Jonathan Rauch, in "Bipolar Disorder" (January/February Atlantic), cites my book The Values Divide as a source for much of the commentary as to whether and how deeply we are about cultural values. I am also the unnamed source who stated that Americans live in "parallel universes."
Rauch is correct that political elites are highly polarized on the basis of cultural values. But this is so because Americans have made it so. Today lifestyle choices and values preferences directly correlate with partisanship. Married voters—especially those with children under the age of seventeen, living at home—and frequent church attendees vote Republican in large numbers. Single voters, unmarried couples, and infrequent churchgoers vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Polls taken by Zogby International consistently find that voters in these different demographic categories also make different cultural choices. For example, 43 percent of Bush supporters saw The Passion of the Christ; 65 percent of Kerry backers saw Fahrenheit 9/11. Cable television, Internet blogs, and other technologies that promote market segmentation only serve to ratify voters' instinctive predilections.
Something is amiss in American politics when exit polls showed moderates voting for John Kerry by nine points and independents by one point, and still Kerry lost. Although the polar extremes have always been with us at the elite and mass levels, the absence of a "vital center" makes today's politics different.
Alan Wolfe has described the twenty-first century as an age of "moral freedom." Redefining interpersonal relationships means that Americans have a greater number of choices than ever before. It is in these choices that politics, partisanship, and values have become intertwined. The result is an electorate whose highly polarized nature shows up in polling data in race after race. As Tom Robbins wrote in his novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, "Until humans can solve their philosophical problems, they're condemned to solve their political problems over and over and over again. It's a cruel, repetitious bore."
John Kenneth White
The Life Cycle Institute
The Catholic University of America
In "Bipolar Disorder," Jonathan Rauch makes an eloquent and compelling case that the American nation isn't as polarized as the national parties. He also identifies the major causes of partisan polarization—gerrymandering and the selection of candidates by ideological activists rather than the local party machines of the old days. However, his conclusions—that partisan polarization can be beneficial and we should learn to love it—do not follow from his analysis. The present system, created only in the past thirty years, can be changed.
The most radical change would be to abandon our eighteenth-century first-past-the-post voting system, which tends to produce two-party cartels, for some version of proportional representation, which most modern democracies use to elect their legislators. If that seems too exotic, there is the alternative vote or instant-runoff voting (IRV), which is now used to elect city officials in San Francisco. Voters rank candidates in order of preference, and if nobody initially wins 50 percent, then second- and third-choice votes are redistributed until a winner emerges. Unlike the first-past-the-post system, IRV rewards moderate candidates who appeal to more than one party.
Changing electoral rules nationwide is a long-term project. For the foreseeable future we are stuck with first-past-the-post and two major parties. Why not change the Republicans and the Democrats back into what Rauch says they once were—"loose coalitions of interests and regions" rather than "ideological clubs"? If primaries dominated by zealots are the problem, why not abolish primaries? We don't have to go back to the old system in which party bosses chose the candidates. The California gubernatorial-recall election, which installed the centrist Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, showed us another way. Why not let the voters choose from many candidates, both partisan and independent, on the first ballot of a two-round election? There could be an actual runoff election a few weeks later among the top two vote-getters. Or an IRV ballot could produce the same result as a runoff, without the time and expense of a second election. Replacing party primaries with the first round in an actual or virtual runoff system would open up the ballot to new candidates and movements; it would reward centrist candidates with the broadest possible appeal and punish divisive ideologues; and it would tend to make gerrymandering futile.
The New America Foundation
Despite what Jonathan Rauch argues in "Bipolar Disorder," there is clear evidence of an increased political divide in American public opinion. In the latest survey by the Pew Research Center a majority of Americans perceived a growing divide both in the nation generally and among people they know. That perception stems partly from close political elections but especially from differences over the war in Iraq, which not only has driven a wedge between Republicans and Democrats but has intensified the partisan gap over fundamental national-security questions, including the appropriate use of force and America's place in the world.
The Pew Research Center's longitudinal measures on basic political, economic, and social values, which date back to 1987, show that political polarization in public opinion is as great now as it was before the 1994 midterm elections, which ended four decades of Democratic control in Congress. Partisan divisions are not in themselves new, but the basis for today's divide is considerably different from that of the divide that existed a few years ago. During the 1990s attitudes toward government, welfare, and business—and also homosexuality—were the strongest predictors of a person's party preference. Today opinions about the efficacy of force versus that of diplomacy and the obligation of Americans to fight for their country are by far the strongest predictors. The partisan gap in basic national-security values has never been more pronounced. Attitudes toward the Iraq War color opinions on a number of security issues. Republicans have become decidedly more militant, while Democrats, if anything, have become less so.