Uniting America: Restoring the Vital Center to American Democracy

Uniting America: Restoring the Vital Center to American Democracy

by Norton Garfinkle

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In Uniting America, some of the country’s most prominent social thinkers—among them Francis Fukuyama, Daniel Yankelovich, Amitai Etzioni, Alan Wolfe, Uwe Reinhardt, and Thomas E. Mann—reject the myth of polarization. On topics ranging from the war on terrorism, health care, economic policy, and Social Security to religion, diversity, and


In Uniting America, some of the country’s most prominent social thinkers—among them Francis Fukuyama, Daniel Yankelovich, Amitai Etzioni, Alan Wolfe, Uwe Reinhardt, and Thomas E. Mann—reject the myth of polarization. On topics ranging from the war on terrorism, health care, economic policy, and Social Security to religion, diversity, and immigration, the authors argue that there are sensible, centrist solutions that are more in keeping with prevailing public sentiment and that would better serve the national interest. On issue after issue, the authors show how the conventional framing of the debate in Washington has misled Americans, creating a series of false dilemmas and forcing choices between two extremes—at the expense of more balanced and pragmatic policy solutions based on enduring American values.
Uniting America provides a blueprint for a fresh approach to American politics, grounded in moderation, pragmatism, and the shared values that unite Americans.

Editorial Reviews

Jeffrey Rosen

"In a polarized age, it is increasingly hard for moderate voices to find a platform. These essays from the thoughtful center help us to understand the sources of this democratic challenge, and also help to provide a remedy. A
welcome and illuminating collection."—Jeffrey Rosen, author of The Unwanted Gaze and The Naked Crowd

Morris P. Fiorina

"Americans tired of both Republican and Democratic bromides will find much to think about in this collection of centrist thinking."—Morris P. Fiorina, author of Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America

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Yale University Press
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The Future of American Democracy Series
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Uniting America
Restoring the Vital Center to American Democracy

Yale University Press
Copyright © 2005 Norton Garfinkle and Daniel Yankelovich
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10856-9

Chapter One
Overcoming Polarization:

The New Social Morality

Daniel Yankelovich

Today's political thinking is colored in tones of red and blue. In the 2000 election, the two coasts and a few states in the Great Lakes region voted Democratic (blue), and the heartland, the South, and most of the Southwest voted Republican (red). In the 2004 election, the red/blue division proved even starker-a sea of red edged in blue. The red/blue theory argues that our nation is being transformed from unity to divisiveness, from pragmatism to ideology, from comity to bitter partisanship, from willingness to compromise to unyielding rigidity. According to the red/blue polarization thesis, we have evolved into a 50-50 nation-50 percent liberal and 50 percent conservative. There is no in-between.

This red/blue dichotomy has become very popular among pundits. Because it is understandable and offers an explanation for the climate of bitterness and frustration in Washington, the red/blue paradigm dominates today's political discourse.

Are we, in fact, becoming a house divided against itself? If this were so, it would signify a radical transformation of our unique American democracy. A careful look at the data, however, shows a far different picture from that presented by the polarization pundits. Opinion polls document too modest a shift in general public attitudes to justify the image of a nation irreconcilably divided; this misleading image masks what is really going on.


To some extent, the polarization of politicians in Washington reflects a secular trend that has evolved over forty years. It traces back to President Lyndon Johnson's determination, following JFK's assassination in 1963, to pass civil rights legislation even at the cost of losing the "solid South" for the Democratic Party. Between then and now, America's two major political parties have gradually moved away from the "Big Tent" concept whereby each party included liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Our two political parties in Washington are now beginning to look more like European-type parties consisting of people who share the same ideological orientation. The widening spread in Congress between Republicans and Democrats on key issues may be more a matter of like-minded Southerners changing party affiliations than the majority of Americans growing more polarized in their attitudes.

Accentuating this long-term trend in party affiliation is a troubled and anxious public mood relating specifically to the presidency of George W. Bush. George Bush won the presidency in 2000 by promising to be "a uniter, not a divider," to practice "compassionate conservatism," and to pursue a "humble" foreign policy. These promises of a modest and unifying presidency resonated with the electorate. As a candidate, Mr. Bush positioned himself rhetorically close to the center of gravity of American politics-slightly right of center. These "unifying" promises were particularly appropriate for a new president who actually lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote only narrowly, something that has happened only three times before in our history.

It did not take long, however, for the Bush administration to change direction. President Bush has not governed as a centrist. He has governed more from the right than he indicated he would in the 2000 election. He has embraced an aggressive and highly assertive foreign policy, certainly not the humble one that he had advocated in the 2000 campaign. And he has proven himself a divider, not a uniter. He has largely failed to follow through on his promise of compassionate conservative policies for less-well-off Americans. He has catered to the right wing of his party, ignoring the priorities of moderates and liberals. Continuing in this vein, Bush built his victory in the 2004 election on a strategy of maximizing Republican turnout by energizing his conservative base-rather than moving to the political center to capture swing and independent voters, as most successful presidential candidates and incumbents have done in the past. The effect has been to intensify the country's sense of division.

The cultural issues roiling the nation are of a quite different character. Far from being a transitory move, they involve a long-term struggle over the direction of our future social morality.

Traditionally, while the law marks the border between criminal and noncriminal behavior, social norms mark the border between right and wrong. In most societies, the layer of law is relatively thin, while the layer of social morality that sets the standards for how people and institutions should act is much thicker. This largely uncodified body of moral norms is essential to the healthy functioning of society.

One unintended consequence of the American "cultural revolution" of the 1960s was that it caused this thick layer of social morality to erode. The emphasis on individualism-both culturally and economically-has led to the belief in a "live and let live" society bound only by legal requirements. People now unblushingly announce: "I didn't break the law-that proves I didn't do anything wrong." In earlier eras of American life, such a statement would have been met with incredulity. "What," people would ask, "does the law have to do with right and wrong?" Today there are numerous examples of wrong conduct being defined solely on the basis of their legality, and the most notorious of them are found in the business world (Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, HealthSouth, to name a few). But other institutions have fared badly as well, including the American Red Cross and the highly venerated Catholic Church. All of a sudden, what is called the "corporate culture" of any institution acts as if it can ignore social morality in favor of a self-serving code of conduct so long as it stays within legal boundaries.

But all is not lost. The majority of Americans have not become morally obtuse. In private life, most Americans maintain a strong sense of right and wrong for themselves and their families.


How polarized are we? Much of the recent discussion of political polarization originated in November 2003, when the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a new survey. The Pew Center findings about the political attitudes of Republican and Democrat partisans were summarized in a provocative headline: "Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized."

The media immediately picked up the polarization theme. "Across a range of domestic and foreign-policy issues," reported the Associated Press, "the gap between the views of Republican and Democratic partisans is wider than at any point in the last 16 years, a major new survey has found." A spate of such newspaper and magazine stories on the Pew survey heralded a new age of polarization. And the pundits applied the polarization theme to the public at large.

While the Pew poll numbers did show some widening of the divide between partisan Democrats and partisan Republicans-in clear contrast to the unusual sense of national unity that had prevailed in the months immediately following September 11-the new divisions did not polarize the general public as described in many media stories.

A subsequent Pew study released in January 2004 helped clarify the true extent of polarization in the general public (see Table 1.1). Using a 6-point scale, Pew asked respondents to rank themselves on the political spectrum (a score of 1 represented highly conservative and a score of 6 represented highly liberal). The largest two groupings in the Pew scale continued to be the moderates: the "3's" and the "4's," those who rate themselves as moderate conservatives or moderate liberals. Since Newsweek and other polling organizations have used the same ranking scale for two decades, Pew was able to get a good handle on the twenty-year trend in popular ideological orientation. In the most recent Pew study, the moderates accounted for 45 percent of the electorate in 2003 compared to 49-50 percent of Americans in the 1980s and 1990s-hardly an earth-shattering change.

To be sure, the constant barrage of polarizing media commentary and Inside-the-Beltway squabbling-combined with the divisive nature of the 2004 election-did have some impact on general public opinion. In the immediate wake of the election, polling by Public Agenda found voters less in a mood for compromise. In 2000, fully 84 percent of Americans thought that the two parties should set aside their convictions to get results in government. After the 2004 election, that majority had dropped to 74 percent. Among regular churchgoers the decline was slightly larger, from 82 percent to 63 percent. Still, even after the contentious 2004 election, sizeable majorities of both regular churchgoers and Americans as a whole remained committed to the principle of compromise.

Polling data on a variety of other issues in our supposed age of polarization show a similar pattern. While there may be a sharper division today on specific issues between the most committed partisans on the two far ends of the political spectrum, the largest group of voters-a majority or near-majority-still cleaves to the center when given the option to do so.

Abortion is a classic example of what is characterized by pundits as a "50-50" issue, yet polls suggest that the majority of voters seek a centrist position on this divisive question as on most issues. In April 2004, a Fox News/ Opinion Dynamics Poll showed Americans split evenly between pro-choice (44 percent) and pro-life (47 percent) positions on abortion-with 6 percent saying they believed in some mixture of the two, while 3 percent said they did not know. But given a choice of taking one of the two extreme positions or occupying a middle ground on abortion, most Americans gravitate to the center. In October 2003, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked Americans whether abortion should be legal under any circumstances, legal under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances. A majority (55 percent) picked the middle option-legal under certain circumstances-while just 26 percent said abortion should always be legal and 17 percent said it should always be illegal.

We see a similar pattern with same-sex marriage. Much was made of the fact that in exit polling during the 2004 election, a small plurality (22 percent) cited "moral values" as the most important issue on which they voted. It was thought that Republican focus on the gay marriage controversy-particularly among evangelical Christians-had divided the nation based on this hot-button issue. But a closer look at data from the same exit poll suggests that differences on the issue were not as severe as media commentary suggested. A total of 60 percent of voters favored extending rights to same-sex couples (35 percent were in favor of civil unions and 25 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage). Even on such contentious social issues, there is often more underlying agreement than appears on the surface.

Not only does evidence from polls fail to fit the 50-50 polarization mold; there is substantial evidence that the public's allegiances on many issues are not fully formulated and are susceptible to change based on new information and new circumstances. Indeed, there has always been much more dynamism and fluidity in American public opinion than the polarization model implies.

Far from being consistently divided down the middle on critical issues, in 2003 and 2004 the public underwent major shifts in attitude on some key questions. For example, in the thirteen months between the climax of the initial Iraq military campaign and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, public support for the war in Iraq plummeted. The percentage of those saying it was worth going to war in Iraq fell from a high of 73 percent in April 2003 to 45 percent in May 2004, while the percentage saying it was not worth it rose from 23 percent to 55 percent, according to the Gallup Poll. In the same period, President Bush's approval rating fell from a high of 71 percent to 45 percent, according to Gallup.

Such shifts in opinion do not support the notion that 50 percent of the electorate consistently sided with Bush on all important issues while 50 percent opposed him. The poll data indicate that many in the public change their opinions as developments unfold, in response to more or less pragmatic judgments about events.


This is not to deny that there are two very different cultural ideas propounded by those activists who seek to preserve or restore "traditional values" and those who espouse a more relativistic or "progressive" moral outlook deriving from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. These two moral poles still exert a magnetic influence on most Americans. But neither can all citizens be neatly segregated into one camp or another. Most Americans feel the pull of both moral positions at different times and on different questions. It is hard to color the cultural attitudes of most individual Americans as wholly "blue" or wholly "red." Most of us today have a mixture of "blue" and "red" values.

In particular, our culture has been working hard to resolve a crucial dilemma. The cultural revolution of the 1960s-resulting from the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, the drive for women's equality, and the major entry of women into the workplace-has bred a culture with a far greater level of social tolerance on issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and lifestyle than the America of earlier eras. At the same time, the rise in social tolerance has gone hand in hand with a weakening of social morality.

In almost any society, social morality plays a critical role in guiding and restraining individual conduct. Indeed, in governing most day-to-day conduct, social morality is normally more important than the law. The law for the most part prescribes minimalist standards of conduct-one can act legally and still not act ethically or civilly or politely. Social morality consists of that collection of social norms that, in effect, sits atop the law and fills in the blanks necessarily left by the law, which cannot provide a complete blueprint for how individuals should behave. The relationship is illustrated in Figure 1.1.

In a healthy society, social morality is comparatively "thick." One consequence of the cultural revolution of the 1960s was a weakening, a thinning out, of social morality. The result is that the standards of right and wrong are reduced to the minimalist test of whether a particular action is legal. This is an unthinkable degradation of standards from the America of earlier periods, when society assumed that an individual's moral responsibilities encompassed far more than merely observing the law. The decline in social morality and the rise of legalism are illustrated in Figure 1.2.

This decline has had a real impact on the quality of life in the United States. It has played a role in the economically costly increase in ethical scandals that has plagued American corporate life. It is manifest in the incivility displayed so frequently in public places-aggressive driving, obscenity, violent public confrontations, and so on. It has been a central factor in the proliferation of crudeness and excessive violence and sex in popular culture and entertainment. In general, Americans are unhappy about the decline in social morality, and opinion polls consistently register a public desire for a restoration of moral values in American life.

The dilemma American culture has faced is this: How does one reconstruct absolute social morality without sacrificing the tolerance gained as a result of the 1960s cultural revolution? This is the real struggle going on in American life, hidden beneath the distorted image of a politically polarized America.


What is encouraging is that Americans today seem to be moving, however gradually and uncomfortably, toward a solution to this challenge. That is, today we can detect the emergence of a set of values that constitute an emerging new social morality. This social morality has elements of both traditional and progressive outlooks-indeed, it seems to seek a careful balance between the older requirements of absolute values and the newer demands of tolerance of individual differences. (Continues...)

Excerpted from Uniting America Copyright © 2005 by Norton Garfinkle and Daniel Yankelovich. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Jeffrey Rosen
In a polarized age, it is increasingly hard for moderate voices to find a platform. These essays from the thoughtful center help us to understand the sources of this democratic challenge, and also help to provide a remedy. A

welcome and illuminating collection.—Jeffrey Rosen, author of The Unwanted Gaze and The Naked Crowd

Morris P. Fiorina
Americans tired of both Republican and Democratic bromides will find much to think about in this collection of centrist thinking.—Morris P. Fiorina, author of Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America

Meet the Author

Norton Garfinkle is chairman of The Future of American Democracy Foundation and former chairman of the George Washington University Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. Daniel Yankelovich is chairman and co-founder of the organizations Public Agenda, DYG, and Viewpoint Learning.

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