Introduction: The 49 Percent Nation|
By Michael Barone
The United States at the end of the 20th Century was a nation divided down the middle. In 1996 Bill Clinton was re-elected with 49.2% of the vote. That same year Republicans held the House when their candidates led Democrats by a 48.9% to 48.5% margin. In 1998 Republicans held onto the House when their candidates led in popular vote by 48.9% to 47.8%. On November 7, 2000-although the final result was not known until five weeks later-George W. Bush won 47.9% of the vote and Al Gore 48.4%. The same day House Republican candidates led Democrats by a 49.2% to 47.9% margin. Round off these numbers and you have 49%, 49%, 49%, 49%, 48%, 48%, 48%, 49%, 48%--essentially the same number over and over. We haven't had such stasis in successive election results since the 1880s, which was also the last decade when a president was elected despite trailing in the popular vote and when the Senate was equally divided between the two major parties.
Halfway through the 1990s no one foresaw this result. Both parties had reason to believe they could forge majority coalitions by 2000. Republicans believed that their 1980s presidential majorities (which averaged 54%-43%) and their 1994 congressional majority (52%-45%) represented a fundamental Republican majority, which could sweep the presidential and congressional races. Conservative strategist Grover Norquist argued that there was a majority "leave-us-alone" coalition of economic and cultural conservatives which Republicans, if they framed the issues skillfully, could summon into being. Newt Gingrich looked past his disappointment at Bob Dole's defeat, confidently predicted that a Republican president and Congress would be elected in 2000, and said he looked forward to serving his last term as Speaker in 2001-02 working with a Republican president.
At the same time Democrats believed that Bill Clinton's high job approval ratings (in the 60% level from 1995 through 1998, and even higher that year) and his 50%-plus showings in most polls against Bob Dole represented a fundamental Democratic majority which could sweep the presidential and congressional races. Liberal columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., argued in his book They Only Look Dead that there was a natural majority for moderate but activist government which Democrats, if they framed the issues skillfully, could summon into being. Democrats looked past their disappointment at not recapturing the House in 1996 and confidently predicted that a Democratic president and Congress would be elected in 2000, and looked forward to eight years of Al Gore following eight years of Bill Clinton.
But neither majority materialized. Bill Clinton survived impeachment and continued to receive 55%-60% job approval ratings. But Democrats failed to win back the House in 1998. Republicans held onto majorities of both houses of Congress that year, but their failure to gain seats in the House led to the ouster of Newt Gingrich as Speaker. Then, in 2000, neither side won a majority for president or in races for the House. We have now had three straight presidential elections and three straight House elections in which neither party has won 50% of the vote. The last time there were three straight presidential races without a majority was in 1884-1892. The last time there were three straight House races without a majority, aside from 1910-16 and 1890-98, when there were many third-party Progressive and Populist candidates, was apparently (data are not easy to come by) in the 1880s.
Both parties have strong incentives to amass a popular majority, and have striven mightily to do so. But in 2000 both failed. The Republicans failed to reproduce the Reagan-Bush majority and the Democrats failed to produce a Clinton-Gore majority. At the beginning of the 1990s it was conventional wisdom that the Republicans had a lock on the presidency and the Democrats had a lock on Congress. In 1995 some thought the Democrats had a lock on the presidency and the Republicans had a lock on Congress. Now no one has a lock on either.
That is evidence of strongly-held partisan attachments, on both sides. One of the unsung features of the politics of the 1990s and 2000 has been the reemergence of straight-ticket voting, which is more pronounced than in any decade since the 1940s. From 1968 to 1992, Democrats ran stronger and Republicans weaker in congressional than in presidential elections. Now, with ticket-splitting in decline and straight-ticket voting the rule, both have been winning 48% or 49% in both presidential and congressional elections.
To see how the political changes of the 1990s have left us a closely divided nation, compare the results of the 1988 and 2000 presidential elections. In 1988 the older George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis 53%-46%; in 2000 George W. Bush tied Al Gore 48%-48%. Nationally, the Republican percentage was down 5.5%, the Democratic percentage up 2.7%. This might be taken as a show of the weakness of George W. Bush and the strength of Al Gore and the record of the Clinton-Gore administration. But it should be kept in mind that the factors of peace and prosperity worked for the Republican ticket in 1988 and worked for the Democratic ticket in 2000. In past decades when the peace and prosperity advantage swung from one party to another in a few years, the swing in party votes was much higher. Peace and prosperity favored the Democrats in 1964 and the Republicans in 1972. Between those two elections the Republican percentage was up 22.2% and the Democratic percentage down 23.6%. The fact that the party percentages changed much less between 1988 and 2000 is evidence of the strength of party allegiance and the stubbornness of political attachments.
But, that said, the changes in party preference that did take place between 1988 and 2000 were far from evenly distributed. There were stark differences between the largest metropolitan areas-those with more than 2 million people-and the rest of the country. The figures below show the percentage for the two major party candidates in 1988 and 2000 for the major metro and non-major metro parts of the country. They are roughly equal in size: The major metro areas cast 46% of the nation's votes in 1988 and 45% in 2000.
|R - D
||R - D
||R - D
||53.5 - 45.7
||48.1 - 48.3
||50.6 - 48.5
||40.8 - 55.3
||55.9 - 43.2
||54.0 - 42.5
The contrast is stark. Democrats made significant gains in major metro areas, but actually lost ground outside them; Republicans suffered serious losses in the major metro areas but only small losses outside them. The vote was about evenly split, but George W. Bush carried 30 states, 2,480 counties and 228 congressional districts to Gore's 20 states, 674 counties and 207 congressional districts.
The picture may be clearer if we subdivide each of these categories. Among the major metro areas, let us distinguish between the seven largest major metro areas and the 16 other, smaller major metro areas. Outside the major metro areas, let us distinguish between those in the North and those in the South. These four groups are roughly similar in size. In 1988, the top 7 major metro areas cast 24% of the votes, the next 15 major metro areas 22%, the non-major metro North 32%, and the non-major metro South 22%. In 2000 the percentages of the votes were slightly different: 22% for the top 7 major metro areas, 23% for the next 16 major metro areas, 31% for the non-major metro North, and 24% for the non-major metro South.
|R - D
||R - D
||R - D
||53.5 - 45.7
||48.1 - 48.3
|Top 7 major metro
||49.5 - 49.8
||36.7 - 59.6
|Next 16 major metro
||51.9 - 47.1
||44.8 - 51.0
|Non-major metro North
||54.7 - 44.5
||52.8 - 42.8
|Non-major metro South
||57.7 - 41.6
||55.7 - 42.1
Let us look at each of these areas in turn.
The top 7 major metro areas. In these vast, sprawling major metro areas, places where people have almost no personal contact with major elected officials, with their sophisticated, cynical, secular voters, Clinton-Gore Democrats made major gains in the 1990s; indeed, these areas account for most of the Democrats' percentage gains in the entire country. Here Clinton's performance got high approval and his personal peccadilloes raised few hackles. These are not places where Al Gore's "people versus the powerful" theme had much appeal. They are the most affluent parts of the country, where voters in the 1990s saw gains not only in income, but in wealth: Housing values are high and stock ownership widespread. Opposition to tax increases helped Bush here in 1988; but in 2000, with increased wealth, tax cuts had relatively little appeal. At the same time, they are also metro areas, which for decades were plagued by high crime and welfare dependency, factors which increased the appeal of Republicans here in the 1980s. But with the sharp drops in crime and welfare dependency in the 1990s, these issues faded and the Democrats were no longer vulnerable on them. These 7 major metro areas were even in the 1988 election but gave Al Gore a 23% margin in 2000.
The next 16 major metro areas. In many respects these metro areas are similar to the larger ones. But they are not as large, people are closer to elected officials; they tend to be somewhat less affluent, and less secular and cynical. Some (Minneapolis, St. Louis) have major right-to-life movements; some (Denver, Dallas) have had an influx of culturally conservative young families. In some of them the Democratic gain in 1988-2000 was as great as in the top 7 major metro areas-Miami, Tampa-Orlando, Phoenix, San Diego, Boston, Baltimore, Atlanta. In others Democrats gained only 1% to 4% in that period-Seattle, St. Louis, Cleveland. And in six of these major metro areas, Gore actually had lower percentages than Dukakis-Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Portland. Note that all but one of these last five are centered in states where Bush in 2000 ran ahead of his father.
Non-major metro North. This is the most populous of these areas, and one generally ignored in political coverage. Here voters are more anti-corruption, tradition-minded, and religious than the national average. They reacted negatively to Bill Clinton's personal immorality and to his cultural liberalism on issues like abortion, gay rights, and gun control. Clinton-Gore positions of the environment were unpopular in many parts of the West, the Farm belt and in the eastern coal country. In places where the Democratic Party has been traditionally strong for historical reasons-because of Civil War loyalties, the union organizing drives of the 1930s, agrarian radicalism-there were major Republican gains. Lumberjack Democrats, mine-worker Democrats, country music Democrats-all surged toward Bush.
Non-major metro South. The non-metropolitan South has been voting for Republican presidential candidates since 1972 and, in some cases, 1964. What is interesting here is that the non-major metro area South is now voting for Republican congressional candidates as well. The Tennessee-born Gore made only the most minor of gains here over Massachusetts-born Michael Dukakis, and those gains did not matter much in the electoral college: No southern state except Florida was close.
These countervailing shifts in partisan preference have created a new political map in 2000, a map which puzzled many of the election experts. Florida, which voted 61% for Bush in 1988, was the number one target state of both candidates in 2000 and the result, as the world knows, was excruciatingly close. The reason is simple: 53% of Florida's votes were cast in major metro areas-the Gold Coast running from Miami to Palm Beach County and the I-4 corridor from Tampa-St. Petersburg to Orlando. These metro areas showed some of the sharpest shifts to the Democrats in the 1990s, 14% in the Gold Coast and 10% in the I-4 corridor. New Jersey, one of George H. W. Bush's best megastates in 1988, is almost totally included in two of the top 7 major metro areas; it was so heavily Democratic in 2000 that it was not a target for either campaign. Illinois, which Bush narrowly won in 1988, has 63% of its votes in metro Chicago and another 5% in metro St. Louis; it was Al Gore's strongest Midwestern state all along. California, which went comfortably for Bush in 1988, has 68% of its votes in metro Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus 8% in metro San Diego; in 2000 Bush spent $20 million there and Gore zero, but Gore carried it 54%-41%.
But changes in partisan preference in non-major metro areas favored Bush. He carried West Virginia with its 5 precious electoral votes, a state which since 1928 has voted Republican only for incumbent presidents winning landslide victories. He carried Al Gore's Tennessee and Bill Clinton's Arkansas. He came within 1% of carrying Iowa, Wisconsin, and Oregon-which together had as many electoral votes as Florida-all of which went for Michael Dukakis and against the older George Bush in 1988.
It was almost as if two different Americas were voting. In one America, in the major metro areas, the choice between Gore and Bush looked almost as stark as the choice in 1964 between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Gore carried Manhattan 80%-14% and Los Angeles County 64%-32%; Johnson carried Manhattan 81%-19% and Los Angeles County 57%-43%. In another America, in the rural areas and some of the fast-growing metropolitan fringe, the choice between Bush and Gore looked like the choice in 1972 between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Bush carried 30 counties in Kentucky with bigger percentages than Nixon, including four ancestrally Democratic counties carried by McGovern; he carried Idaho 69%-28% and Montana 58%-33%, compared to Nixon's 64%-26% in Idaho and 58%-38% in Montana.
There will be some who will say that the closeness of the 2000 election, and the fact that both major parties have been consistently winning 49% and 48% of the voter is happenstance, that different results were possible in 2000, that the final tie vote was the result of contingencies which could have turned out differently. And of course it is always possible to imagine how things might have turned out differently-how often did partisans of both parties roll those possibilities over in their minds during the five-week struggle over Florida!
Al Gore, it is often said, and at least as often by Democrats as by Republicans, did not run an optimum campaign. For seven years he had known he would run for president in 2000, yet he had three campaign managers and four or five different campaign strategies-clear signs that he might have done better. The campaign theme he finally adopted at the Los Angeles convention-"the people versus the powerful"-was arguably weaker than the New Democratic argument that he had the formula for showing how a limited but helpful government could lay the groundwork for technological innovation and bounteous prosperity. Certainly "the people versus the powerful" did not staunch the loss of Democratic votes in economically ailing West Virginia. But the Gore campaign did some things right. With a few exceptions, it targeted states well: It spent more money than anywhere else in Florida and spent nothing in California, outspending Bush in the former and saving money in the latter. Political scientists argued, based on formulas developed from the results of several past elections, that Gore should have won as much as 60% of the two-party vote. But those formulas were based on economic indicators, and elections are also about other things; Gore consistently trailed in polls up to the August convention, when voters were well aware of the nation's low-inflation economic growth, and his judgment that harping on it would not change their minds was almost surely sound. It is said that he should have used Bill Clinton more; but Clinton's personal deficiencies stood to lose him as many votes as his professional accomplishments would gain, and in any case to have relied heavily on his boss would have made him seem less than presidential in stature. It is true that if you add Ralph Nader's vote to Gore's that would take him over 50%; but there was no way to get Nader out of the race and polling suggests that if he were not running less than half his supporters would have voted for Gore; some would have voted for Bush and others wouldn't have voted at all. A Naderless race might have produced a victory for Gore, but it probably would not have gotten him to 50% of the vote.
Anyway, it could also be argued that George W. Bush ran less than an optimum campaign. He coasted after the second debate and made some obvious targeting mistakes-spending two days in California in the last two weeks, for example. He failed to anticipate the last-weekend surge toward Gore, which seems to have been the result of doubts that Bush was up to the job. But he also put together a platform without which he would not have come as close as he did. He effectively framed the campaign as being about something other than a generally satisfactory status quo. He consolidated the Republican base early, targeted some seemingly unlikely states (West Virginia, Tennessee), and got just enough votes to win.
Would we still have had a 48%-48% election if the parties had chosen other nominees? An imponderable: but it's not clear that we wouldn't. It might be argued that John McCain would have been a stronger Republican nominee. But McCain's famous temper may have flared and cost him some votes, and in any case many of the Independents and Democrats who found him so attractive when he was challenging Bush would have decided that he was not so attractive once he became the nominee of a basically conservative Republican Party, and when his mostly conservative voting record and positions on issues had been publicized by the liberal-leaning press. One might argue as well that Bill Bradley, or one of the other possible Democratic candidates scared out of the race by the Clinton-Gore White House might have done better than Gore.
Maybe. But a strong case can be made that Bush and Gore were probably their parties' strongest candidates. They consolidated their parties' base vote, Bush early and Gore at his convention, and those party bases were just about equal in size. Both campaigns, with just a few exceptions, did a good job of targeting states, often against the conventional political wisdom. In a competitive political marketplace, two parties with generally competent candidates will come up with campaign strategies that tend to maximize their support. These candidates did that, and ended up with 48% each. That, and the results of the 1996 and 1998 elections, suggests very strongly that when we are looking at repeated 49% and 48% results, we are looking at something pretty fundamental. The nation is divided right down the middle, not deeply perhaps, but at least very evenly.
Politics, said the political scientist Paul Lazarsfeld, is about who gets how much when. In other words, politics is about economics. Lazarsfeld came from Europe, where intellectuals spun Marxist theories and where large socialist parties had become major competitors for power in the first half of the 20th century; and he was writing in 1948, when American politics seemed to be a struggle between New Deal Democrats and reactionary Republicans, between those who wanted to use government to redistribute wealth and income and those who wanted it to leave well enough alone, between a party backed by rapidly growing labor unions and a party with almost unanimous backing from corporate and financial leaders. But American politics even then was about more than economics. The polling evidence is pretty clear that Franklin Roosevelt would not have won a third term in 1940 except for the fact that war had broken out in Europe and Hitler was overruning the continent. Otherwise most Americans' strong feeling that no president should serve more than two terms would have determined the result. Over the long course of American history, cultural factors have been more important than economic factors in determining how people vote-not all important, for economics counts for something, but more important. The election of 2000 provides a good example.
Look at the VNS exit poll and see how those with incomes over $100,000 voted: 54%-43% for Bush. Voters in the $75,000-$100,000 range voted for Bush by 52%-45%. Republican margins, to be sure, but not very big ones: The senior Bush in 1988 had carried over $100,000 income voters by 65%-32% and $50,000-$100,000 voters (perhaps a better proxy) by 62%-37%. And the highest-income voters had a lot to gain economically from a Bush victory in 2000: He promised to cut their marginal income tax rate from 39.6% to 33%, while Al Gore made it clear he would never do so. Or look at voters with incomes under $15,000. They voted for Gore by 57%-37%, as did voters with $15,000-$30,000 incomes by 54%-41%--the only significant Gore margins among income groups. Under $15,000 voters in 1988, in contrast, were 62%-37% for Dukakis.
In other words, neither Al Gore's championship of "the people versus the powerful" nor George W. Bush's promise of a big tax cut did much of a job of rallying his party's New Deal economic constituencies. One reason is that the economic factor that is important in American politics today is not so much income as it is wealth. Voters are not much concerned about temporary drops in income in a country that has suffered only six months of recession in the last 17 years: Low-inflation economic growth has prevailed for 97% of the time, and has come to seem the norm. What voters are concerned about is how well they are doing in the lifetime project of accumulating wealth, in residential real estate and, increasingly, in the stock market. The older George Bush's greatest loss of votes in 1992 came in New Hampshire and southern California-which were also the parts of the nation where housing values dropped most in the 1990-91 recession. Then, as the stock market boomed after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994--personal household assets, a good measure of voters' wealth, increased by 8.5% a year from 1994 to 1999-the electorate entered a period of great contentment. Lower-income voters did not feel in much need of the economic benefits that Democrats might promise. Higher-income voters did not care much about tax rates when they were making vast gains in the stock market. The increase in wealth helps explain why affluent suburban voters in the major metro areas have shifted away from Republicans: Taxes were the one issue that inclined them to Republicans in 1988, and the issue was much weaker in 2000. But the bottom line is that in 2000 economic status explained very little about voting behavior. Other factors were more important.
One such factor was race. Whites voted 54%-42% for Bush; blacks voted 90%-9% for Gore. Other "people of color" voted for Gore as well, but the picture is more complicated than national figures suggest. Hispanics voted 62%-35% for Gore, despite Bush's strong appeals for their votes and greater fluency in Spanish. But Hispanics, unlike blacks, are not a bloc of voters homogeneous across the nation. Bush got only 18% of the Hispanic vote in New York and 29% in California; but he got 43% of the Hispanic vote in Texas and won the Hispanic vote 49%-48% in Florida. If no Hispanics had been voting nationally, Gore would not have won his popular vote plurality. But if no Hispanics had voted in Florida, Gore would have carried the state and would have been elected president. Nationally, Asians voted 55%-41% for Gore. But most of this margin came in Hawaii, where Gore won 62% of the Asian majority in the state. In California, the vote was 49%-48% for Gore, and Asian voters appear to have been equally divided in the other 48 states as well. Far from behaving like "people of color," Asians voted much more like whites than blacks.
Other factors have little explanatory value. The by now familiar gender gap appeared once again, as it has in every election since 1980: men voted 53%-42% for Bush, women 54%-43% for Gore. But the gap is the work almost entirely of unmarried women; married women split 49%-48% for Bush. This was not a generational battle. There was no statistically significant difference between the responses of any age group. Education made some difference, but not in a straight-line way. Voters who graduated from high school, went to college and graduated from college all cast small pluralities for Bush. Those who never graduated from high school and those with graduate degrees cast somewhat larger pluralities for Gore. Sense can be made of this. Clients of the state (non-high school graduates) and employees of the state (the teachers, social workers, health care workers and lawyers who make up most of those with graduate degrees) tend to prefer the party that favors a larger state, while those who depend less on the state (the large majority with middling levels of education) do not.
So what is it that divides the two nations? What demographic factor separates voters more than any other? The answer is: religion. White voters who identified as members of the religious right-14% of the electorate-voted for Bush by an 80%-18% margin. Jews-4%-voted for Gore by 79%-18% percent, and those with other non-Christian religions or no religion-15% of the electorate-voted for Gore by 61%-29%. The difference in voting behavior between the religious right and non-Christians is bigger than the difference between blacks and whites. These are the groups on the outer edges; look now at the larger masses. White Protestants-56% of the electorate-voted for Bush by 63%-34%. White Catholics-25% of the electorate-voted for Bush by 52%-45%, despite the historic preference of Catholics for the Democratic Party. One of the untold stories of the campaign is how the Bush forces worked subtly through little-publicized channels to win over strong, tradition-minded Catholics, obviously with some success. Those who attended religious services weekly or more often-42% of the electorate-voted 59%-39% for Bush. Those who attend religious services seldom or never-another 42% of the electorate-voted 56%-39% for Gore. The middle group, the 14% who said they attended religious services monthly, voted 51%-46% for Gore.
The same picture emerges from the post-election survey conducted by the University of Akron and sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The survey separated Americans into 14 different groups based on religious belief and practice. Distinctions were made between different kinds of Protestant denominations (Evangelical and Mainline) and, in some cases, between more and less observant members of a group; more observent were those who reported church attendance once a week or more often. The results are arrayed in the following table according to the percentage of the two-party vote cast for George W. Bush:
||88% - 12%
|White Evangelical Protestants, more observant
||84% - 16%
|White Mainline Protestants, more observant
||66% - 34%
|White Mainline Protestants, less observant
||57% - 43%
|Roman Catholics, more observant
||57% - 43%
|White Evangelical Protestants, less observant
||55% - 45%
|Roman Catholics, less observant
||41% - 59%
||35% - 65%
||33% - 67%
||28% - 72%
||24% - 76%
||23% - 77%
||20% - 80%
||4% - 96%
More than half, 54%, of Bush's voters were more observant Protestants or Catholics; only 15% were blacks, Hispanics or non-Christians. More than half of Gore's voters, 51%, were blacks, Hispanics or non-Christians; only 20% were more observant Protestants or Catholics. Although they may be uncomfortable with the fact, Americans increasingly vote as they pray-or don't pray.
To put it another way, the two Americas apparent in the 48%-48% 2000 election are two nations of different faiths. One is observant, tradition-minded, moralistic. The other is unobservant, liberation-minded, relativist. One nation was repelled by Bill Clinton-his frequent lies, his fundraising scandals, his affair with a White House intern, his lies under oath in a United States District Court proceeding. The other nation was pleased with Bill Clinton-his charm and fluency, his support of feminism and gay rights, his closeness to Hollywood figures-or was ready to subordinate any personal distaste to satisfaction with the peace and prosperity, the steep declines in crime and welfare dependency, that occurred during his presidency. The first nation saw in Al Gore many of Clinton's deficiencies; the second nation saw in him many of his strengths. So it makes sense that the major metro areas, less observant, more relativist, trended toward Gore, and the non-major metro majority, observant, moralistic, trended toward Bush.
Interestingly, the specific issues on which these groups are most deeply divided are issues that were seldom mentioned by either candidate in the campaign or in debate, issues on which they addressed with obvious reluctance in the debates. They are abortion, gun control, the environment. In the mid-1990s Democrats were slavering at the prospect of making these major issues. They were convinced that abortion, gun control, and the environment would sweep many voters their way. And indeed they did-or, rather, had. But by 2000 the gains Democrats hoped for on these issues had already been made. The places where their positions on abortion, gun control, and the environment were popular were by 2000 safely Democratic-California, New Jersey, the major metro areas. But they were also unpopular in significant portions of target states-among the large right-to-life movements in Minnesota and Missouri, among hunters in Pennsylvania and Michigan, among voters who believed Clinton environmental policies were threatening their livelihood and way of life. Voters in eastern Washington and Oregon felt threatened by the proposal to breach dams on the Snake River to protect salmon, voters in West Virginia and Kentucky felt threatened by restrictions on the use of coal, voters in the Rocky Mountain West felt threatened by land use policy that fenced off grazing land and protected the grizzly bear, voters in the Farm Belt felt threatened by EPA's proposal to regulate non-point source pollution-which, put in plain English, meant that farmers would have to get an EPA permit every time they used a new fertilizer.
They were aggrieved, in other words, by what they saw as a busybody Democratic government which was trying to impose the values of the major metro areas on their local communities, to impose the values of one nation on another. On these issues-abortion, gun control, the environment-the Clinton-Gore government was practicing, or was seen to be practicing, a kind of cultural imperialism. The Gore nation wants abortions honored, guns regulated or outlawed, and the environment protected by intrusive regulators. The Bush nation believes that abortions are immoral, guns part of a healthy way of life, and the land and water best protected by those who use it every day. The two nations on these issues have diametrically opposite views of what is decent and moral, just as they have diametrically opposite views on Bill Clinton's personal morality and Al Gore's assertion that he was under "no controlling authority."
The brings to mind the famous passage from Benjamin Disraeli's novel Sybil, published in 1845, just after the Chartist movement led great marches against the government. "Our Queen," says Disraeli's character Egremont, "reigns over the greatest nation that has ever existed." "Which nation?" Morley, the Chartist agitator asks, "for she reigns over two." Egremont seemed puzzled. "Yes," Morley went on. "Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws." "You speak of?" Egremont asks. The answer, in bold capital letters, "THE RICH AND THE POOR." In early 21st Century America the divide is not economic but cultural. But there are two nations, of almost equal size, between which there is little intercourse and sympathy, which are ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, which "are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws." They are as different as Bill Clinton's preferred vacation spot, Martha's Vineyard, and George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Can these two nations live together? The historian Robert Wiebe once wrote that Americans could live together because Americans lived separately. In Florida, during impeachment, when gun control and abortion are raised as issues, the two Americas have found themselves no longer separate, but living together, uncomfortably. On each of these very different issues, the arguments have raged along similar lines. One nation has called for obeying old rules. The other nation has called for creating new rules. The Florida imbroglio generated great discord not just because so much was at stake, but also because the arguments reprised old themes. The Republicans insisted that the rules for counting the votes should stay the same as they were when the votes were cast. The Democrats argued that the rules were unfairly leaving some people out and so should be changed. The circumstances of Florida forced an argument: Neither side was going to back down. But most Americans prefer to avoid such arguments if they can. In the peace and prosperity of the late 1990s, they have been mostly content with things as they are, and reelected incumbents of both parties at record rates. But when they were forced by the political calendar to choose, between George W. Bush and Al Gore, between a Republican government and a Democratic government, the two nations, almost precisely equal in size, had to face each other, to confront their differences-as much as both candidates and both parties wished to avoid the confrontation.
George W. Bush now has the opportunity to govern in a way that will extend his party's base as Clinton extended his party's base in the 1990s. He starts off with no reliable national majority, but neither did Clinton. There may be an analogy here with the last time the American political balance was so even, in the 1880s. Then Americans were divided by a central non-economic issue, the Civil War. But in the 1890s other issues came along-free silver and hard money, protectionism and imperialism-which shifted the balance. The key figure was a president seldom remembered today, but often cited by Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove. William McKinley was elected and re-elected with a bare majority of 51%. But he used the new issues to break across the old cultural barriers and establish the working Republican majority that prevailed for the long generation from 1896 to 1930. Rove believes that Bush can do the same.
The cultural divisions will remain. Abortions and guns will never be outlawed; the demands of neither nation will never be fully satisfied. But the saliency of those issues may decline, and other issues may take their place. There is a common theme to all of the major Bush domestic proposals, on education, Social Security, Medicare, and taxes, which is to provide citizens with more choice and to rely less on centralized authority. When Bush was trailing in the polls in early September, he put up ads which explicitly presented the election as a contest between more choice and more government, and his standing rose. This is in line with the increasingly decentralized character of American society and responsive to the fact that we are, in important ways, two separate nations who live uncomfortably together. Postindustrial America in many ways more closely resembles the decentralized, culturally divided preindustrial America that Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America than it does the industrial America in which the generation of Bush, Gore and Clinton grew up-an America that seemed culturally homogeneous and economically and governmentally centralizing. In this view, George W. Bush, though he won fewer votes than Al Gore, is more in line with the grain of American history.
That means, among other things, that the Bush administration is less likely to practice the kind of cultural imperialism practiced by the Clinton administration. The Bush nation is less inclined to want to change the Gore nation-indeed, it despairs that it cannot change the Gore nation-than it is to simply want to be left alone. The passage of restrictions on abortion, and even the repeal of Roe v. Wade by a new Supreme Court majority would leave the current American abortion regime largely intact: Abortions will still be widely available, though there may be a further decline in their number. We will continue to have the current gun control regime, in which about 50% of the people live in the 33 states which allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns and about 50% live in the 17 states that don't (not surprisingly, most of the former voted for Bush and most of the latter for Gore). Crime, incidentally, has declined more in states with carry-concealed-weapons laws; it appears that criminals are deterred if there is a serious possibility that a potential victim may have a handgun. As for the environment, urban-based environmental activists will be unhappy, and will prosper from direct mail campaigns seeking contributions. But Bush policies will reduce the discontent with attempts to change local ways of life.
Bush's proposals for education seem unlikely to invade local autonomy or to impose one nation's values on the other. He seeks greater accountability and testing, and in fact American education has been moving, rapidly in some states, fitfully in others, in the same direction. We will get less of centralized bureaucracy trying to impose values from Washington. The Democratic policy followed for the last 30 years-pump more money into schools and prevent them from being held accountable for results-is increasingly regarded as bankrupt, and would have been at least modified even if Gore had won.
Bush's major economic initiatives-on taxes, Social Security, and Medicare-have some potential for increasing support for Republicans in the major metro areas where they lost ground in the 1990s. Affluent suburban voters may not be particularly eager for tax cuts today. But once they get them, they may be wary that the Democrats will raise rates if they get back in-the posture of the tax issue that favored the older George Bush in 1988. As for providing individual investment accounts as part of Social Security, this should appeal most to younger voters who have become accustomed to accumulating wealth by investing in the market. Here is a reform which goes very much with the grain of life in major metro America, and not against the grain in the rest of the country. Similarly, on Medicare the Bush reform would provide the elderly with more choices of medical insurance, and replace a system that is centrally directed and therefore inefficient and inherently unable to keep up with technological and scientific advance. And since the incredibly complex and rigid Medicare regulations currently tend to govern the dispensing of medical care to all patients, a more supple, adaptable Medicare would produce better results for everyone in ways that may become visible over time. The Clinton health care finance plan failed in 1994 in large part because it attempted to impose a single system on a nation that has, in effect, many health care finance systems. A health care finance plan that allows more choices is more likely to be found acceptable in such a nation.
Demography is moving, slowly, toward the Bush nation. Some Republicans look with foreboding at the major metro areas where they have fallen behind the opposition. Who cares if you make gains in West Virginia when you lose ground in California? But the major metro areas are not growing as fast as the rest of the country; they cast a smaller share of the nation's votes in 2000 than in 1988. The 2000 Census showed the trend. If the electoral vote had been based on the reapportionment mandated by the 2000 Census and announced in early 2001, George W. Bush would have won not 271 electoral votes, but 278. He carried all of the states that gained House seats except California-Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas-while most of those that lost seats were carried by Gore. The Americans of the Bush nation tend to have more children than the Americans of the Gore nation, and the communities of the Bush nation tend to welcome growth while the communities of the Gore nation tend to limit it: California's culturally conservative Central Valley is growing faster than the culturally liberal San Francisco Bay area. The fastest-growing parts of the United States are formerly rural counties on the metropolitan fringe, beyond the edge city office centers, now filling up with family-sized subdivisions, outlet shopping malls and booming mega-churches. Though many of these are within the boundaries of major metro areas, these counties tend to vote strongly Republican, and with their growth have produced Republican majorities almost large enough to offset the Democratic margins in heavily black or culturally liberal central cities. These are places like Collin County, Texas, which grew by 86% in the 1990s and voted 73%-24% for Bush; Forsyth County, Georgia, which grew by 123% and voted 78%-19% percent for Bush; and Douglas County, Colorado, which grew by 191% and voted 65%-31% for Bush. These edge counties are usually ignored by reporters and political scientists, who can't imagine living in such places, but they are in many ways the cutting edge of America, the wave of the future.
The two Americas face no revolution, like the one Disraeli feared; for the most part Americans leave plenty of space for their fellow citizens to live as they want. But our politics, in these mostly placid times, will continue to register the angers and the passions that are aroused when one of the nations seems to be threatening to use government to impinge on the other. The prospect ahead is for close elections, closely divided Congresses, bitterly fought battles over issues and nominations-and for the two nations with two different faiths to continue to live together, mostly peaceably, economically productive, militarily powerful, culturally creative, often seeming to be spinning out of control, but ultimately stable, two nations united by the politics that seems to divide us.
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