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Marketing Polarization For Fun & Votes

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.


President Bush last week summoned a gang of friendly columnists for an Oval Office chat. According to David Brooks of The New York Times, one interesting thing the president said was that, "I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture." Brooks explains that the president was referring "to his campaign against the instant gratifications of the 1960's counterculture."

Now, if you could take Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine to George W. Bush's first presidential campaign in 2000, you wouldn't hear a whole lot of talk about changing culture. Mr. Bush wasn't a culture warrior back then. He was a "uniter, and not a divider" who bragged on his good relations with Texas Democrats to show how he could get things done in Washington. Character was a bigger buzzword than culture.

According to Thomas B. Edsall's new book, "Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power" (note: could we please just have one work of non-fiction without a colon in the title?), Bush deliberately morphed into a cultural polarizer in the time between the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore and Inauguration Day 2001.

The direct cause of this reinvention was a memo by a campaign pollster named Mathew Dowd. Analyzing the 2000 returns, Dowd concluded, according to Edsall, "that the center of the electorate had collapsed." There were too few moderates, independents or non-partisans who voted anymore to matter. Voters were polarized. Even voters who didn't think they were partisan or ideological unwittingly identified with a political "brand." Dowd convinced his masters, Karl Rove and George Bush, that the way to both campaign and to govern was to cultivate polarization with wit and wile — to become a divider, and not a uniter.

Edsall seems to fully embrace Dowd's diagnosis, which, in fact, is the standard uber-narrative of American politics and society at this point in history: the country is polarized — red and blue, "two Americas," and 50/50 America. This is culture war and you better know whose side you are on.

Despite its canonization in conventional wisdom, polarization is a theory, not a fact.

It's a theory I don't fully buy, primarily because I've been convinced otherwise by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina. In "Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America," Fiorina argues that the political elites are indeed polarized, to the point of rabidity. But a great swath of the non-politicized, regular population isn't polarized, isn't partisan (indeed is anti-partisan) and has a rather similar and even tolerant view of the basic civic values. They are just given polarized choices in the voting booth.

Despite this complaint, if I had to give a Martian one book to read about American politics right now, it would be "Building Red America."

Regardless of the grand metaphysics of polarization, Edsall demonstrates how Republican strategy has cultivated and then preyed on polarization since Richard Nixon learned tricks from George Wallace in the election of 1968. Edsall has been tenaciously tracking that strategy since at least the early 1980s and is an expert on the mechanics of partisan culture war and the government policies it fosters. (Full disclosure: Edsall is a friend.)

In this book, Edsall focuses on the accomplishments of what he sees as a very coherent, deliberate and enduring Republican strategy. He argues that their strategic starting point is simple; go where the money and power are in America — big business. This is where the Republican Party acquires its operating funds and where Republicans in government distribute benefits (tax relief, eased regulation, cooperative judges and targeted spending). That work is facilitated by a class of political professionals – lobbyists, campaign technologists, trade association executives, lawyers – who do the heavy-lifting in fund-raising, campaigning and writing legislation.

While these pro-business and anti-tax policies appeal to many voters, the second prong of the GOP strategy is an aggressive social conservatism that motivates religious and culturally conservative voters. Edsall is a connoisseur of wedge issues — gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, abstinence and decadent entertainment – and how Republicans do strategic jujitsu on what upscale liberals cherish most, the sexual and civil rights movements. (For example, he points out that while the divorce rate is higher in red areas than blue ones, social conservatives focus on gay marriage, which affects very few people, rather than scold their own flocks.)

The GOP cultural agenda doesn't substantially alienate or threaten the Republican corporate corps. Most importantly, it splits Democratic constituencies – intentionally, effectively and repeatedly.

There is nothing especially surprising in Edsall's diagnosis of what ails the Democrats. But unlike many who offer how-to advice to the Democrats, Edsall is unsparing about a party he says is controlled by wealthy, urban elite, culturally hyper-modern limousine liberals, but that captures its votes and aims its rhetoric at society's poorest. Political authenticity, to say the very least, is scarce in this charade. My favorite recent example is a recent op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal passionately decrying growing income inequality by Steven Rattner, one of the most high-profile investment bankers of his generation who is widely seen to be lobbying to be a Democratic Secretary of the Treasury.

I think Edsall may be inclined to underestimate how deep splits in the Republican camp have become under George Bush, not just because of Iraq but because he has in fact expanded government, added entitlement programs (prescription drugs) and bloated deficits. But I don't disagree with his conclusion: Republicans have not achieved a true realignment and are far away from enacting the bulk of their agenda, but they are likely to win more elections than Democrats for the foreseeable future.

Of course, if it is John McCain who wins the next presidential election, it may not be due to the Nixon/Atwater/Dowd/Rove/Bush II polarization strategy but instead to an old-fashioned, "grab the center" strategy.

What I don't understand are Edsall's Big Conclusions: that the current two-party arrangement fails to "represent effectively the competing interests of its citizenry", it is an arrangement "ripe for takeover" because there is a "huge vacuum."

What's the vacuum exactly? Edsall seems to buy the Dowd theory that there is no real independent, unaligned middle. So if there is no suffering silent majority, if the electorate and elected are both polarized, who exactly isn't well-represented by the current system? The losers, i.e. the Democrats? What exactly is ripe for takeover?

I am guessing that Edsall believes there is an opportunity for a communitarian, non-snobby Democratic strategy that motivates people in the middle and lower links of the economic food chain about economic issues (but not tax cuts) and not just gay marriage, social permissiveness and Swift Boats.

I would argue that there is a great horde of Americans who are sensibly repelled not just by the two-party system but also by the culture war mentality that infects so much public noise – talk radio, news argu-tainment, the political blogosphere, academic debate and punditry. This is a "huge vacuum" and it cannot and will not be filled by either party in a thoroughly corrupt two-party system interested above all in its own self-preservation. Perhaps the best voters can hope for is a divided government that can't get too much done and thus do too much damage. And we can always hope for a third party.

But I'm still buying this book for all my Martian friends.


Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington, D.C.

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By Dick Meyer

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