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Even in This Election, It Is Not Class Warfare

November 27, 2000|STEPHAN THERNSTROM and ABIGAIL THERNSTROM | Stephan Thernstrom is a professor of history at Harvard University. Abigail Thernstrom is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York. They are the co-authors of "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible" (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

"We are two nations," John Dos Passos wrote in "U.S.A," his novel published in the depths of the Great Depression. He predicted the imminent eruption of class warfare. It's a familiar theme. "Two nations, separate and unequal," the Kerner Commission concluded after studying the race riots in American cities in the mid-1960s. And today, once again, there is much apocalyptic talk of a citizenry hopelessly and dangerously divided.

Thus, Peter Applebome in the Sunday New York Times talked of "two different countries" and a political race that was primarily over "a cultural divide." Tom DeLay and Hillary Clinton, he says, "don't belong in the same country." Rutgers political scientist Benjamin Barber has looked at the electoral map and seen a "division" that has "never been clearer." Geography and culture overlap, he says.

The events in Florida since election day have certainly stirred partisan passions, but the closeness of the contest is deceptive. Cultural issues are important, but the nation is not bitterly divided into two camps--diehard George W. Bush and diehard Al Gore supporters. The significant number of undecideds, most of whom broke for Gore at the last moment, were not diehard anything. And each camp, in any case, represents only 25% of the potential electorate, since nearly half of those eligible to vote did not care enough about the outcome to show up at the polls. Moreover, an estimated 2% of those who did vote skipped the choice at the top of the ticket, an explanation for at least some of those unpunctured ("dimpled") ballots.

Nor is there anything particularly ominous about elections that reflect cultural disagreement. American society has never been culturally monolithic, and cultural clashes have invariably marked our politics.

In the century between the first mass immigration of Roman Catholics in the mid-19th century and the election of the nation's first Catholic president, the cleavage between Protestant Republicans and Catholic Democrats was sharper than the divisions that loom large today, and levels of mutual antipathy were probably higher. We forget that in 1960 religion was a paramount issue, and it looked potentially decisive until John F. Kennedy's masterful TV broadcast just before the West Virginia primary.

Other issues have deeply divided the nation: prohibition, slavery, racial segregation, women's suffrage and the teaching of evolution in public schools, to name a few. From the 1830s to the 1930s, the freedom of the individual to purchase alcoholic beverages was the single most important domestic question. The first classic study of voting behavior in an American community, Paul Lazarsfeld's examination of the 1940 election in Erie County, New York, found that "ethnocultural" allegiances mattered more than economic status, although the nation had just suffered the worst economic depression in U.S. history.

Cultural conflict is not new--and indeed has been on the wane by many measures. Nor is there anything novel or troubling about a close presidential election. In the era from the end of Reconstruction to the Depression of 1893, contests were typically decided by razor-thin margins, and in two of them (in 1876 and 1888) the winner won fewer popular votes than the loser.

But the absence of a solid mandate had no clear political impact. It was not possible for Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Grover Cleveland or Benjamin Harrison to boast of great achievements. On the other hand, predecessors such as Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, all of whom won by comfortable margins, were also similarly inconsequential.

More recently, in 1960, a shift of fewer than 9,000 votes in Illinois and Missouri would have brought about a tie in the electoral college vote and thrown the election into the House of Representatives. Another 1,247 votes in Nevada, 1,148 in New Mexico and 58 in Hawaii would have given Richard M. Nixon an electoral majority.

In fact, Nixon actually beat Kennedy in the popular vote, even without the allegedly stolen votes in Richard Daley's Cook County. The standard accounts that give Kennedy a tiny winning margin falsely credit him with nearly 400,000 votes in Alabama and Mississippi. And yet all of Mississippi's winning electors, as well as over half of those in Alabama, were pledged to a states' rights candidate, Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd. Subtracting Byrd voters from Kennedy's totals leaves him behind Nixon by more than 100,000.

Until Nov. 7, in other words, there was nothing unprecedented about this year's election. It was anomalous in only one important sense: With peace and prosperity, the incumbent vice president should have won easily. But he seemed to think America was ready for the class warfare that Dos Passos had predicted--a bizarre notion more than half a century after the Great Depression. While Gore bashed the corporations and pandered to the left, George W. Bush skillfully handled the Republican right and reached for the center. It was the more successful strategy.

We will never have a politics free of cultural conflict. But that does not mean that most Americans want combative leaders who provoke strife when compromise and civility are possible.

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