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Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America

In Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,1 Morris Fiorina takes aim at the contention that there is a culture war in America, that our society is badly divided and polarized so that we are rapidly falling into two competing camps ready to do battle with one another. It is a bold argument.

The idea that a culture war is raging in America is a staple of certain media outlets, especially AM talk radio, where the likes of Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh on the right, and Thom Hartman, Randi Rhodes, and Al Franken of left-leaning Air America constantly sound alarms, crying that whichever barbarians they dread are about to storm the temple.

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Against this popular belief, Morris Fiorina has impressive credentials: he taught at for ten years at CalTech, for sixteen years at Harvard, and he is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and holds an endowed chair in political science at Stanford University.

Using sophisticated sampling data, Fiorina shows that the American public holds a range of diverse opinions, but finds that instead of being increasingly polarized, the American public has generally been moving to the center of the political spectrum on many issues. Consider an issue which he admits is a “hot button” item: homosexuality. Fiorina finds that the American public has gradually but steadily become more accepting of homosexuals over the past 30 years.

True enough, the public does not accept homosexual marriage, nor did they accept opening the military to gays, but these are not the entire question of homosexuality. On the issue of being willing to accept homosexuals in general, the public attitude has shown increasing moderation. To establish this, Fiorina considers polls in which the sample group was asked to rate homosexuals on a “thermometer”scale, in which 100 is total acceptance, and 0 is total rejection. In 1984, homosexuals earned a “0″ score from 30 percent of Americans.

By 2000, the percentage of “0″ scores has dropped to just 10 percent, and the overall acceptance rating for homosexuals has risen from 30 percent to 49 percent. (84) While these ratings do not show that homosexuals have managed to escape the stigma under which they have been compelled to live, they show that the shocking divide in which the issue is often portrayed does not exist. Similarly, the abortion issue, long considered the most divisive of social issues, is decidedly less divisive than it is pictured in popular media.

A clear majority of Americans now support the basic decision in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court abortion case. More than 65 percent of Americans support a strong right to choose. (54) Further, attitudes as to when abortion should be allowed are virtually unchanged since 1973. As of 1999, the last year for which Fiorina has data, 88 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be allowed if the life or health of the pregnant woman was seriously endangered. (55) In 1973, the number was 87 percent.

If, like Fiorina, we accept the norm that a change of four percent or less in a survey of this type is not statistically significant, then the only factor about which the surveys have asked which has seen a statistically significant change is the right to a woman to have an abortion based on a claim that she has an income so low that she cannot afford another child. Even in this situation, some 40 percent of the general population would allow the abortion. (55) The change in attitudes, such as it is, is in the percentage of Americans who believe that all abortion is murder.

While this saw a slight rebound in the late 1990s, it has fallen from 22 percent in 1973 to 18 percent, and since Roe, it has never been above 25 percent. (71) Another remarkable finding that Fiorina uncovered is that men and women have virtually identical attitudes on abortion, even though they differ markedly in their views on other issues. (71-72) The percentage of men and women who believe that abortion should be legal under all circumstances has varied between 21 and 36 percent for women, and between 20 and 30 percent for men, with the difference between sexes never being more than six percent.

The percentage of men and women believing that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances has run between 15 and 23 percent for women and between 13 and 21 percent for men, with never more than a difference of four percent. (71) By contrast on other issues, the difference between men’s and women’s attitude is far more marked. Responding to the suggestion that all handguns except those carried by police or other persons in authority should be illegal, only 28 percent of men agree; 48 percent of women agree.

Regarding the “caning” of an American teenage arrested in Singapore for acts of vandalism, 61 percent of men approved of the punishment; only 39 percent of women approved. While 43 percent of men consider themselves conservative, only 29 percent of women do. (72) In short, while abortion does not appear to be as divisive an issue as it is portrayed, there are other issues on which there is division. Fiorina presents a sweeping array of data, all of which shows far less division than is generally assume to exist.

This raises a natural question: if there are fewer deep divisions than Americans believe, why do Americans believe that there are such division? Fiorina points to several sources, including political parties, media, and pundits. Media and pundits want to portray conflict, because conflict sells. (115-23) As the quip goes, “If it bleeds, it leads. ” To reach his conclusions, Fiorina has to delve into sophisticated statistical models.

The reader wishing to follow his argument in detail faces a daunting task, because Fiorina uses three dimensional statistical models ass he works through assumptions about voter and candidate behavior. (118-24) In the end, Fiorina argues that it is not the general populace that is divided, but the elites, the people who are active in party work. (125-31) In their turn, the elites are the most accessible to and the most accessing of the media and the pundits. (141-42) Party elite organizations tend to be strongly self-selecting.

Only a true believer among Republicans can rise far through the Republican party organization; only a true believing Democrat gets to the top of the Democratic party. Once in the elite, these people tend to demand equal zeal from anyone else wanting admission, and to select people with the same ideals to join the elites. The result is set of self-perpetuating cadres of zealots, who believe, or at least would like to believe that they stand on the ramparts and fight for the Lord. In Fiorina convincing? He would probably find a certain irony in the response: maybe.

Any serious reader must give pause. There is comfort in the idea is that we are not becoming constantly more polarized. Still we are conditioned to believe we are polarized. That idea appears so often that a refutation is hard to accept. But anyone who reads this book will probably ponder if Fiorina is right or not. He would probably approve of that response. AUTHORITY CITED: Fiorina, Morris, with Samuel Abrams and Jeremy Pope. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized Amierca. New York, New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005.