Marketing Polarization For Fun & Votes

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This commentary was written by'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.