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The next polarizing issue

Several recent commentaries in the Vail Daily have tackled the topic of political polarization, but what exactly what does that mean? Does polarization connote a visceral loathing of those who hold differing viewpoints or is it simply rabidly partisan politics? The degree of differences in social values, religion, race and even the war on terror are nowhere near as great as what our nation experienced in the 1960s, when polarization literally spilled into the streets. Today’s media continually reminds us about the culture war going on in this country. But the reality is that we are not a fundamentally divided nation, at least not over most core values.Many of our politicians are polarized, but America as a nation is not. “Red-staters” are not more patriotic or religious than “blue-staters.” Blue-staters aren’t the only ones who eat quiche and attend farmer’s markets on Saturdays. Recent Pew Research studies indicate that America is about as evenly divided as possible in terms of what we call ourselves. Thirty percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, 31 percent as Democrats and 39 percent as Independent and other. But while partisans line up at the extremes, ordinary Americans regularly mix and match their issues from both ideologies.Political parties energize their respective bases by telling them America is in the middle of a culture war. This notion of polarization is advanced by talking heads such as Hannity and Colmes because it makes for great theater. Nevertheless, the majority of Americans haven’t chosen sides. Professor Morris Fiorina, one of America’s leading experts on matters of public opinion, elections and the U.S. Congress, cites numerous examples supporting the claim encapsulated in the title of his book, “Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America.” One unchallenged bit of information dispensed by the media that caught my eye was the “fact” that during the last election exit polls indicated frequent church-goers and men were much more likely to support George Bush than John Kerry, while non-churchgoers and women leaned Democratic. Typical red state-blue state stuff, right?. But that grossly oversimplified statistic is specious because men, particularly white men, are much less likely to attend church than are women of any race or ethnicity. So how could church-goers prefer Bush if women, who attend church more regularly, preferred Kerry? Even if that statistic gave an accurate portrayal of a cultural divide, those two categories of voters exclude most of the population, a fact the media never attempts to make clear.So the real question becomes: In a 50-50 nation, does the distribution look more like a football, with Americans divided but clustered around the middle, or has it come to look like a dumbbell, with more people at the extremes and fewer in the center?On the majority of issues – race, gender, crime, justice and morality – Americans are actually quite united in their views, validating the notion that we’re more akin to a football than a dumbbell, with the primary exception of abortion.Yes, red states are more conservative than blue states. But while 77 percent of red-state respondents favored capital punishment, so did 70 percent of the blue-state respondents. Sixty-four percent of blue-state respondents favored stricter gun control, but so did 52 percent of the red-state respondents. Studies also indicate that red-state residents are 50 percent more likely to be born-again or evangelical Christians, but strong majorities in both red and blue states tell us that religion is very important in their lives.The biggest disagreements between the red states and blue states are about relatively minor issues, such as whether to allow gays to adopt children or join the military. But the areas of agreement are enormously revealing. The respondents of a recent study from both red and blue states indicated that they are centrists, that they feel the Democratic Party is to their left and the Republican Party to their right. The most telling answer of those interviewed pointed toward the notion that most felt they were positioned between two relatively extreme parties.America has always been a place of partisan politics. John Adams’ supporters, when referring to Thomas Jefferson in 1796, would make the statements of Howard Dean, Rush Limbaugh and Nancy Pelosi sound tame by comparison.Due in part to the shrillness of many of our politicians and pundits, America will never be a culturally quiescent place. Still, compared to the Vietnam era and the civil rights movement, Jacksonians versus the Establishment, Jefferson versus Hamilton, and before I forget, that difference of opinion in the mid-1860s known as the Civil War, we live in a period of political calm.So what will the next truly polarizing issue be? Why the selection of a nominee to fill the vacancy (ies?) on the Supreme Court, of course. The extremists on both sides (read: dumbbells) will eschew reason and avoid the real issue of who is or isn’t qualified to serve on the court and focus the debate on one single issue – abortion! Our genuinely polarized Congress will cast aspersions across the aisle. The biased talking heads will quote out of context and use sound bites to fan the flames as the truly moronic will categorize anyone holding a differing viewpoint on the matter as evil, stupid or both. Rancor and vitriol will displace meaningful debate in many circles. But the smoke will eventually clear, and the republic will survive, just as it has for 230 years.Butch Mazzuca of Singletree, a Realtor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@earthlink.netVail, Colorado


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