In his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama rejected the notion that Americans were entrenched in hostile camps of red states and blue states, insisting that we are "the United States of America." But in the ensuing presidential election, the country was a picture of polarization, with the South and the heartland voting Republican as usual and the West Coast and Northeast remaining Democratic. So Obama was obviously living in a fool’s paradise.
Or maybe not. In this election, the country looks eerily like a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens — a riot of purple. Instead of turning to candidates like George W. Bush and John Kerry, who had limited appeal beyond their party faithful, both Democrats and Republicans have shown an openness to leaders whose appeal blurs the usual lines of ideology.
On the one side you have Obama, who has gotten gentle treatment from some conservative thinkers despite his embrace by Ted Kennedy and MoveOn.org. Columnist and TV commentator George Will describes him as "an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic ‘fights’ against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country." New York Times columnist David Brooks says, "Obama is changing the tone of American liberalism."
On the other side you have John McCain, the staunchest supporter of Bush’s unpopular war, who nonetheless manages to be what conservatives call the "darling of the liberal media." His appeal is broad enough that in 2004, John Kerry considered asking him to be his running mate. Slate.com editor Jacob Weisberg hails McCain as "a Teddy Roosevelt progressive — militant, crusading, reformist, and hostile to concentrated power."
McCain may alienate disciples of Rush Limbaugh, and Obama stirs tepid enthusiasm among liberals who would prefer a rabid pit bull. But the two confirm that Americans have never really been all that divided. Most Americans are not red or blue but a bit of both.
In his 2006 book "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America," Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University noted that on the bulk of issues, there is substantial agreement across the country. In 2000, 44 percent of voters in red states said the government is almost always inefficient — but so did 39 percent of those in blue states. Fully 70 percent of blue staters said we should "do whatever it takes to protect the environment," a view shared by 64 percent of red staters.
Majorities in both red and blue states were very glad that Bill Clinton was not eligible for a third term, and majorities opposed higher defense spending. In red areas, oddly, most people have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party — just as in blue locales, most take a positive view of the GOP. In both, the largest ideological category consists of moderates.
In recent decades, though, the two parties have moved away from each other, defining themselves more and more in strictly ideological terms. As a result, the electorate appears polarized when it isn’t. "Elections are close, but voters are not deeply or bitterly divided," writes Fiorina. "In both red and blue states, a solid majority of voters see themselves as positioned between two relatively extreme parties."
It’s not surprising that so many Democrats and independents prefer Obama to Hillary Clinton, who brags about the scars she carries from the partisan fights of the 1990s — neglecting to mention that she inflicted as many bite wounds as she suffered. That’s why 42 percent of Americans view her unfavorably, compared to just 30 percent for Obama and 31 percent for McCain. While Clinton seems to relish stoking partisan fires, Obama comes across like Smokey Bear.
McCain’s GOP supporters hope to persuade conservatives he is one of them. But part of his electoral appeal is that conservatives dislike him, suggesting he will not refight all the trench battles of the last 16 years.
One reason he attracts moderates and independents, as with Obama, is that he strikes a comparatively temperate tone. McCain’s voting record is nearly as conservative as Obama’s is liberal. But as Fiorina told me, both convey that they don’t find compromise villainous and hateful.
"It’s not just the positions you hold," he says, that are important to voters, "but the positions you can accept." After eight years of obstinacy in the Oval Office, a little flexibility doesn’t sound too bad.