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Is the Culture War a myth?

ASK THIS | August 24, 2004

Most Americans stand in the middle of the political landscape, asserts Stanford Professor Morris P. Fiorina. He encourages the media to cast a skeptical eye on the activists – he suggests calling them blowhards - who would tell you otherwise.

Q. When an activist spokesperson makes a pronouncement, ask "Whom do you speak for?" "How many citizens do you speak for?" "When did they appoint you as their spokesperson?"


The following is an excerpt from Fiorina's book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. (You can also read the first chapter here.)


By Morris P. Fiorina



Can Anything Be Done?


"Clowns to left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you." (from Stealer’s Wheel, Stuck in the Middle With You)


The chorus of this 1973 pop hit could well serve as the anthem of the American people.  How might we diminish the influence of the clowns and jokers and expand the influence of the middle? I am not optimistic. There will be no help from the political class itself. The activists who gave rise to the notion of a culture war, in particular, and a deeply polarized politics, in general, for the most part are sincere. They are polarized.  Leaders of conservative Christian groups allied with the Republican Party sincerely believe they are fighting a culture war, as do leaders and activists in pro-choice and gay rights groups allied with the Democratic Party. That they are small, unrepresentative minorities does not alter the fact that these and numerous other interest group activists feel strongly about their issues and will vote, work, and contribute in support of them.


Nor will most politicians be of much help.  Like interest group leaders, many candidates and office-holders sincerely believe they are engaged in a war. Some are themselves purists who were activists before winning office.  Others see instrumental reasons for acting like purists. Each party has a base composed of people particularly sensitive to certain issues. Increasingly, professional campaigners seem to believe that mobilizing the base is the most important component of a winning electoral strategy, a belief that may be a self-fulfilling prophecy if appeals to the base result in moderate voters turning off and tuning out. So, however misplaced from the standpoint of the welfare of the larger country, an emphasis on cultural and other conflicts not of particular interest to the majority appears to be an integral part of contemporary electoral politics.


The media potentially could be of some use.  When an activist spokesperson makes a pronouncement, a critical media could ask "Whom do you speak for?" "How many citizens do you speak for?" "When did they appoint you as their spokesperson?" The media could even cease its unconsidered use of the neutral term "activist" and use terms that are usually more accurate—exhibitionist, crackpot, blowhard. None of this will come to pass however, for despite pious pronouncements about the role of the media as the guardian of democracy, the media consist largely of profit-sector enterprises that will continue to behave as such. That means an emphasis on differences among Americans rather than commonalities. The commercial success of the newspapers and news shows depends on good story lines, and conflict is a good story line. "Americans agree on core values" is not a headline that editors expect to sell newspapers.  "Citizens describe themselves as moderates" is not a good lead for the evening news.  A red and blue battleground over which the Democrats and Republicans wage war is a news frame that fits the selection principles of the news industry.


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