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The Myth of American Polarization

After 10 years abroad, a reporter finds we are more united, culturally and politically, than the shouting suggests.

March 10, 2004|Eric Weiner | Eric Weiner, a correspondent with National Public Radio, is a fellow at Stanford University.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the United States is more polarized than ever. In the sports jargon that passes for political analysis these days, we are supposedly witnessing a knockdown fight that pits conservatives against liberals, gay-bashers against gay- embracers, hawks against doves, Atkins aficionados against low-fat devotees. We are, the pundits proclaim, at war with ourselves.

Or are we?

Having recently returned to the United States after living abroad for 10 years, I see a very different America. I see a nation that agrees on the vast majority of issues while it indulges in a loud -- and mostly meaningless -- shouting match over the few issues that divide us. If we are in fact polarized, it is only in the way that an AA battery is polarized: two opposite charges but with very little distance separating them.

Take the debate over gay marriage. Both sides are extremely passionate about their views, but they are not as far apart as they appear. For instance, nearly none of those opposed to gay marriage is suggesting that homosexuality be outlawed, as is the case in dozens of nations, including U.S. allies such as India and Morocco.

And when it comes to issues of crime and punishment, we don't hear anyone advocating the caning of those convicted of relatively minor offenses, as is the case in Singapore. Conversely, we don't hear many people advocating "open prisons," where inmates essentially guard themselves, as they do in Denmark.

In other words, what Americans are not talking about is at least as significant as what we are talking about.

Likewise, President Bush and the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, present themselves as two men who are worlds apart, but they have more in common than either would care to admit. Both are Yale graduates who come from privileged backgrounds -- prep schools, summer homes, East Coast roots. Neither candidate would pull U.S. troops out of Iraq or Afghanistan. Neither supports universal healthcare.

That is, of course, the way politics works. Candidates don't talk about their shared positions; they need to highlight their differences. Meanwhile, the media magnify those differences because it makes a better story. The result is the illusion of a polarized nation. After all, with the proper lens and the right light, any decent photographer can make a tiny stream look like the Mississippi.

The question is: Why does the American public so readily embrace this myth of polarization? Partly, I think, because it makes us feel good, reinforcing the sense that we are engaged in a feisty debate about issues that really matter. If we disagree so loudly, the logic goes, then surely democracy must be alive and well.

The advent of talk radio (to date mostly right wing, but that is about to change), along with cable TV shout-a-thons and high-octane websites, has fueled the myth of polarization. Extremists on both ends of the political spectrum now have an outlet for their rantings and ravings that simply did not exist a decade ago. The current bestseller lists include Bill O'Reilly, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter -- the ranters. But an extremist with a megaphone is still an extremist.

We have confused volume with range. To put it bluntly: Just because we are shouting at each other louder than ever doesn't mean we have something worthwhile to say.

There is, of course, a positive side to all of this. The fact that Americans actually agree on so much means that we don't experience the kind of violent upheaval that plagues much of the world, most recently Haiti. A contested election, a controversial war, a disgruntled minority -- in other countries, these lead to tanks on the streets. In the U.S., they lead to higher cable ratings. Let's not be too quick, however, to pat ourselves on the back. One reason we are such a stable nation is because we have artificially limited the range of policy options we are willing to entertain.

Shout radio and its equally high-decibel siblings have drowned out more thoughtful voices. That leaves no room for ideas that are "off the menu." They never make it to the political table, and that is, I think, unfortunate.

I would rather have returned to a nation truly polarized, truly engaged in a grand ideological tussle, than a raucous street brawl posing as the real thing.

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