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J.F. Kelly, Jr. - Contributor

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

The Polarization of America

The shrinking middle ground...
[J. F. Kelly, Jr.] 7/14/04

It has been said often before but it has never been so clearly evident that Americans, at least those of us who make our beliefs and preferences known, are becoming increasingly polarized. Moderate positions and expressions of honest doubt are about as rare today as politicians who admit to not having all the answers.

People seem to be irresistibly attracted to either of the two extremes on any position. The elusive middle ground seems harder than ever to find. Indeed, it is difficult to conduct a polite debate on the key political, social and ethical issues of the day anymore without either or both sides exploding in acrimony. The result, it seems to me, is a progressive erosion in the quality of political discourse in the country today that is turning many Americans off.

The divisions manifest themselves across a multitude of issues and personalities, ranging from abortion to war and from minor political figures to the president of the United States. Have these deep divisions always been characteristic of Americans and their political process or are things actually getting worse? If the latter, when did it start?

In the space of my lifetime, I have seen Americans divided over many issues and leaders, but at some point, some position prevailed, we came together as a people and moved on. Today, the coming together phase seems conspicuously absent, even after an election. We seem reluctant to rally around any leader that we did not vote for. It’s as if we want them to fail and damn the consequences to the nation.

With regard to the origins of this trend, I know that we have blamed many problems, some unfairly, on the Vietnam War, but that unpopular conflict gets the blame again. We have had, to be sure, other bitter divisions in the past over such things as civil rights, but we eventually got together again and put the acrimony behind us. We never really got over the Vietnam War, try as we might, and out of it grew a more or less permanent protest culture.

Both major political parties must accept a share of the responsibility. Prior to Bill Clinton, most presidents, during my lifetime, were unifying presidents. Despite wide differences in popularity, style, ability and accomplishments, even the least of them was not as intensely disliked as many Republicans disliked Clinton. You either liked Clinton or you disliked him. Few were neutral on the matter. Almost four years out of office, he is still the Democrat that Republicans most love to hate, with the possible exception of his wife.

The shoe, of course, is now on the other foot. Americans are as divided on George W. Bush as they were on Clinton but again the division is along political lines. He is either an inspiring wartime leader or he is an incompetent bungler. He is America’s best hope in the war on terrorism, or he is the primary problem. You either love him or you hate him. Your view of Bush, however, depends more on your political affiliation than anything he has done or failed to do.

Americans seem to be aligning their beliefs on most major issues to conform with the profiles that they believe are described by the labels that they identify themselves with. If you are a Republican and a conservative, chances are that you support the war, are against abortion and embryonic stem cell research, support a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage, favor school vouchers and support tax cuts. If you are a Democrat and a liberal, you almost certainly take the alternate position on all these issues.

Americans are now almost evenly divided on whether or not removing Saddam Hussein was worth the cost. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, however, shows that division to be almost entirely along party lines. Republicans said that it was worth it by a margin of 72 to 18. Democrats said that it wasn’t worth it by a score of 80 to 14. So when Democrats say that a majority of Americans are now against the war, they should, perhaps, point out that a majority of Republicans are not and, as always, poll results have to be analyzed beyond the gross total numbers. Party affiliation is still the greatest predictor of whether the respondent is for or against the war.

In fact, party affiliation and conservative/liberal labels appear to make more of a difference in determining positions on most major issues than any other characteristic including religion, even on issues where churches have taken strong positions such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Another Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed Catholics almost evenly divided on whether or not they favored a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage and whether or not they favored a woman’s choice on abortion. There was very little difference between the responses of Catholics and those of non-Catholics. In other words, party affiliation and political philosophy were more reliable predictors of positions on these issues.

These trends and statistics portend, in my view, an increasingly divided America on major issues and a hardening of views along rigid party lines, leading to bitterly contested elections, the results of which, will often fail to bring closure and unification. It is perhaps unfortunate that we seem increasingly unwilling to think through our own positions on important issues without blindly accepting a party line or conforming to a profile we think is appropriate for a conservative, liberal or any other label we hang on ourselves.CRO

copyright 2004 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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