Inside red-and-blue America

Part one of five: A look at America's polarized electorate

Of all the forces governing this campaign, the greatest may not be the candidates themselves or the jolt of external events but something far more basic: The split personality of the US electorate. The election is being played out on a political landscape more sharply - and evenly - divided than any other in generations.

The "red-blue divide," as it has come to be known, entered public consciousness in the 2000 election, when the nation split down the middle between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The color-coded electoral map told a blunt geographic tale: Mr. Bush's red swept across the South, the Great Plains, and most of the Rocky Mountain West, while Mr. Gore's blue covered almost all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. The dramatic results recast the United States as a bipolar, "50-50 nation," in which where one lived translated into differences in culture, values - and partisan allegiance.

Four years later, after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a protracted economic pause, and a controversial war, the nation's political divide has not only stuck but, if anything, seems to be intensifying.

Bush, the first president in 112 years to win the electoral but not the popular vote, now stands as one of the most polarizing presidents in history. Republicans grant him enthusiastic approval, while Democrats express an equally strong loathing. Although few observers expect this fall's election to come down to just 537 votes in Florida, Bush and Sen. John Kerry have been running virtually neck-and-neck from the beginning of the campaign. Some pollsters believe each candidate already has a lock on as much as 47 percent of the vote - leaving the outcome up to an unusually small number of swing voters in a small number of swing states.

The same dynamic holds true in Congress. Republicans now control both houses of Congress, but by narrow margins and with deepening partisan rifts that have kept both parties in a confrontational posture. At the state level, too, power hangs in the balance. Nearly half the states could easily see a branch of their legislatures change control this fall.

And in a broader sense, the national discourse seems unusually inflamed. Accusations of media bias are on the rise, even as left and right-wing polemicists, from Michael Moore to Bill O'Reilly, enjoy growing success. Voters speak of being unable to discuss politics with members of the opposite party, and many are seeking out like-minded environments - from news they watch to the neighborhoods where they live.

In coming days, the Monitor will explore the red-blue phenomenon in depth. Following this overview on the nature of the divide, and the forces propelling the split, stories will trace the evolution of one red state (Georgia) and one blue (Illinois). A fourth piece will explore how the media is shaping - and being shaped by - the divide. A fifth will look at a "purple" state - Pennsylvania - where the red-blue tug of war has not yet been won, and consider how the stalemate might be broken.

Like most trends in politics, the red-blue divide has been oversimplified and overstated. Skeptics note that a more accurate electoral map - taking margins of victory into account - would show the nation colored not red and blue but various hues of purple. And many Americans don't stand that far apart on the issues. While activists on both sides of the political spectrum may sharply disagree on everything from taxes to terrorism, polls show most voters see themselves as moderates.

But if voters often lean instinctively toward the middle, they are also sorting themselves into parties that are growing more ideologically pure, which is having a polarizing effect.

Ideological segregation

Significantly, the correlation between ideology and party has been growing much stronger in recent years. Surveys show an uptick in people choosing to be Republicans or Democrats (rather than independent) and in straight-ticket voting. Self-identified conservatives are more and more likely to be Republicans, while self-identified liberals are now almost exclusively Democrats.

At the same time, experts see greater geographic segregation by party. Compared with 30 or 40 years ago, more states now tilt strongly toward one party or the other. Most notably, the biggest states - California, New York, and Texas - have all transformed in recent decades from electoral battlegrounds into partisan bastions.

Migration and realignment

The polarized electoral map can be traced in part to demographics, with migration and immigration changing the makeup of many states. But it's also the result of ideological realignment, as voters in traditionally conservative states have gravitated toward the Republican Party and voters in liberal states toward the Democrats. "It's not that the voters in Texas have become more conservative," explains Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. "They were always pretty conservative. But now they're Republicans."

The region most dramatically transformed is the South. There, conservative whites have all but abandoned the Democrats, propelled initially by civil rights issues and later by the GOP's growing emphasis on conservative cultural values. Once known as the Democrats' "Solid South," it's now a Bush stronghold. It has helped Republicans go head-to-head with Democrats nationally, after more than half a century of Democratic dominance.

But the South isn't the only region that's changed. There's been a smaller but significant counter-movement in other areas - particularly the Northeast - away from the GOP.

Analysts say the forces propelling this realignment are both top-down and bottom-up. Voters are clearly taking cues from party leaders, who, since the days of Ronald Reagan have become more pointedly ideological. But, as Professor Abramowitz points out, "it's a mutually reinforcing process, because the leaders also respond to the voters - especially if you think about what a Republican or Democratic primary electorate looks like."

At the congressional level, so many districts are now gerrymandered to be safe for one party that the election is essentially determined by the primary contest. One result: candidates tailor their messages to primary voters, who tend to have stronger ideological views.

Technology, too, has played a key role. The parties have been assembling databases to target voters with ads that are ever more tightly honed. It's an effective way of motivating voters, perhaps, but limits voter exposure to a broader range of issues and debate.

The shift is also strategic. With fewer swing voters to compete over - and a lower turnout rate among those voters, anyway - winning elections is now increasingly about generating higher and higher turnout in each party's base. This has led the parties to emphasize more ideological wedge issues, inflaming activists on both sides but leaving many moderate voters feeling unhappy with their choices.

The passion factor

Today's red-blue phenomenon is hardly the most intense political division the nation has seen. The Republic's founding, for example, pitted Federalists against Anti-Federalists in a bitter rivalry that formed a backdrop for the tragic duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The issue of slavery, of course, cleaved the nation into parties representing North and South.

"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.

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.

The values divide

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.

Taken together, these layers of differences are fostering a partisan divide that increasingly seems to be about identity. Voters are aligning with the party they feel best projects the values they want to pass on to their children. Moreover, each side seems to feel their identity is under threat, a perception the campaigns are subtly encouraging. Kerry's slogan, "Let America be America Again," evokes a sense of lost national greatness, while Bush's "Steady Leadership in a Time of Change" reinforces the image of a president guarding the nation against dangerous and corrosive forces.

This dimension has generated a tribal, us-versus-them attitude that colors everything else, with partisan loyalties often shaping people's views on issues rather than the other way around. Some analysts wonder, for example, what the split on Iraq would look like if Clinton, rather than Bush, had led the country to war.

It has also engendered an overall "lack of respect," says Professor White, by bringing debates about issues and ideas down to a personal level. "Both sides of the divide believe the other side disses" their values and their way of life.

Good or bad for US politics?

Still, the resurgence of partisanship isn't necessarily a bad thing for democracy. For one thing, more people tend to vote when they see real differences between the parties - and feel a personal stake in the outcome of an election.

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, public interest in this election is much higher than at a similar point four year ago: 58 percent of voters say they are giving "quite a lot" of thought to the election, versus 46 percent in 2000. And 63 percent say it "really matters" who wins, versus 45 percent in 2000.

During the 1960s and '70s, by contrast, political analysts worried that partisanship was in a dangerous decline. In 1968, George Wallace famously charged there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties - and many voters seemed to agree with him, as rates of participation steadily dropped.

Yet the current partisan divide also means the losing side is likelier to feel upset and angry. And it creates real challenges for the winning side when it comes to governing.

Many analysts also worry that polarization has a self-perpetuating quality to it. "As the electorate becomes more polarized, [so do leaders], and each part of that reinforces the other," says Abramowitz. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Abramowitz.]

In the past, it has often taken an intervening event to bridge such a stalemate. The close partisan division at the beginning of the 20th century ended with the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which gave Democrats an advantage for decades thereafter. Demographic changes might eventually break the deadlock, giving one party or the other a natural advantage. Or the parties may shift, as they fight over the allegiance of certain groups.

Because of the limits of the two-party system, strategists say both parties inevitably include members with conflicting ideologies, who could be lured to the other side..

A strong third-party candidate could also break the divide by peeling off support from one or both sides.

The current campaign could polarize the nation even further. Yet as a referendum on the incumbent, analysts say the election may not wind up as close as it appears, and could even prove a turning point that swings the advantage to one side or the other - for a time.

"You can always point to some rule or dynamic in American politics that people think is enduring," Klinkner says, "until it's not."

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