By Robert J. Samuelson
Newsweek contributing editor - Washington Post columnist
December 4, 2003

(See DDC response below)

One of today's popular myths is that we've become a more "polarized" society. We're said to be divided increasingly by politics (liberals vs. conservatives), social values (traditionalists vs. modernists), religion (fundamentalists vs. everyone else), race and ethnicity. What has actually happened is that our political and media elites have become polarized, and they assume that this is true for everyone else. It isn't.

Anyone who lived through the 1960s, when struggles over Vietnam and civil rights spilled into the streets, must know that we're much less polarized today. It's not a close call. Unlike then, today's polarization exists mainly on the public stage among politicians, TV talking heads, columnists and intellectuals.

Still, the polarization myth persists. Consider a new report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which bulges with public opinion data that show (it says) "rising political polarization and anger." Actually, the data - stretching from the late 1980s until now - don't show that at all.

It's true that over this period political allegiances have shifted slightly. Republicans gained, Democrats lost. As late as 1987, about 35 percent of adults considered themselves Democrats, 26 percent Republicans and 39 percent independents (including those who "don't know"). Now, it's a dead heat: 31 percent Democrats, 30 percent Republicans and 39 percent independents. Gaps on some issues between political parties have predictably widened. If Democrats favoring a stronger military become Republican, party differences on that issue will rise.

But polarization - a visceral loathing of your opponent - increases only if partisans feel more rabidly about their views. Here, little has changed. One standard survey question is whether Democrats and Republicans consider themselves "strong" party members. In the late 1980s, slightly less than half of Republicans considered themselves "strong" Republicans; it's still slightly less than half. Among Democrats, about half are now "strong" and were then, too.

Beyond partisan divisions, Americans share many basic beliefs. After Sept. 11, 2001, patriotism remains high. Most people (two-thirds or more) believe that hard work promotes success. Indeed, many opinions have hardly budged since the late 1980s. Surveys asked whether:

The United States should be "active in world affairs" - 87 percent said yes in 1987, 90 percent now;

"Government should restrict and control people coming into our country" more than it does - 76 percent agreed in 1992, 77 percent now;

"There is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies" - 77 percent said so in both 1987 and 2003.

What's more important is that the changes that have occurred - generally outside politics - signal more, not less, tolerance, as the Pew data show. There seems to be a general shift in attitudes, led by changes among the young. Consider race. In 1987, 48 percent thought it "all right for blacks and whites to date"; now, 77 percent do. Something similar has occurred on homosexuality. By a 51 percent to 42 percent margin, Americans believed in 1987 that "school boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals"; now that's rejected, 62 percent to 33 percent.

Today's polarization mainly divides the broad public from political, intellectual and media elites. Of course, sharp differences define democracy. We've always had them. From Iraq to homosexual marriage, deep disagreements remain. But the venom of today's debates often transcends disagreement. Your opponents - whether liberal or conservative - must not only have bad ideas. Increasingly, they must also be bad people who are dishonest, selfish and venal.

Among politicians, the bitterness reflects less political competition, especially in the House of Representatives. Democrats and Republicans increasingly have safe seats. In 2002, 83 percent of House incumbents won at least 60 percent of the vote; in 1992, only 66 percent of incumbents won with that margin. As a result, members speak more to their parties' "bases."

There's less need to appeal to the center. The Founders saw the House as responding quickly to public opinion. But "the barometer is broken," says veteran congressional correspondent Richard E. Cohen of National Journal. As for media and intellectual elites - commentators, academics, columnists, professional advocates - they're in an attention-grabbing competition. They need to establish themselves as brand names. For many, stridency is a strategy. The right feeds off the left and the left feeds off the right, and although their mutual criticisms constitute legitimate debate, they're also economic commodities. To be regarded by one side as a lunatic is to be regarded by the other as a hero - and that can usually be taken to the bank through more TV appearances, higher lecture fees and fatter book sales. Polarization serves their interests.

All this distorts who we are and poses a latent danger: someday we might become as hopelessly polarized as we're already supposed to be.


DDC response:

Re: Robert J. Samuelson's "The myth of a polarized America" Commentary - December 4, 2003


Robert J. Samuelson's commentary, "The myth of a polarized America," is a surprisingly cogent analysis of what is ailing the surface of society. However, today's problems go much deeper than simply dividing the public from political, intellectual and media elites. For a sense of what's really troubling America, more serious polarizations should be examined. And there is nothing mythical about them.

Topping the list of a society assaulted by selfish interests and battered by the failures of good intentions is an education system wrought with factories of ignorance and warehouses of violence. Decades of progressive experiments and indoctrination by polarizing social, economic, historical and political views have robbed students of their education.

Among other strong polarization contenders are the politically correct "thought police," those who thrive on keeping racial tensions and divisions alive, those who wage war against men, boys and relationships, those who use the courts to feed on ideology and the spoils of litigation, and the purveyors of social aggression and behavior control of every description.

Samuelson's conclusion is painfully correct: "someday we might become as hopelessly polarized as we're already supposed to be." America is under siege by the polarized fringes of society and it is exacting a heavy toll.

Fortunately, the numbers of politically independent citizens are increasing. Many are leaving the party ranks of Democrats and Republicans because they are simply fed up with radicals, extremists and a dysfunctional two-party system. We the people of mainstream America must break our long silence, clear up the distortions, define ourselves, participate in democracy, and make those who represent us make the right decisions.