By PETER CALLAGHAN
Tacoma News Tribune
April 18, 2006
Common, yes. Illuminating, not so much.
The problem is it assumes the country is divided into two camps: Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Bush or Kerry. It looked good on post-election maps. But it was always dependent on polls and elections forcing people with a variety of viewpoints into a bipolar world.
It shoves the deeply committed in with the ambiguous and calls it good.
Yet the red state-blue state idea lingers, probably because it is so easy. It might not be an accurate theory, but it is a theory nonetheless, and people take comfort in certainty.
A study released last week by the Pew Research Center (http://pew research.org) might cause some discomfort along the red-blue border.
Based on a national survey of 2,000 adults taken shortly after the 2004 election, researchers attempted to see just how ideological Americans really are. The answer? Not very.
"Judging by their opinions on a number of issues, many Americans simply do not fit well within either the conservative or liberal ideological camps," wrote Greg Smith and Scott Keeter, "instead falling into one of two other important U.S. political traditions - libertarian or populist - or defying attempts to pigeon-hole them."
They looked at the responses to a set of questions on economic and social issues: questions about government-guaranteed health insurance, government regulation of business, recognition of gay marriage and government promotion of morality.
Their conclusion was that only 18 percent of poll respondents could be considered liberals and 15 percent conservatives. Another 16 percent were populists, those who tended to endorse government regulation in both the economic and social areas. Another 9 percent were libertarians, those who tended to oppose government involvement in both spheres.
The rest? A whopping 42 percent were in the middle in a grouping the researchers termed "ambivalent." These Americans either answered the questions in seemingly conflicting ways or said they had no opinions at all.
This middle does not make up a majority, but it is the largest plurality. And while citizens in this group are slightly less likely to vote than liberals, conservatives and libertarians, they have slightly higher participation rates than populists.
Ambivalents "are by far the single largest group, and by that measure they will be important in any election," Smith, a research associate with the Pew Forum on Religion, said last week. In 2004, a majority voted for President Bush, but at lower percentages than conservatives, libertarians or populists. Liberals were for John Kerry.
So are we really a divided nation waging political and cultural wars? The analysis of earlier survey results suggests a more complex picture.
"Only about a third of the public holds consistently liberal or consistently conservative opinions on political issues," the study concludes. "Far from being an ideologically bipolar nation divided between liberals and conservatives, the U.S. is much more accurately described as an ideologically multipolar polity, with many ambivalent non-ideologues occupying a large middle ground."
What does all this mean as the 2006 congressional elections rev up?
Elections again will be determined by those in the middle, those without refined ideologies and without defined opinions. These might well be the undecided voters who either refuse to tell pollsters how they'll vote or don't really know until the last minute.
It means the party that can appeal to these voters while holding onto its base will win.
But despite these findings, we'll still focus our attention to the loudest voices on the left and the right - the ones who make the most noise but who ultimately do not make the decisions in most election contests.
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