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Jonathan Rauch’s "Bipolar Disorder"

Hugh Hewitt has done us the favor of posting the entirety of Jonathan Rauch’s "Bipolar Disorder" from this month’s Atlantic Monthly, an article otherwise available in full only to subscribers.

Rauch’s big point is that the red/blue culture war analysis of the current stste of American political life is overdrawn. The truth, he argues, is closer to what Alan Wolfe says he finds in One Nation, After All:

In 1998 Alan Wolfe, a sociologist at Boston College, said yes. For his book One Nation, After All, Wolfe studied eight suburban communities. He found a battle over values, but it was fought not so much between groups as within individuals: "The two sides presumed to be fighting the culture war do not so much represent a divide between one group of Americans and another as a divide between sets of values important to everyone." Intellectuals and partisans may line up at the extremes, but ordinary people mix and match values from competing menus. Wolfe found his subjects to be "above all moderate," "reluctant to pass judgment," and "tolerant to a fault." Because opinion polls are designed to elicit and categorize disagreements, he concluded, they tend to obscure and even distort this reality.

Along with political scientist Morris Fiorina, Rauch and Wolfe both seem to take comfort in the perception that most Americans are "in the middle":

Red-state residents and blue-state residents agreed on one other point: most of them regarded themselves as centrists. Blue residents tipped toward describing themselves as liberal, and red residents tipped toward seeing themselves as conservative; but, Fiorina writes, "the distributions of self-placements in the red and blue states are very similar—both are centered over the ’moderate’ or ’middle-of-the-road’ position, whether we consider all residents or just voters." By the same token, people in both sets of states agreed, by very similar margins, that the Democratic Party was to their left and the Republican Party to their right. "In both red and blue states," Fiorina concludes, "a solid majority of voters see themselves as positioned between two relatively extreme parties."

The perception of the culture war comes, then, not from "facts on the ground" (most of us and most places are some shade of purple), but rather from the polarization of American politicians and political parties. Here Rauch rehearses the rather familiar story of the unintended consequences of reform, which has led both to candidate-centered politics conducted by professional politicians and to political parties closer to "ideological clubs" than to loose coalitions of regional interests. The computer-assisted practice of redistricting has further produced districts that are for the most part essentially "safe" for one party or the other, reducing the incentive to compromise. Even if they are careerists rather than ideologues, our politicians have little need to move toward the center of the political spectrum, which is where Rauch, and many of the social and political scientists he cites, argue the voters are.

But he ends up putting a somewhat happy face on this: if anyone is discontented, better it should be the moderates than the extremists, who have been coopted by their presence in political parties:

On balance it is probably healthier if religious conservatives are inside the political system than if they operate as insurgents and provocateurs on the outside. Better they should write anti-abortion planks into the Republican platform than bomb abortion clinics. The same is true of the left. The clashes over civil rights and Vietnam turned into street warfare partly because activists were locked out by their own party establishments and had to fight, literally, to be heard. When Michael Moore receives a hero’s welcome at the Democratic National Convention, we moderates grumble; but if the parties engage fierce activists while marginalizing tame centrists, that is probably better for the social peace than the other way around.

I’m suspicious of the Rauch/Wolfe/Fiorina line of argument, not because I don’t think that it is an apt description of the current state of much of American public opinion, but because I’m not confident of its stability. Here’s why. What Rauch calls moderation, I’m tempted to call confusion. We Americans are not notably deep thinkers, which some have celebrated as a good thing. (I recall Irving Kristol making such an argument in

Two Cheers for Capitalism.) When we mix and match our political opinions from the menus offered by political parties and public intellectuals, we sometimes choose opinions that are ultimately inconsistent with one another. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," someone once said. (I’m being cute here, not ignorant.) If "our" moderation is in fact the confused holding of ultimately contradictory opinions, then sooner or later one or another tendency is likely to prevail. (This outcome was indeed the hope of those liberal rationalists who availed themselves of religious language. They hoped to transform religion into an instrument of liberal rationalism, which seems to have been the fate of some of the mainline denominations.) Our current "moderation," in other words, may be a harbinger of a deeper immoderation down the road.

To state my point one last way: it isn’t clear to me that our moderation is either a moderation of principle or a moderation of non-ideological common sense. The latter two are at least potentially stable. A moderation born of confusion and ad hoc choices is not. Because our moderation is, I think, unstable and because I fear the gravitational pull of one of its elements, I’ll continue to put my shoulder to the wheel on one side, hoping in the end to lay the foundation for something more closely resembling a moderation of principle or common sense.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Great point.

I wonder: could one not make the case that as the MSM, with its enormous reach and influence, tilts so strongly toward the Left side of the argument, yet Americans vote and poll in the middle, might Americans’ natural position be significantly to the Right?

In other words, as alternative media have grown, conservatism has become a solid winner at the polls. Even in the heydey of media monopoly in the late 60s/early 70s, Nixon was elected twice. Perhaps there was something to his "Silent Majority"?

In any case, great blog. I’m linking to you and will add you to my daily reads.

I don’t know if I buy the argument that most people are in the middle. I think that if you ask the person on the other side of the divide, they’d call you/me/whomever extreme. I consider myself as moderate-right. Most Dems I know were true-believers in Michael Moore. I consider that extreme-left, or at least extreme-anti-US. Those Dems whom I know probably think I’m extreme-right myself, even if I don’t consider myself to be.

You’re absolutely right both in your suspicion of the truth nature of our "moderation" and in the fact that it is inherently unstable.
Just go out and ask a dozen people who are not particularly partisan what their opinions are on a variety of major political issues. You’ll find that they are full of inherent contradiction stemming from the fact that they simply haven’t thought things through thoroughly enough to see how they relate to each other.

Excellent Point! When we mix and match our political opinions from the menus offered by political parties and public intellectuals, we sometimes choose opinions that are ultimately inconsistent with one another. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," someone once said. (I’m being cute here, not ignorant.) If "our" moderation is in fact the confused holding of ultimately contradictory opinions, then sooner or later one or another tendency is likely to prevail. I consider that extreme-left, or at least extreme-anti-US. Those Dems whom I know probably think I’m extreme-right myself, even if I don’t consider myself to be.

Sydney

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