VIRGINIA — “Polarization” is one of those words that creep into the language because they promise to describe something better, but do so with their fingers crossed. America is now more polarized than ever, we are told. People in red states are rural and conservative. They polish their guns for kicks and take their coffee black. Blue staters are more urbane, refined, in a word: liberal. They order double tall lattes with a shot of mint and two creams, read books, and appreciate the finer things in life, like the musical stylings of Marshall Mathers.
The two parties, also, are said to be charging toward opposite poles. The GOP is the party of war, big business, and a virulent strain of Christian fundamentalism. NAACP Chair Julian Bond said, at that organization’s 2001 national convention, that president Bush belongs the “Taliban wing of American politics.”
Conversely, the groups that make up the constituency of the Democratic Party — left-wing pressure groups, teachers unions, feminists, the media — constitute a “Godless party,” charged National Review alum Rod Dreher in a cover story for Touchstone earlier this year. Democrats were tarred in 1972 as being the party of “amnesty, abortion, and acid” — and to that modern critics might add graft, gays, and groupthink. This next election, some pundits pontificate, will be like 1972, except more so. It will be an ideological tussle of Titans, with free popcorn thrown in.
This is a rough sketch of how left and right want to see this election, themselves, and their ideological opposites in the Year of Our Lord 2003. Call me a cynic, but before the political machines roll through the primaries, I believe it’s worth asking to what extent these observations accurately reflect the facts on the ground. Put another way: How much of what left and right think about each other is real, and to what extent are they railing against, and defending, Platonic ideals — ideals so far removed from reality that they have ceased to be useful?
THE RED STATE-BLUE STATE divide is now thoroughly entrenched not only in political debate but in the common vocabulary. In an Orlando Sentinel write-up of the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, the reviewer called the movie a metaphor, “a red-state meat grinder about motiveless Texans sending 1.3 young Americans to their graves every day in Iraq.”
Normally I’d attack this bizarre interpretation of a dreary remake, but for now I’ll park it in the Current Wisdom file and leave the mockery to experts. Point is, the red-blue divide is a classic example — perhaps the new benchmark — of people allowing press reports to overwhelm their own good sense, and lying eyes.
New Mexico is a “blue state” by about a thousand votes; Florida a “red” one by a similar margin. The whole scheme derived from a map colored red and blue based on which states went for Bush (red) or Gore (blue) by any number of votes. From an election-night and morning-after point of view that made good sense. Most states are winner-take-all in the electoral college; political junkies could follow the returns more easily by coloring it in state by state, as the elections were called.
Because the 2000 election was so vigorously contested and argued over, however, that map was granted an almost obscene significance. As the recounts and court challenges dragged on, red came to stand for the conservatives, having won by some great good luck and trying to hold on to what they had; blue the absolute, angry majority, outraged first that the election didn’t go their way and then that the courts thwarted attempts to right this injustice, this throwback to an earlier system of government, in which men, wary of the mob, tipped the scales ever so slightly against majoritarian government.
Charges of a stolen election were inevitable, but the anger wasn’t. If he hadn’t dragged the challenge out so long, Gore could have come back in four years and told voters in the Democratic primaries that the guy who had the best shot at beating Bush this time around was the man who got more votes in the last go-round. The thing that separates democratic governance from all other forms of control is that wonderful phrase, “We’ll get them next time.” But then Gore was an angry man who seemed to believe the “people versus the powerful” faux populism of his campaign, and he unselfishly anointed himself as a spokesman for Joe Taxpayer. His defeat was thus a blow not against the failed scion of a political dynasty but another example of the Man keeping the little guy in his place.
IT’S TEMPTING TO DECLARE that Gore’s anger infected his frustrated lefty supporters and drove them bats. To wit, what Paul Begala wrote in the middle of the recount tussle to try to introduce some nuance into the red state-blue state analysis. Rather than the absurd conservative analysis of the divide — “family values versus a sense of entitlement” — he proposed a more “complex picture” of the red portions of the map. “You see the state where James Byrd was lynch-dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart,” he asked. “It’s red.”
And so it went: Red staters were not simply Bush voters, they were lynchers, gay bashers, anti-government terrorists, alum of Bob Jones University. From election night on, it wasn’t enough to disagree with red staters, blues had to diabolize them too.
It rubbed off, over time, on non-bigots as well. At a book signing in Washington state for Christopher Moore’s novel Lamb, a funny but almost tasteful take on the life of Christ, Moore told the audience that he’d asked his publisher not to send him to any red states. And president Bush, former businessman, lifelong Republican, former governor of the reddest of red state, might as well have had a bull’s-eye tattooed to his chest (note: this is a metaphor). He was an illegitimate president, a dolt, a despoiler of the environment, a tool of the rich and powerful — a blank slate on which to project everything they hated and feared about Republicans.
Then came September 11. It didn’t change everything about American politics, but certain things shifted. Bush formed a bond with many citizens of this country that has been reflected in absurdly high poll numbers (see, not everything changed) since that awful day over two years ago. In the runup to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the very skeptical — and, truth to tell, very liberal — press couldn’t entirely mask the popular support for invading and toppling the existing regimes. Public rallies in support of the troops often dwarfed anti-war efforts. This was unacceptable and so, after the war, anti-Bushies took to arguing that the public was duped into war. It wasn’t the people’s fault: Bush’s propaganda machine had rolled over them.
THE NEWS OF THE DEATH of irony, obviously, has been greatly exaggerated. What else could explain the demonization of Bush and Bush supporters by the very groups that are benefiting from the current regime?
Entitlement spending has boomed in the last few years, and the president has yet to veto a single bill. He rejected Kyoto but endorsed and enacted several environmental restrictions that chafe consumer groups (e.g., the new annoying side-loading washing machines). He signed campaign finance reform into law, and the Supreme Court surprisingly held it to be Constitutional. He created a whacking new entitlement for seniors — the richest demographic group — to get their drugs for free. He resisted rolling back affirmative action and putting the breaks on immigration. And his spending spree will surely crowd out future tax cuts. As with Nixon, so it is worth asking of Bush: Why do liberals despise him so? (In the same vein, the subject of a future essay: Why do conservatives admire him?)
And make no mistake: They do hate him. In the wake of the recent capture of Saddam Hussein, a sensible, human reaction would have gone something along the lines of: This is a great day. I am proud of our troops for their persistence and restraint. I’ve had my differences with the president but this isn’t the time or place for political posturing. Today, all Americans should be proud of our troops and hopeful that this will bode well for the future of Iraq.
Instead, the anti-Bushies kvetched. The presidential hopefuls said that somehow they would have done better, and caught the former strong man of Iraq faster. A few kooks and respected officials speculated that Saddam was found earlier and held until it would produce the maximum political payoff, and wondered if the same was true of one Osama bin Laden. They were absolutely incapable of accepting the good news for what it was, if it would benefit George W. Bush.
I pick on the liberals because it’s fun and because they’re a bit more blatant about it, but the phenomenon is certainly not limited to one side of the aisle. The substantive issues of this next election are going to be few and far between. Assuming the nominee is Dean and that Bush doesn’t decide to quit while he’s ahead, both candidates will tilt away from gun control, toward more entitlement spending, toward liberalized immigration policies, toward staying in Iraq, and against reducing the size of government. The issues don’t matter nearly as much as either keeping or gaining power, if they matter at all.
Rather, the contrast is, for lack of a better term, tribal — though the affinity is cultural rather than genetic. Red and blue state designations are still in use because different voters feel that that says something about who they are. If you want to see yourself as a progressive, affluent, educated type and you live in a red state, you’re likely to gaze longingly at certain parts of the map. And red staters, as they watch the inflow of blue state refugees, must oil their guns with increased vigor. Earlier this year, descendants of the famously feuding Hatfields and McCoys finally got together and signed a truce. They must be loving this.