Political science scholar debunks myth of America's cultural divide in new book

Fiorina book

"There is a religious war going on in this country, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America."

Morris P. Fiorina opens his latest book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, with this fiery statement delivered by Patrick Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

"In the years since Buchanan's declaration of cultural war, the idea of a clash of cultures has become a common theme in discussions of American politics," Fiorina writes. "Most commentators use the culture war metaphor to refer to a displacement or supercession of the classic economic conflicts that animated 20th-century politics in the advanced democracies by newly emergent moral and religious ones."

Fiorina, the Wendt Family Professor in the Department of Political Science, says this just isn't so. "It doesn't matter how you cut the electorate-it's not polarized," he said at a Sept. 29 breakfast briefing organized by the Hoover Institution, where he is also a senior fellow. "We have an electorate that is, by and large, centrist."

Fiorina, an expert in elections and public opinion, wrote Culture War? with Samuel J. Abrams, a Harvard research fellow affiliated with Hoover, and Stanford graduate Jeremy C. Pope, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.

According to Fiorina, Americans are closely divided, but they are not deeply divided. "And we are closely divided because many of us are ambivalent and uncertain, and consequently reluctant to make firm commitments to parties, politicians or policies," he writes. "We divide evenly in elections or sit them out entirely because we instinctively seek the center while the parties and candidates hang out on the extremes."

In an engaging lecture illustrated by statistics and figures, Fiorina explained that although the nation's electorate is not divided, the nation's political elites are split. In turn, he said, the positions of this polarized minority get exaggerated into generalizations by journalists in search of a good news story. "Conflict, of course, is high in news value," Fiorina writes. "Disagreement, division, polarization, battles and war make good copy. Agreement, consensus, moderation, compromise and peace do not." He adds: "A polarized political class makes the citizenry appear polarized, but it is only that-an appearance."

Fiorina said the media reinforced this imaginary divide following the contested 2000 presidential election when the country was demarcated into "red" Republican states and "blue" Democratic states. "When George W. Bush took office, half the country cheered and the other half seethed," USA Today reported in 2002. And The Economist stated: "Such political divisions cannot easily be shifted by any president, let alone in two years, because they reflect deep demographic divisions. … The 50-50 nation appears to be made up of two big, separate voting blocks, with only a small number of swing voters in the middle."

Fiorina told the audience that he thought such statements would disappear after Bush took office. "There's a lot of pap written about any election and I assumed it would go away," he said. "But it didn't-that's why I wrote the book." For example, in 2003, Matthew Dowd, a Bush re-election strategist, told the Los Angeles Times, "You've got 80 percent to 90 percent of the country that look at each other like they are on separate planets." Fiorina said this is a "wild exaggeration" and that a more accurate figure would be 10 to 20 percent. As recently as mid-September, an Internet poll Fiorina was carrying out for The Economist revealed that most Americans remain centrist.

In Culture War?, Fiorina said the researchers considered the public's attitudes toward abortion, popularly regarded as a touchstone issue in American society. "Popular attitudes toward abortion have been remarkably stable since Roe v. Wade," Fiorina said, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision giving women the right to an abortion. "You don't find the divisions you would expect." Furthermore, he added, geographic regions and religious denominations differ less on abortion than stereotypes suggest. Overall, Fiorina concludes that popular views on the subject are nuanced-reflected in majority approval of regulating some aspects of abortion. He states there is "minimal partisan disagreement about the issue at the mass level contrasted with vitriolic conflict at the elite level."

At the end of the lecture, Fiorina explained that the nonexistent "culture war" is perpetuated by journalists who cover the extremist political elites. "It seems to them that's the norm; they don't talk to people at Wal-Mart," he said. "The elites are polarized and this political class is imposing its will on America. This dysfunctional political system is not serving the electorate."