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Where the culture war rages

Alex Miller

Leaving aside the question of whether a bunch of (mostly) rich white folks hunkered down in a plush Vail hotel can solve the problems of the world by yakking about it all, I left a recent Vail Valley Institute meeting of the minds with a bit more hope than I’d gone on with.Taking place late last month, the forum this year was themed “America Divided” and posed the question “Are the culture wars for real?” While the immediate answer seems screechingly obvious (is “hell yes!” too strong an affirmation?), there was some consensus among the participants that most of the culture war’s battles are being waged by highly partisan political activists who represent America the same way that, say, rock stars represent the average Joe.While celebrity pundits like David Brooks of The New York Times and Arianna Huffington of Huffington Online stayed on-message with their respective talking points, it was the statistician in the crowd who provided what was to me the meat of the argument against the validity of the red-blue divide. Mo Fiorina, a poli-sci prof at Stanford, offered some perspective on the exit-polling results of the last election, noting that while 22 percent of respondents may have said “moral values” influenced their decision, other choices like jobs, the economy, Iraq and the war on terror were also statistically in the same neighborhood. If you added them up, they showed Americans were a lot more concerned about jobs and security than they were about “moral values.””Most people don’t know or care much about politics,” Fiorina said. “Activists know a lot because they care a lot, and they hold more extreme views.” A good illustration of this, he said, is that Fox News, on a good day, gets only 3.5 million viewers – just over 1 percent of the population. On the left, about half a million people were on Howard Dean’s vaunted e-mail list – about the same number of people, Fiorina noted, that own ferrets. Yet these two examples of media are held up as two poles illustrating our great social divide.But even if it’s true that the culture wars are more illusory than real, they still seem real enough, don’t they? When I’m in the room with my Navy commander brother-in-law and he asks why I think Dick Cheney is evil, I quickly change the subject in the interest of family harmony. When those who believe wholeheartedly in the “sanctity of marriage” as a man-woman thing read about the United Church of Christ giving the thumbs-up to gay marriage and want to grind their teeth out onto the floor, those culture wars seem very real indeed.And that’s what we read about, hear about because that’s what makes news. People holding centrist positions – which, statistically, most of us do – are boring, hardly worthy of the crawl on CNN or Fox. As someone once said, you don’t see centrists marching in the streets calling for “Moderation Now!” The center has ceded its voice to the activists on the fringe, which helps to explain why a majority of people think the country is headed in the wrong direction.It’s hard not to look at this phenomenon and think there’s a lot of room for someone in the next presidential election to come up with a way to reach that enormous center with a message of tolerance and accommodation for all. Warts and all, this was Clinton’s gift, but Bush’s team correctly decided to ignore the left altogether, focusing on the right with just enough give in the middle to get the swing vote. In 2008, look to the Democrats to try the same trick, pandering left, ignoring the right and hoping for the best in the middle. But the Dems won’t have a war to hang their hats on like Bush did, appealing to the center and an across-the-board anxiety about national security.The problem with going after the centrist vote is that many of them have stopped voting altogether. Vast and confused, they are under-represented not only by their highly partisan elected officials but even by the Washington think tanks that cook up and deploy the talking points we’re all supposed to care so deeply about. “There are no centrist think tanks,” David Brooks said at the VVI meeting, adding that lobbyists populate the town working both sides with equal fervor. “It’s like being a bisexual – it doubles your chances of getting a date,” he said.Even as I left the seminar thinking more highly of my fellow citizens, I was more discouraged than ever to contemplate the people who are supposed to represent us in Washington. If the only way they can ever see to consolidate and hold power is to be highly partisan, and if activists are the only ones whose messages can be heard above the din, how do we ever achieve anything even remotely resembling a truly representative government? Or must we always go in four- or eight-year cycles where one side is merrily abusing power while the other side is licking its wounds preparing revenge?How depressing.Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or amiller@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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