The political struggles and the hot rhetoric of recent years, especially around social issues, has led many commentators to worry – and perhaps some activists to hope – that America is fragmenting; that Americans are becoming increasingly, deeply divided against each other.
Studies of this proposition have yielded a complex picture: Our politics have certainly become more polarized in the last half-century, but average Americans have not become increasingly divided on the “culture war” issues that have so attracted the media and many politicians. The divisions that are deeper and more profound are the social divisions – by immigrant status, by race, and especially the widening division by social class.
In Part 1 of this post, I review what’s happened on the political and culture wars fronts. In Part 2, I will review the ways that immigration, race, and class — notably, educational attainment — divide Americans.
It may be hard to imagine, but sage commentators of the 1950s bemoaned the absence of conflict; they thought that there was too much consensus. In best-sellers of the day (such as The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, and The End of Ideology), intellectuals complained of stifling commonality and conformity. Graduation speakers criticized the youth of the ‘50s as the “Silent Generation.” Some thought well of all this agreement; political scientist, Robert E. Lane, for example, hailed “The Politics of Consensus in an Age of Affluence”: Americans, he thought, would replace divisive politicians with technical experts. But this positive spin on agreement was a minority view. So un-polarized were politics that in 1950 a commission of the American Political Science Association called for more ideologically differentiated political parties, for a wider split. Beware of what you wish for.
Since roughly the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans even more so moved farther and farther from that central consensus. Party officials and party members became purer” representatives of liberal and conservative ideologies and fewer office-holders collaborated across the aisle. The single most important – but not the only – process was the GOP’s adoption in the 1970s of the “Southern [white] strategy.”
Each party became more internally coherent. Liberal Republicans like Sen. Jacob Javits (NY, 1957-81) became an almost extinct species; conservative Democrats like Sen. James William Fulbright (AK, 1945-74), who was famously liberal in foreign policy but still conservative on race issues, lasted longer but also dwindled in number. Parties conveyed clearer signals about their ideological positions and voters were more ideologically consistent in their 2010 choices than voters in 1970 had been. This polarization increased during the Clinton presidency and accelerated even more during the George W. Bush presidency. Today, the Tea Party on the right and interest groups like Move-On from the left work to push the parties yet further apart.
These developments would imply that Americans have become politically polarized. Yet, political scientists and sociologists have generally concluded that what happened at the political level did not happen among Americans generally. (See some references below.)
What Culture Wars?
The clearest claim that Americans did become polarized is the “culture wars” thesis, first laid out by James Davison Hunter in the early 1990s, and then picked up by some partisans. Hunter argued that Americans were dividing along a front defined by religious versus secular world-views. Pat Buchanan, a commentator and sometime Republican presidential candidate, put it this way: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. . . . “ and “Our culture war is about one question: Is God dead, or is God king? . . . With those stakes, to walk away is to abandon your post in time of war.”
Yet, social scientists who have tested the proposition that Americans are picking sides have for the most part concluded that, with the possible exception of the abortion issue, the majority of Americans have not become polarized. Americans still tend to cluster around the middle on those controversial cultural topics, such as the role of women, sexuality, the place of religion, and so forth. In the last generation or two, the American middle has moved modestly to the left on most values issues – for example, increasingly accepting premarital sex, expanding women’s autonomy, lowering racial boundaries, and so on (although not on abortion). Americans have not split into two extreme camps on these topics as the culture wars notion would claim and the loud politics of the day would suggest.
So, while much attention in recent years has focused on the partisans of the culture war, on battles, for example, between supporters and opponents of gay marriage, everyday Americans have not participated much and have not drawn such stark lines in the sand.
A Traditional Worry
Worries over cultural fragmentation have been an abiding concern in American history, from as early as the Plymouth Plantation divisions that led to the settlement of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Ministers in Colonial New England had established the “declension” trope — the story that community was in decline — by the eighteenth century. They warned the tight-knit “community of saints” was dissolving into warring factions 300 years ago and that story remains part of how we understand ourselves. The noted sociologist Robert Bellah, lead author of Habits of the Heart (1985), has noted that it is “obvious” that “it has become part of the common culture to ask whether there is a common culture in America.”
In the second part of this essay, I will discuss where some real and deep divisions lie among Americans.
Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.
- Bellah R.N. 1998. “Is there a common American culture?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
- DiMaggio P, Evans J, Bryson B. 1996. “Have Americans’ social attitudes become more polarized?” American Journal of Sociology
- Evans JH, Bryson B, DiMaggio P. 2001. “Opinion polarization,” American Journal of Sociology
- Fiorina M. 2004. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.
- Han H, Brady DW. 2007. “A delayed return to historical norms,” British Journal of Political Science.
- Fischer & Hout, Century of Difference (Ch. 9).
- Hunter JD. 1991. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.
- Hunter JD. 1994. Before the Shooting Begins.
- Hunter JD, Bowman C. 1996. The State of Disunion.
- McCarty N, Poole KT, Rosenthal H. 2006. Polarized America.
- Nivola PS, Brady DW, eds. 2006. Red and Blue Nation?, Vol 1 and Vol 2.
- Williams RH, ed. 1997. Cultural Wars in American Politics.
- Wolfe A. 1998. One Nation, After All.