America Divided? It's Only the Blabocrats

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"People are really hating right now," Jim Lehrer, public television's lion of civility, said a few weeks ago. "Our e-mails and our phone calls reflect not a lot of open minds out there." Well, it certainly seems so—and especially last week, as the friends and fanatics of John Kerry and George W. Bush mobilized themselves for the general election. A flying squad of Vietnam veterans—not directly related to the Bush campaign—launched a slime attack on John Kerry's war record. A flying squad of pop musicians—not directly related to the Kerry campaign—announced that they would launch a massive October concert tour to save the nation from President Bush. The people of Missouri voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage. And, of course, there was the usual array of screechers and squawkers polluting the airwaves, dominating public discourse, drowning out any stray hints of moderation or reason.

We are a divided nation, it is said. There is a cultural chasm between the red states and the blue, between the religious and the secular, between Michael Moore's America and Rush Limbaugh's. The "culture war" has become a pillar of the conventional wisdom. But is it real? Is it possible that the great partisan divide is a media-induced mirage, little more than an exaggerated case of squeaky-wheelism? There is plenty of evidence that the very real disputes pushed by political activists and chair-throwing media yakkers—call this the Anger-Industrial Complex—are being carelessly extrapolated to include a far less vehement populace.

Take the Moore/Limbaugh divide. A new Annenberg poll shows that the two infotainers are little more than postmodern tribal leaders: an estimated 8% of Americans saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in July, and an estimated 7% listened to Limbaugh. Their tribes are hilariously antithetical on a range of issues—83% of Rushites support the way Bush is handling Iraq, 87% of Mooreists are opposed; 85% of Rushites support Bush's handling of the economy, and 82% of Mooreists don't.

And yet, these extremist clumps throw disproportionate weight in the public square. Dick Cheney appears on Limbaugh's show; Moore appears in Jimmy Carter's box at the Democratic Convention. But even if you generously double their numbers—as some experts like Andrew Kohut of the Pew poll do—that leaves 70% of the public unaccounted for. What about the rest of us?

Maybe we're just busy living our lives. A new book by the Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, argues that a closely divided nation isn't necessarily a deeply divided nation. Fiorina cites polling data that show minuscule differences between red- and blue-state voters on most issues (for example: 64% of blues and 62% of reds believe corporations have too much power). Even on ballistic issues like abortion, the "never" and "always" believers tend to be a distinct minority; the vast American middle says, reluctantly, "sometimes."

And while gay marriage may still be a bridge too far, as the results in Missouri demonstrate, Fiorina and Kohut agree that attitudes toward homosexuality (anti discrimination against gays) and racial issues (pro interracial dating) have become far more tolerant over the past 20 years.

There is a problem with Fiorina's data, though. Most were collected before Sept. 11, 2001. "In 2000, average voters were having a hard time telling the difference between the presidential candidates on most issues," says Kohut. "That's not the case this year. There are real anxieties, real differences on the big issues—the war and the economy. The cultural issues are less important now. The partisan differences between the political activists are the greatest I've ever seen." But again, what about the rest of us? "If one-third of the public are activists, another third are leaners," Kohut says, adding that the final third are only vaguely interested, if at all. "What we're seeing in our most recent surveys is that the leaners are being affected by the passions of the partisans."

Affected or infected? Fiorina believes the public debate has been hijacked by political "purists"—like the abortion-rights activists at naral and the gun lovers at the N.R.A.—who find that taking the most extreme positions is the most efficacious way to solicit money, and also by the corruption of journalism by partisan blowhards like Moore and Limbaugh. And he has a point. In a world where Islamist terrorism and globalization-induced economic anxiety were distant clouds, single-issue fanatics had a clear field to pollute the public square. Scream journalism — Crossfire, Hannity and Colmes, the various "gangs" and "groups" of Washington blabocrats assaulting our senses — was always nauseating, but it was more understandable in a world where the most important issue was the definition of the word is. It was the only way to scare up an audience in those days. But this is a different world now. And we are being forced to examine the most serious, complicated sorts of issues—war and solvency—through an anachronistic, irresponsible political-media lens created for more trivial times. So I guess I'm one of Lehrer's haters too: I hate the Anger-Industrial Complex.