Inside red-and-blue America
Part one of five: A look at America's polarized electorate
(Page 3 of 4)
"Americans have always divided along some lines," says Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College. Sometimes, you can plot the divisions on a map. At other times, splits run mainly along class or ideological lines.Skip to next paragraph
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In some ways, the red-blue division of today can be seen as simply the latest version of a fundamental - and age-old - philosophical clash over the role of government. In broad terms, red America is a land of freedom and entrepreneurship, where anyone can get ahead as long as the government doesn't hold them back. Blue America, by contrast, is a land where government should provide equal opportunity, and a safety net, for those who would otherwise be left behind. The differences have largely to do with emphasis, but they lead to diverging views on everything from taxes to privatizing Social Security.
A similarly longstanding tension has to do with foreign affairs and America's role in the world. In red America, patriotism means America has an exceptional role to play; in blue America, there's a stronger emphasis on the global community and international cooperation.
Yet what makes the current split more unusual are the layers of cultural and even moral attitudes that go with it, centering around questions of values. By this measure, red America is a land of right and wrong, where voters believe public and private spheres should be bound by a set of core, often religious, principles. In blue America, morality is more of a personal matter, and voters put a stronger emphasis on tolerance. These differing attitudes have put the two parties on opposite sides of a range of highly charged social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and prayer in schools.
Significantly, one of the biggest partisan gaps now centers on religion: White Americans who attend church regularly are much likelier to be Republicans, and white Americans who rarely or never attend church are much likelier to be Democrats.
Experts trace the roots of this values divide to the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s, and the changes they instituted in family life. In 1970, for example, about two-thirds of Americans families consisted of a married couple. Today, with the rise in divorce and unmarried couples living together, it's less than one-third.
The rise of the religious right during the Reagan years - emphasizing traditional families and morals - put these cultural differences in partisan terms.
But it was during the 1990s, when Bill Clinton became the first baby boomer president, that the culture gap exploded. Hillary Clinton famously ignited controversy in the campaign when she remarked about not staying home and baking cookies. At the 1992 GOP convention, conservative Pat Buchanan declared the US in the throes of a "culture war." That war hit a peak during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which pushed debates over sex and privacy to the fore, and led to President Clinton's impeachment.
The 1990s also seemed to take the cultural divide beyond policy into the broader realm of lifestyle and taste. Today, pundits routinely boil down red vs. blue to things like: barbecue vs. sushi; pickups vs. hybrids; country vs. hip-hop; church vs. spirituality. As John White, a political scientist at Catholic University, puts it: "We live in two parallel universes."
These categories don't fit all voters. But they serve as code for demographic and class differences that increasingly translate to party affiliation: People who live in rural and exurban areas, married voters, and whites are more likely to be Republicans. People in urban (and increasingly suburban) areas, singles, and minorities tend to be Democrats. People with college degrees tilt toward the GOP. Those with graduate degrees are more likely to be Democrats, as are people whose schooling ended in high school.