Opinion: Carolina Critic

No. 164: Culture War?: Dispeling the Media’s Hyperbole

Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope: Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America; Pearson Longman; 2005; 176pp.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center issued a report entitled “The 2004 Political Landscape: Evenly Divided, Increasingly Polarized.”

The report’s first page paints a picture of a country “that is further apart than ever in its political values.” The media, as expected, latched onto the report as evidence that America has indeed become a deeply divided country during the past four years.

But Morris P. Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Wendt Family professor of political science at Stanford University, dug a little deeper into the 150-page report. As a result, he found this bit of information that contradicted the report’s one-page summary:
“Since 1987, Americans — both and black and white — have become more personally tolerant. The idea of blacks and whites dating, which was once highly divisive, is now broadly accepted.”

Much to Fiorina’s amazement, Pew, a credible research center, gave into the temptation to exploit the idea of a divided nation rather than use its own research to dismiss it.

This temptation is great, as way too many pollsters, political insiders and media outlets are giving in. If you listened to the post-election media buzz, you can’t help but come away with that feeling.

But Fiorina’s new book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, has a different view. He uses in-depth polling analysis, charts, and graphs to debunk the theory that we’re bitterly divided.

Fiorina, who coauthored the book with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, dedicates the book “to the tens of millions of Americans who have never heard of a culture war.”

There are tens of millions, Fiorina says, because Americans, on the whole, are a very moderate, tolerant group of people. Most Americans stand in the middle of the political landscape, even on those issues — namely abortion and homosexuality — thought to be most divisive.

Fiorina wonders how the country became separated in to red and blue categories considering the differences between the two are insignificant.

Fiorina calls out those most responsible and those who stand to gain from the perpetuation of the image of a divided America. But he pulls no punches when placing a great deal of that responsibility on the media.

Fiorina’s research on the major political topics of the day suggests more of “a ditch than a chasm.”

The two major issues Fiorina discusses are indeed two hot topics: abortion and homosexuality. But despite the harsh rhetoric by activists on both sides of each issue, Fiorina’s research shows that a majority of Americans indeed believe abortion and homosexuality are wrong. But that same majority is unwilling to go to societal and political extremes to expunge them from society.

When polling Americans, the survey framed abortion in six categories: if the woman’s health is in danger, if she became pregnant as the result of rape, if there was a chance of birth defect, if the family could not afford more children, if the woman was not married, and if the woman was married and did not want more children.

Fiorina compared responses from dark-blue California and deep-red Southern states. While mainstream logic dictates a 6-0 differential, residents of California said abortion should be legal in an average of 4.3 of the circumstances, while Southerners said abortion should be legal in 3.4 of the circumstances — not exactly a great divide.

Homosexuality has run parallel to abortion as a divisive issue since gays and lesbians began coming out of the closet around the time of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Make no mistake, Fiorina says, the majority of Americans believe homosexuality is wrong. And “gay marriage remains highly controversial with a majority of Americans opposed to it,” a thesis that was given validity in the many antigay marriage measures that passed during the election.

But on the whole, most Americans hold tolerant views on homosexuality. As anecdotal evidence, Fiorina cites the relative lack of backlash against gays in the wake of the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas Supreme Court decision that invalidated homosexual sodomy laws in Texas.

As harder evidence, Fiorina cites the National Election Studies ‘feeling thermometer,” which gauges feelings on a particular group — gays, welfare mothers, etc. — on a scale of zero to 100 “degrees,” with 50 represented neutral.

Blue staters rated gays at 51 degrees, while red-staters rated gays at 43 degrees. Again, more a ditch than a chasm.

So how did we get here and where do we go from here? Fiorina asks. Interestingly enough, Fiorina suggests that we got here through increased political participation and that we solve the problem through, well, increased political participation.

Sam A Hieb is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.