Divided States of America

The fewer differences there are between the candidates, the more bitter the Republican/Democrat divide seems to become.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

As the presidential election approaches, the American nation seems to be deeply divided between the Republican reds and Democratic blues. But when you examine this schism, it becomes clear that these divisions are not the profound political differences that they first seem to be.

There are few substantial political differences between the candidates. Much has been made of Democratic Senator John Kerry’s ‘opposition’ to the Iraq war. But while Kerry’s hindsight might be 20:20, at the actual time of war there was little evidence that he would have done much different from President George W Bush.

More to the point, it is difficult to imagine that the candidates will do anything very different in Iraq in the months that follow next week’s election. Kerry says that he would like rapidly to reduce the number of US troops serving in Iraq (having previously said he would increase them). But since he has also stressed the need to rapidly train large numbers of Iraqis to police their own nation, it is hard to see how he could deliver US troop withdrawals. Kerry also claims that he will invite more nations to join the coalition in Iraq – but with Westerners now routinely facing kidnapping and potential decapitation, it is unlikely that there are many nations lining up for a piece of the action.

On domestic issues, the similarities between the candidates are even more evident. Dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans will of course claim that it is a matter of profound ideological principle whether or not the USA should be allowed to import drugs from Canada (Kerry thinks we should, Bush thinks it is a nice idea but only possible if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can enforce safety standards). These kinds of divisions are more technical than ideological.

On other health matters, both candidates propose schemes to use federal dollars to increase overall health insurance coverage. Where they differ is on how federal money should be spent. Bush favours tax credits to low-income families while Kerry favours a scheme to reimburse employers.

Both candidates agree that there needs to be some strategy to check runaway medical malpractice suits. Bush favours tort reform by capping damage awards, while Kerry favours restricting the ability of lawyers to file frivolous cases – but these are hardly differences to arouse the passions of a nation.

On the issues that used to define national politics there is now little or no debate. Republicans used to preach the mantra of small government and fiscal responsibility, yet under Bush, government expenditure has reached record proportions and the budget deficit is the largest in American history.

In the past, such a massive expansion of government would have aroused political passions, and become a focus for argument throughout the campaign. In this election, however, the issue has been all but glossed over. Kerry talks about being the candidate of fiscal responsibility, but since it is unclear how he will finance many of his proposals, it is assumed that the budget deficit and high expenditure will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Nor is it simply spending on the military or homeland security that has pushed up the Bush administration’s expenditure. Although they rarely acknowledge it, Republicans have made a fundamental policy shift in recent years. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan coined the phrase, ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”’ – but try telling that to George W.

President Bush’s only significant domestic policy initiative over the past four years has been the No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation has brought the federal government into every public school classroom, from third to eleventh grade. Far from being embarrassed by such a massive expansion in government interference, it is the Bush administration’s one success story. In the next four years Bush plans to expand the scheme. And Kerry’s only criticism of the plan is that it needs more money.

There is no clear ideological principle that divides the parties and the nation. In a recent book entitled Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Stanford University’s Morris Florina notes that American voters aren’t neatly divided into two clear ideological camps. In fact, when you ask Americans about policies – even abortion – you see a big group of moderates.

Yet the close presidential race is becoming more and more bitter by the day. The animosity between the two camps is tangible, with both sides now using distortion and fear as their main political weapons. Republicans launched an ad showing wolves in a forest encircling an unknown prey, with a voiceover telling us that Democrats voted to cut intelligence funding after ‘the first terrorist attack on America’. Viewers are left to figure out for themselves that this refers to the attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993 when six people were killed, rather than the devastation of 9/11 (1).

Not to be outdone, Kerry has cranked up his own fear tactics. He has used his stump speech to claim that the only certain way to stop the draft is to vote Democrat – even though President Bush has never once proposed or supported a draft.

While policy differences have become less clear in American politics, politics has become more partisan. In 1972, 46 per cent of voters believed that there were important differences between the parties; by 2000, this had risen to 70 per cent of the electorate. In 1976 nearly half of the states had one senator from one party and their second senator from another – but by 2000, this had fallen to only 28 per cent of states (2).

Republicans are apparently becoming more entrenched in their support for Republicans, and Democrats more entrenched in their support for Democrats. These partisan divisions correspond to different lifestyles. While Republican voters are now more firmly church-going and gun-owning than ever before, Democrats are more concentrated among single people and urban dwellers. And on election night the electoral map is likely to show that coastal America is largely blue, while the centre is overwhelmingly red.

Today being a Democrat or a Republican is a cultural or even an emotional matter, rather than a political decision. As a Democrat, you are identifying yourself as more urbane, thoughtful, international and sophisticated than your perceived Republican opponents. On the other hand, being a Republican means identifying yourself as strong, self-reliant, capable and, as the Republican governor of California Arnie Schwarzenegger would say, not a ‘girlie man’.

These kinds of emotional divisions within the country are difficult to penetrate. The partisanship between Democrats and Republicans is now more like the divisions between Red Sox and Yankees baseball fans. Deeply held, passionately clung to, but ultimately pretty irrational. Whoever is the victor it is hard to see how either candidate will have the moral authority to bridge such divisions.

Read on:

spiked-issue: US election 2004

(1) See the George W Bush website

(2) From the ‘The Blame game’, Bill Bishop, Austin American Statesman, 24 October 24 2004

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Topics Politics


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