How do Americans feel after the long, bruising election campaign? Divided.
In November 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Gallup Organization asked Americans whether they felt united or divided about most important values. Three-quarters of the respondents declared the country united. By January of this year, a majority deemed the country divided. Now, in the aftermath of the presidential election, nearly two-thirds say Americans are divided.
In fact, more Americans now feel the country is divided than felt that way immediately after the bitterly contested Florida recount in 2000. In December 2000, 64 percent said the country was more deeply divided on major issues than in recent years. Now, 72 percent feel that way.
When John Kerry conceded defeat, he called for a time of healing. "I pledge to do my part to try to bridge the partisan divide," the Democratic nominee told his supporters on November 3. President Bush echoed those sentiments the next day, saying, "I am fully prepared to work with both Republican and Democrat leadership."
But many Democrats see the Bush White House and the Republican majorities in Congress betraying the president's pledge. On November 19, Kerry sent a message to his supporters: "Despite the words of cooperation and moderate-sounding promises, this administration is planning a right-wing assault on values and ideals we hold most deeply."
Does the public want Bush to emphasize bipartisan policies? Or do people think he has a mandate to advance the GOP's agenda?
By more than 2-to-1, the public rejects the idea of a Republican mandate. Even Republicans are divided over whether their party won a mandate.
What are Americans divided over? Religion, for one thing—about half the public says that organized religion has too much political influence. About half says it has too little, or the right amount.
Democrats and Republicans hold polar-opposite views about religion's involvement in politics. Two-thirds of Democrats say religion has too much influence. Two-thirds of Republicans disagree.
Is the country in a moral crisis? Some people argue that it is. First, we had the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl last February. Now, we have a controversy over a sexually suggestive promotion run during a Monday Night Football broadcast. A new movie about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey has stirred up yet another controversy. "Kinsey may have died in 1956," Robert Knight of the Culture and Family Institute said, "but his cold, dead hand is still on the throttle of the sexual revolution. And it's still harming lives."
Results of the TV networks' Election Day exit poll heightened the sense of moral crisis. Given a list of seven issues and asked to pick the one that mattered most in their vote, respondents put "moral values" at the top of the list, ahead of jobs, terrorism, Iraq, health care, taxes, and education.
Conservatives read that result as a moral mandate. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council said, "Clearly, the big issues are pro-life issues, concern about unlimited abortion license, and the issue of same-sex marriage." Some Democrats agreed. Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana said, "On issues like the economy, education, the environment, health care, I think the American public gave Democrats a slight edge.... Yet we still lost the election. I think the moral values were a real issue."
A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in mid-November asked about voters' concerns a little differently: "Which ... mattered most to you in deciding how you voted for president—national security issues, economic issues, or moral issues?" Presented as a category, moral issues dropped to third place. Economic issues were cited by 36 percent, national security issues by 32 percent, and moral issues by 26 percent. Suddenly, the nation's moral crisis looks smaller.
One myth about the election can be dispelled: There is no evidence of a lurch to the right in public opinion, nor of any panic over moral values. Sure, only a quarter of Americans think the country's moral values are in good shape. But that figure is actually a little higher than it's been in recent years.
In fact, there's evidence of a shift toward greater tolerance. In 1993, after President Clinton proposed allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military, most Americans opposed the idea. That view has completely turned around. Now, by nearly 2-to-1 (63 percent to 32 percent in a recent Gallup Poll), the public says openly gay men and lesbians should be allowed to serve.
The concern over values is not being driven by moral panic gripping the nation. It's being driven by the political division gripping the nation. Most Kerry voters told the Times/CBS pollsters that they do not think Bush voters share many of their values. And most Bush voters don't believe Kerry voters share their values.
Americans are still looking for a leader who can deliver what Bush promised in 2000, when he vowed to be "a uniter, not a divider." So far, they haven't found it. The post-election Times/CBS News poll asked whether, in the next four years, Bush's presidency will bring Americans together or divide them. The results were closely divided but tilted toward pessimism: 48 percent said Bush will divide the country, while 40 percent predicted that he will bring Americans together.
In other words, the country remains divided—even over whether Bush will continue to divide the country.
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