The notion that Americans are a deeply divided polity is not a new one. Much has been written about the United States’ long history of racial and regional divisions, or the periodic and temporary flare-ups that have occurred between native-born Americans and "suspect" ethnic immigrants. But a new study, released in Washington last week, identifies a profound new polarization in U.S. society that has serious implications for how Americans ultimately define both themselves and their role in the world.
The study, entitled "Two Nations: Red and Blue", was the collaborative effort of Brad O’Leary, a prominent American conservative writer, professor John Kenneth White, a cultural historian, and pollster John Zogby.
The authors studied and compared the political and cultural views of Americans who live in the 30 states that voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential elections with those in the, fewer but more populous 20 states and the District of Columbia that voted for Al Gore. Calling the Bush states "Red" and the Gore states "Blue" they found that these "Red and Blue" state Americans were different demographically and ideologically. For example, the "Blue" (Gore) states had fewer older residents, gun owners, attendees at religious services, investors, Protestants, military veterans, rural dwellers and married voters. On the other hand, the "Red" (Bush) states had fewer younger voters, college graduates, Catholics and Jews, and union members.
These demographic differences produced not only different voting behaviors, but also different ways of defining what it means to be an American and different attitudes towards what ought to be U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
While the divisions between these two groups were in clear evidence in the fractious national election of 2000, they remain just as real today. In fact, if the 2004 election were held today, Bush would win handily in the "Red States" by a 10% margin. But a Democrat would win in the "Blue States" by an 11% margin.
But the differences between the two groups are not only found in their voting patterns but in their views as well. "Red State" voters, for example, tend to believe that moral values are "absolute" while "Blue State" voters were more inclined to accept "a live and let-live" moral philosophy. This, of course, yields vastly different views on the many key social issues being debated in the United States today. "Red State" voters, therefore, are less likely to than "Blue State" voters to support abortion rights and what are called civil unions.
At the same time, according to the study, "Red State" voters also favored a strong and aggressive unilateral military response to 9/11, while "Blue State" voters supported a more multilateral foreign policy working through the United Nations. For example, when asked whether the United States should remain in Iraq until a stable government is formed there or whether the United States should move to bring U.S. forces home in favor of a multilateral peace-keeping effort, a strong majority of "Red State" voters favored the former approach, while the majority of "Blue State" voters favored a U.S. handoff to the UN and Iraq.
When asked, overall, to rate President Bush’s job performance, a sizable majority of "Red State" voters approved of the President’s efforts, while voters in "Blue States" strongly disapproved. From this, the "Two Nations" authors concluded that the U.S. electorate is, in many ways, back to where it was in 2000 when President Bush began his tenure in office on the heels of a controversial Supreme Court decision. It is true that popular support for the President’s initial response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks gave him a tremendous boost in legitimacy. But with four in five U.S. voters approving of his presidency in late 2001, Bush embarked on an aggressive international and domestic agenda that has, it appears, delighted "Red State" voters, while frustrating many "Blue State" constituents. The result has been that the President’s ratings are now back to their 2000 levels. Even though the capture of Saddam Hussein gave Bush a slight boost in national polls, a closer look reveals that those Americans who now approve of his Iraq war performance are largely those who live in "Red States". Meanwhile the President’s ratings in the "Blue States" have not improved.
In fact, the alienation of "Blue State" Americans is so deep that a remarkably high 44% of voters in those states go so far as to agree with the proposition that the Bush presidency is "not legitimate" but was "stolen" in 2000.
The implications of this persistent and deep division will no doubt shape the 2004 contest for the presidency. Looking closely at the way the campaign is shaping up at this stage, it appears that both the White House and the campaigns of leading Democrats, like former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Congressman Richard Gephardt, are basing their efforts largely on a "Red State-Blue State" strategy. That is to say, both sides are largely promoting efforts that appeal to their supporters in the already polarized electorate.
But there are other important issues that can also be considered in this context as well. Of special concern, of course, is the current U.S. engagement in Iraq. With the American electorate as divided as the "Two Nations" study demonstrates, one must ask whether or not the current Bush Administration foreign policy of unilateral preemption is sustainable over the long haul. It must be asked whether or not the United States’ engagement in nation-building exercises that require long-term commitments of U.S. military and financial resources are advisable under the circumstances where the electorate is divided over the wisdom of such policy?
It may very well be that the most serious flaw in President Bush’s approach to the war in Iraq and the U.S.’s involvement in nation building in that country, was not only that his Administration did not seek broad international support for this venture, but that it did not work to build the necessary national consensus across the ideological divide that characterizes the American body politic today.