Yes, we are a 50/50--well, 51/48--nation, Jonathan Rauch conceded in a recent issue of The Atlantic, but contrary to what many partisans and pundits say, the gulf between one side and the other is more like a gully (and perhaps a shallow gully) than a chasm. Following the sociologist Alan Wolfe's analysis in One Nation, After All--written to counter James Davison Hunter's famous Culture Wars--Rauch argues that "ordinary people mix and match values from competing menus." They are, as Wolfe observed, "above all moderate," "reluctant to pass judgment," and "tolerant to a fault."
While there are recognizable extremes--on the one side, traditionalist Evangelicals who are in the pews every Sunday morning and in the fellowship hall every Wednesday night (who voted overwhelmingly for Bush) and, on the other, progressive secularists who wouldn't know what to do with themselves on Sunday if the New York Times didn't show up (who voted just as overwhelmingly for Kerry)--most Americans are firmly ensconced in the middle. As political scientist Morris Fiorina argues in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, public opinion is closely, not deeply divided, resembling a bell curve much more than a bimodal dumbbell.
Why, then, the constant "culture war" drumbeat? According to Rauch, political and opinion elites are deeply divided, despite the fact that the rest of us aren't. The unintended consequence of the democratizing political reforms of the 1960s and 1970s was the rise of "candidate-centered" politics, which permitted those passionately devoted to particular policy positions to thrust themselves onto center stage. As a result, parties have become increasingly ideologically homogeneous, with liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats equally endangered species.
Read this article on the Touchstone Magazine website (new window will open).