We have two parallel universes," White said. "Each side seeks to reinforce its thinking by associating with like-minded people."
But Red-Blue is not just a matter of place. To an extent not seen in generations, the political parties occupy distinct philosophical space. There's scant room left in national politics for a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat -- just ask Sen. James M. Jeffords (I), the former Republican from Vermont, or Sen. Zell Miller, a pro-Bush Democrat from Georgia. A generation ago, such figures were crucial to congressional deal-making. Now, they are ostracized.
"I think it's more of a chasm" than a divide, Jeffords said in an e-mail. "There's very little room for moderate voices. . . . They are being silenced by the extremes. Three years ago, when I left the Republican Party, I said the president was moving too far to the right. I think he's proven me right, and now we've got gridlock."
Miller, who has leveled similar complaints against the Democratic leadership, declined to be interviewed.Collapsed Coalition
Factions are nothing new. Most of the ideological rifts in American politics today can be traced back over centuries: North vs. South, rural vs. urban, populist vs. elitist, labor vs. ownership, religious vs. secular.
But those rifts haven't always coincided with party divisions. The United States was led for many years by the strange bedfellows of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. Millions of rural, religious, southern voters joined millions of urban, minority and secular voters in backing the Democrats. After Roosevelt's death and World War II, the coalition began fragmenting -- over civil rights and anti-communism, among other issues -- but the breakup took decades.
Experts cite a variety of factors to explain why Red-Blue has risen in its place. For example:
Reagan happened. Republican presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford governed essentially as pragmatic centrists, but Reagan framed his presidency in ideological terms. He coaxed religious conservatives and Cold Warriors away from the Democratic Party while making it uncomfortable for liberals to remain in the GOP. "The signals coming out from Washington helped voters sort themselves out into parties that reflected their world view," explained Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution.
Peace happened. From the outbreak of World War II through the end of the Cold War -- a span of nearly 50 years -- America's foreign policy and military policy, two of the biggest responsibilities of the government, reflected the consensus of both parties. "In the 1950s, the country thought of itself as homogenous," said White, recalling sociologist Daniel Bell's influential 1960 book, "The End of Ideology." "The dominant discussion was about the need for unity in the face of a potent enemy." The collapse of the Soviet Union stripped much of the purpose out of centrism.
Clinton happened. Though he campaigned as a moderate Democrat, and delivered on such longtime Republican goals as a balanced budget and welfare reform, Clinton's administration ultimately proved highly divisive. The first baby boomer presidency opened a new front in the culture wars that erupted in the late 1960s -- over sex, responsibility, the role of women, the nature of authority.
Technology happened. The rise of direct mail, cable television and the Internet has enabled ideological soul mates to find one another efficiently, to organize, to concentrate their resources and to evangelize. Big Media -- especially network television and daily newspapers -- are rapidly losing their power to shape public consensus and marginalize ideological extremes.
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press recently found that the number of Americans getting campaign news from network television or daily newspapers has fallen by a quarter since 2000, and by a third for magazines such as Time and Newsweek. Meanwhile, the audience is growing for niche outlets such as talk radio, cable television and Internet sites.
"People naturally reduce cognitive dissonance by seeking out information that reinforces their existing views," Mann said. "So there's no single cause" of the Red-Blue divide, "but a number of factors feeding into this."50 Percent Plus One
Some political scientists add another factor: simple political self-interest. According to the influential economic analysis known as "game theory," logic may compel the parties to aim for the narrowest possible victory margin.
"In a democracy, to win you need a majority," UCLA's Noel said. "But you don't want a lot more than 50-percent-plus-one, because if your majority gets bigger, you have to share the spoils with more supporters. That's no good. So the natural process is to produce division."
He continued: "If you look at the 2000 election, the divisions by state are pretty lopsided. But nationally, you get pretty close to a 50-50 split. That shouldn't be a surprise, because that's what these forces are designed for."
An example of this was the decision by the parties after the 2000 U.S. Census to agree on new congressional districts that left 90 percent or more of the seats safely Red or Blue. This severely limits the chance that either party will develop a large congressional majority.
It has also further entrenched the ideological standoff. As Mann explained, few House incumbents now have any incentive to reach across party lines to win general elections. Once they have their party's nomination, the lopsided districting virtually guarantees they will win. So the pressure is on them to toe the ideological line to avoid primary election challenges.
Now the Republicans and Democrats have produced perfect archetypes of Red and Blue as their presidential nominees.
Bush and Kerry started adult life from virtually the same spot: as well-bred, prep-school products who could be found, in 1965 and 1966, at Yale. Their fathers were in public service, and both young men sensed, to one degree or another, that they would follow. True, one came from a long line of Republicans and the other from a family of Democrats. But one of the functions of their exclusive training, according to author Kai Bird, was to prepare future leaders to govern in pragmatic, bipartisan ways.
After graduation, however, their paths diverged. Bush left New England to live in Midland, Tex. He entered the oil business -- in which extracting resources was valued above conservation, regulation was seen as an affront to enterprise and everything depended on the readiness of bold men to take big risks. Texas was part of the Wild West, the Old Confederacy and the Bible Belt.
In short, Bush immersed himself in a Red sea. Greenberg, author of "The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It," recently summed up the essence of that world.
"Faith in God and faith in entrepreneurs," Greenberg said. "The idea that faith should inform our public space, and that absolutes, rooted in the Bible, should guide us in our public life. The idea that America should be strong in promoting freedom and in control of our own destiny. Texas is actually a lot more complicated than that -- but not where Bush lives."
When Bush extols "entrepreneurs," insists on tax cutting and deregulation, and promotes drilling and logging; when he professes a born-again faith and appeals to traditional norms on issues such as marriage and cloning; when he disdains intellectual subtleties in favor of plain-spoken verities, he is carrying the flag for Red America.
Kerry went another way. After winning medals in Vietnam, he launched into the culturally progressive, antiwar politics of the East Coast. In Kerry's world, liberal values were worth paying for with higher taxes. There was less talk about celebrating entrepreneurs than about reining in "corporate interests." Kerry's Boston milieu was Yankee North and ivory tower, a magnet for the young and the wealthy, many of whom saw urban life as a model of multicultural America.
Again, Greenberg's data confirm that these broad generalizations -- while imperfect -- rest on a foundation in reality.
"Kerry chose a very cosmopolitan part of the country, globally connected," he said. "It is less comfortable with absolutes. One's faith provides personal guidance, but people are somewhat uncomfortable about applying this to civil society. Self-expression is a central value. Boston seems as much a ground zero to postmodernist Blue America as Midland is to Red America."
Kerry hoists the Blue flag whenever he embraces environmentalism, labor unionism and regulation; when he emphasizes the complexities of issues and urges an internationalist foreign policy; when he gives precedence to tolerance over tradition and dissent over conformity.
Both men try, at least in symbolic ways, to reach for the center. Bush reads to schoolchildren and preaches "love your neighbors" -- symbols of a warm, "compassionate" side to his conservative stances on taxes and morality. Kerry rides a Harley and speaks often of his combat days -- symbols of toughness to his internationalism and social liberalism.
But their basic colors show through.
Veteran political analyst Ben Wattenberg said the crucial question in any election is, "Do the voters think the candidates are people like them?" This year, that question will be asked by two very different sorts of people, by a political system intent on pushing them apart.
Copyright © 2004 The Washington Post Company.