September 20, 2004


The political chasm isn't so deep, after all (Eric Black and Dane Smith, September 18, 2004, Minneapolis Star Tribune)

The Red-Blue America theory suggests that we are divided on everything from our musical tastes to gay marriage. But in fact there are few huge chasms over issues.

Take abortion, supposedly the most divisive, all-or-nothing issue of them all. If you judge only by the voting record of U.S. senators, it's just that. Every single Republican senator received a zero ranking last year from the National Abortion Rights Action League, meaning that they consistently opposed the league. Yet, 44 percent of Minnesota Republicans believe that a woman should have the right to choose, according to the Minnesota Poll. Democrats are closer to unanimity in favor of abortion rights, but still, one-sixth of Minnesota Democrats oppose the idea that a woman should have the right to choose.

When polls offer respondents a middle choice on controversial issues, including abortion, compromise is often popular. In July, the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs asked voters in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa whether abortion should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances or illegal in all circumstances.

The middle answer was chosen by 54 percent of Republicans, 55 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents,

"The country is obviously closely divided, maybe even bitterly divided, but in terms of policy we just are not very deeply divided," said former Rep. Vin Weber, one of the leaders of Bush's campaign in the Upper Midwest. "If you turn down the decibel level, the issues we're arguing over don't compare to the really deep disagreements of the past. We disagree about whether to shift the tax burden a little bit up and down the ladder, but nobody's talking about going back to a top rate of 70 percent." [...]

The idea that Americans live in blue and red states is dead wrong. That should be especially clear to residents of a certain longtime blue state called Minnesota, which both parties have declared a battleground this year. Candidates have visited so often they are beginning to pronounce Wayzata correctly.

Depending on how you count them, between 16 and 21 states are neither red nor blue but very much up for grabs in November. That many swing states is above average.

And bear in mind that in the 2000 election, the event that touched off the Red and Blue America craze, neither party got 70 percent of the vote in any state. In Franklin Roosevelt's heyday, he used to break 70 percent in 10 or more states, and he broke 90 in Mississippi every time he ran. Now that was a blue state.

And when Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, he didn't get above 1 percent in any Southern state. That was polarization.

As de Tocqueville recognized some time ago, in a democracy few will be willing--or able--to depart too far from the opinion pof the majority, which forces an extreme conformity:
The right of governing society, which the majority supposes itself to derive from its superior intelligence, was introduced into the United States by the first settlers; and this idea, which of itself would be sufficient to create a free nation, has now been amalgamated with the customs of the people and the minor incidents of social life.

The French under the old monarchy held it for a maxim that the king could do no wrong; and if he did do wrong, the blame was imputed to his advisers. This notion made obedience very easy; it enabled the subject to complain of the law without ceasing to love and honor the lawgiver. The Americans entertain the same opinion with respect to the majority.

The moral power of the majority is founded upon yet another principle, which is that the interests of the many are to be pre- ferred to those of the few. It will readily be perceived that the respect here professed for the rights of the greater number must naturally increase or diminish according to the state of parties When a nation is divided into several great irreconcilable interests, the privilege of the majority is often overlooked, because it is intolerable to comply with its demands.

If there existed in America a class of citizens whom the legislating majority sought to deprive of exclusive privileges which they had possessed for ages and to bring down from an elevated station to the level of the multitude, it is probable that the minority would be less ready to submit to its laws. But as the United States was colonized by men holding equal rank, there is as yet no natural or permanent disagreement between the interests of its different inhabitants.

There are communities in which the members of the minority can never hope to draw the majority over to their side, because they must then give up the very point that is at issue between them. Thus an aristocracy can never become a majority while it retains its exclusive privileges, and it cannot cede its privileges without ceasing to be an aristocracy.

In the United States, political questions cannot be taken up in so general and absolute a manner; and all parties are willing to recognize the rights of the majority, because they all hope at some time to be able to exercise them to their own advantage. The majority in that country, therefore, exercise a prodigious actual authority, and a power of opinion which is nearly as great; no obstacles exist which can impede or even retard its progress, so as to make it heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path. [...]

IT is in the examination of the exercise of thought in the United States that we clearly perceive how far the power of the majority surpasses all the powers with which we are acquainted in Europe. Thought is an invisible and subtle power that mocks all the efforts of tyranny. At the present time the most absolute monarchs in Europe cannot prevent certain opinions hostile to their authority from circulating in secret through their dominions and even in their courts. It is not so in America; as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. The reason for this is perfectly clear: no monarch is so absolute as to combine all the powers of society in his own hands and to conquer all opposition, as a majority is able to do, which has the right both of making and of executing the laws.

The authority of a king is physical and controls the actions of men without subduing their will. But the majority possesses a power that is physical and moral at the same time, which acts upon the will as much as upon the actions and represses not only all contest, but all controversy.

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.

It's instructive that the most bitter battles in our recent history have been between the Third Way Democrats and Compassionate Conservatives--Clinton vs. Gingrich's GOP and Gore vs. Bush--who were in almost total agreement about ideology but were at war over merely which party got to govern and enact that ideology. Meanwhile, it is Senator Kerry's divergence from that Third Way consensus that has left him so marginalized and drained this race of the kind of partisan anger we saw the past twelve years, at least on the Republican side. When the majority is as eager to dispose of your opponent, you don't need to hate him.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2004 7:55 PM

de Tocqueville may have been right about the absence of dissent against the majority at the time, although I doubt it.
If ever it was true, it's true no longer.
Anyone may write or say any odd or idiotic thing, without much fear of consequences beyond scorn, and sometimes they even manage to get elected to office.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 20, 2004 9:37 PM

They can because they're ignored or considered entertainment--none are taken seriously.

Posted by: oj at September 20, 2004 10:17 PM

I don't know where you get the idea that Clinton and Gingrich "were in almost total agreement about ideology." I don't recall Clinton supporting the Contract With America, for example. Gingrich was a conservative reaching out to the middle while Clinton was a liberal doing the same thing, but that doesn't make their ideologies the same.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 20, 2004 10:19 PM

He signed most of it.

Posted by: oj at September 20, 2004 10:32 PM

When you really think about it, Bill Clinton was actually a moderate.

Posted by: Vince at September 20, 2004 10:38 PM

His legacy is conservative--two trade deals, Welfare reform, etc.

Posted by: oj at September 20, 2004 10:44 PM

Don't forget that he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, approved the death penalty for Tim McVeigh, and he instructed the Justice Department to shut down so-called "medical" marijuana clubs in California.

Posted by: Vince at September 21, 2004 12:50 AM

Clinton had neither principles nor morals.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 21, 2004 1:25 AM

Fortunately he had a dose of pragmatism.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at September 21, 2004 5:43 AM


None are taken seriously - Until they are.

Plenty of now mainstream ideas started out as some crackpot writing about the impossible.
Legal abortion.
Environmental laws.
Female suffrage.
Gay civil unions, otherwise known as "marriage".

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 21, 2004 7:53 AM