On the eve of this election — I’m told it’s the most important one, like, ever — I’d like you all to consider one thing: The “culture war” is bullshit.
More specifically, the common conception of these “two Americas” with a vast chasm between them is bullshit. (Although we run the risk of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.) How do I know this? It’s just (social) science.
I recently read again a book from one of my wonderful political science classes at St. Thomas. Because I’m a geek like that. “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America” by Morris P. Fiorina makes a pretty compelling case, and it’s certainly an interesting read. (I read the 2005 edition; there’s a 2010 update, as well.) The preface conveniently sums things up pretty well, so I’ll just let Fiorina do the talking:
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say that we all were entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. This book uses simple facts to confront a distorted political debate in this country. Increasingly, we hear politicians, interest group leaders, and assorted “activists” speak half-truths to the American people. They tell us that the United States is split right down the middle, bitterly and deeply divided about national issues, when the truth is more nearly the opposite. Americans are closely divided, but we 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. 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.
How can the prevailing view assert the direct opposite? Mainly for want of contradiction by those who know better. We should not expect political actors to speak truthfully to us. For them, words are weapons, and the standard of success is electoral and legislative victory, not education or enlightenment. We may regret that perspective, but it should not surprise us. What is more surprising, and more disappointing, is that inaccurate claims and charges made by members of the political class go uncorrected by those who have some occupational responsibility to correct them, namely, members of the media and academic communities.
Increasingly, the media have abandoned their informational role in favor of an entertainment role. If colorful claims have news value, well then, why worry about their truth value? Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story line. As for those of us in academia, we roll our eyes at the television, shake our heads while reading the newspapers, and lecture our students on the fallacies reported in the media, but few of us go beyond that. Mostly we talk to and write for each other.
In the past few years there have been increasing indications (see chapter 1) that high-level political actors are beginning to believe in the distorted picture of American politics that they have helped to paint. This development threatens to make the distorted picture a self-fulfilling prophecy as a polarized political class abandons any effort to reach out toward the great middle of the country. That threat has motivated this ivory tower academic to attempt to provide his fellow citizens with a picture of American politics that is very different from the one they see portrayed on their televisions and described in their newspapers and magazines, a picture I think they will recognize as a more accurate reflection of their social surroundings.
Reality, as Fiorina describes it, isn’t two disconnected sets of culture warriors separated by a vast chasm; it’s a a bell curve with most of us in the middle and the few kooks on the poles buying ink by the barrel.
Put more simply: Chances are, your neighbor’s not (necessarily) an asshole. The spokesperson for your neighbor’s preferred candidate for senate, however, very well might be.
Vote in peace. Then lighten up.