The pundits remind us daily that government is failing. Meanwhile, most Americans get up in the morning and drive to work on public streets; work in buildings the government has made certain can withstand earthquakes; go to lunch where they eat food which has been inspected by the government; pick up their children (most likely at a public school), return home and watch the news on TV channels which the government has protected from signal interference. On the news, they watch stories about the American military in action, about police who have apprehended suspects, about firefighters who have saved lives.
Yet we are told that we face wide and deep issues which defy resolution by our incompetent government. America is in the middle of a “cultural war,” we’re told.
Political scientist Morris Fiorina challenges these assumptions and conclusions. His data show, for example, that public opinion, even on hot-button cultural issues, has remained constant and, for the most part, centrist. Take abortion, for example. From 1972 through the end of the 20th century, roughly 90 percent of the American public — no matter the demographics — supported abortion when the woman’s health was at risk. Around 80 percent supported abortion either when there’s is a strong chance of a serious birth defect or when the woman had become pregnant due to rape. Support for “choice” drops off to between 40 percent and 50 percent when the woman simply wants no more children, or because she is low-income or not married. The average in favor of limited choice was more than 60 percent.
But when asked the question, “Should abortion be illegal in all circumstances?” (the right-to-life position) — no matter the region of the country, no matter the religious identification — the “yes” vote on this question drops to a low of about 12 percent for independents and rises only to around 24 percent for Republicans, with Democrats sitting somewhere in between.
Fiorina’s conclusion? America has a majority of “centrist” voters and an influential minority of “polarizing” elites.It has long been known that most people are not political animals. Social animals, yes. Political animals, no — as anyone who has tried to organize a neighborhood will attest. Left to participate are party regulars and ideological “purists,” to use James Q. Wilson’s term. Purists’ polarizing influence is magnified by a media that is failing to do the job the Founders expected it to do when they ensured “freedom of the press.”
Fiorina writes, “People with deep issue commitments who express them in loud chants and strident rhetoric provide good copy. The smallest demonstration will attract a camera crew and give a spokesperson or two the opportunity to provide a colorful quotation or sound bite.”
Consider the huge coverage the media has given the fringe “Tea Party” movement and Sarah Palin rallies.
The Culture War was published 10 years ago.
Fiorina predicted then that things would get worse, and they have. Even as unpopular as George W. Bush was, bipartisan politics wasn’t dead. Democrats helped Bush pass No Child Left Behind and his Medicare Part D initiative. Nor did Democrats rant and rave when Bush drove through both his mammoth tax cuts on budget reconciliation, thereby bypassing the filibuster. (If President Obama uses the same procedure next month to pass health care, expect to see right-wing “purists” and talking heads denounce him as a tyrant.)
But right-wing “purists” aren’t even conservatives. A half century ago, historian Richard Hofstadter identified them as “pseudo-conservatives.” Hofstadter argued that the rise of pseudo-conservatism was based “on fear of loss of status common to open societies where social mobility is relatively fluid.” Hofstadter was talking about McCarthyism — but he might just as well have been taking about Palinism.
Pseudo-conservatism is an odd blend of hubris and fear woven around an aggressive assertion of American exceptionalism. And that’s a brew which, when status is threatened or when things don’t go as planned, leads to outbursts of paranoia.
James Madison took a realistic view. In Federalist No. 51, he asked, “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” He goes on to say that if men were angels, we wouldn’t need government. But people aren’t angels.
Traditional conservatives accept this analysis. For that reason, they bring to public affairs a seriousness of purpose — a cautionary and even pessimistic perspective. Traditional conservatives continue to accept the idea of “original sin” — which, they argue, manifests itself though man’s greed, avarice and quest for power. All of that needs to be controlled, traditional conservatives agree. And they don’t declare war on thought.
But the storm trooper purists of pseudo-conservatism are political fundamentalists. And fundamentalists, it has been said, search for personal conviction, not mutual understanding. Even worse, they don’t value thought; instead, they run on hatred.
And that’s why things are getting worse.