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Books: 'Divided America'

Divided America
Divided America

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Earl Black
Co-Author, "Divided America"
Thursday, February 21, 2008; 12:00 PM

Earl Black was online Thursday, Feb. 21 at noon ET to take your questions on his book "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics" -- coming out in paperback March 25 -- and why no matter who wins the Democratic primary, the prospects of a general election landslide for either party are slim.

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The transcript follows.

Black is a professor of political science at Rice University. He has written several books with his brother, Emory University government and politics professor Merle Black, about the transformation of Southern politics.

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Earl Black: Good afternoon. This is Earl Black, co-author with my brother Merle Black of "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics." Simon & Schuster will publish the paperback edition of this book next month.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I understand and agree with you that politically Americans are very divided. What happens if the voters are divided even further, meaning that a "leftist" candidate (such as a Nader) and/or "rightist" candidate (such as a Ron Paul or a Tancredo) further divide this divided population? Who is more vulnerable to being divided further, the Democrats or the Republicans?

Earl Black: "Divided America" shows that the national party battle is the product of two competitive minority parties. Neither party can win national elections simply by uniting their partisans and turning them out. Many of the 50 states are generally safe for one of the major parties. Democrats rely on tremendous support in the Northeast and Pacific Coast, and Republicans rely on tremendous support in the South and Mountains/Plains. But these regional strongholds don't add up to national majorities. The Midwest is the nation's swing region, and Ohio would be the most important swing state in the Midwest.

Splinter candidacies (right or left) might be very important in a few states where the party balance is very competitive. Nader's campaign in Florida in 2000 very well might have taken enough votes from the Democrats to affect the outcome. In most states, one party usually has a large enough advantage to win despite third parties.

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Laurel, Md.: When I was growing up, the Senate included a few liberal Republicans like Charles Matthias, Lowell Weicker and Jacob Javitts, and some conservative Southern Democrats. In my opinion, this allowed a certain breadth to the political process because every issue wasn't necessarily both ideological and partisan. There was a measure of the spectrum a couple of years ago that determined that it has become almost one-dimensional. Robert Byrd (closest thing to an old-fashioned Southern Democrat anymore) and Lincoln Chaffee were the outliers that roughly defined the second dimension. Does the fact that the parties have little internal breadth make compromises more difficult?

Earl Black: As we show in "Divided America," both parties today are much more ideologically pure than before. Conservative Southern Democrats are a good example. That was the dominant pattern before the civil rights revolution and the Reagan realignment of the 1980, but no conservative Southern Democrats could win a Democratic primary today. Similarly important shifts have made it very difficult to nominate moderate-to-liberal Republicans across the country.

The consequence is very stark partisan and ideological differences in which many elected officials in national politics spend much time responding to the latest partisan outrage. As you point out, this ideological purity in Congress really does make compromises more difficult.

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Boston: For the Republicans, how much of this national political struggle is about resource allocation (corporate tax policies, regulatory issues, individual tax policies) versus social norm control (religious influence over social policy issues like abortion, gay marriage, schools)? Is there anything that can be done by our national leaders to bridge this divide, or is it not in anyone's political self-interest to do so?

Earl Black: One way to think about this important question is to understand that both parties are coalitions whose usual self-interest lies in tolerating groups that have different priorities but the support of which is essential to any hope for constructing winning majorities. This is difficult to do, especially when different candidates for the presidency clearly represent different wings of the party.

Because America's regions differ in the size of various key demographic groups, what is "normal" for many Southern Republicans (for example) becomes outrageous for many Northeastern Democrats, and vice versa.

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Washington: What is Hillary Clinton thinking? Her campaign's strategy now seems to be to attack not just Obama but his supporters as well, both directly and via surrogates (such as the head of the Ohio machinists). Doesn't her campaign understand that if she actually pulls off a comeback, she will need the votes of those she is attacking come November?

Earl Black: As we show in "Divided America," the racial, ethnic, gender and religious composition of Democratic voters in presidential elections has changed dramatically since the 1950s. In 2008 the much greater diversity of the grassroots base of the Democratic Party is now being played out in the Obama vs. Clinton campaigns. This now is reflected in the Clinton campaign's dilemma of finding ways to express real disagreement about presidential qualifications that do not risk truly angering voters whom the Democrats need for the fall campaign. I'm sure the Clinton campaign fully understands the risks they would be taking with additional rounds of negative campaigning. Usually the trailing candidate (from their perspective) puts personal ambition ahead of diplomacy if the trailing candidate can see no other way to win the nomination.

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washingtonpost.com: Some journalists -- including The Washington Post's Bob Kaiser -- suggest that this year's contentious Republican presidential primaries may indicate that the so-called Reagan Coalition of social, economic and national security conservatives may be fracturing. Do you also see this as a possibility?

Earl Black: Time moves on, and every major party faces the problem of finding the right candidates and issues to reunite itself. One of the striking changes we show in "Divided America" is how Reagan's landslide presidential victories in the 1980s have been reduced to truly narrow national Republican victories in 2000 and 2004. The Republicans carried many large urban-industrial northern states in 1980-1988; those states (Northeast, Pacific Coast, upper Midwest) are now strongly Democratic. The "Southern" face of the Republican Party has helped revive Democratic strength in much of the Northeast, Pacific Coast and the Great Lakes states. All the Democrats need to do to win the White House this year is to keep on winning the states they've carried in 200-2004 and add Ohio.

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Tampa, Fla.: What's it like to write a book with your brother? Do you argue with each other more or less stridently than your non-related colleagues? Also, have to ask, are you mad at your parents for giving you rhyming names?

Earl Black: "Divided America" is the fourth book my twin brother Merle and I have written together. We do have disagreements from time to time, but we haven't had a fistfight since we were teenagers. Generally, once we agree on an outline for a book, we have a division of labor and don't have to argue too much with each other about major issues. With e-mail and attachments, it's a lot easier to collaborate than it used to be. Thanks for your interest.

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washingtonpost.com: Readers have expressed concern that certain demographics have gotten so strongly behind either Clinton or Obama that those voters would stay home in November if their preferred candidate were denied the nomination. How likely a scenario is that?

Earl Black: The next few weeks will be critical for the rival Democratic campaigns. The national Democratic Party never before has seen its grassroots coalition (racial, ethnic and gender) tested in such a way as the Obama vs. Clinton battle. In the past white men have been the presidential nominees (of both parties!); when the two main Democrats would make history and they both of course want the same prize, it requires real skill and statesmanship to keep the main goal -- winning the presidential election -- in view. If Clinton cannot win the Texas and Ohio primaries in early March and if no plausible path to a Clinton nomination remains, then her campaign will come under tremendous pressure to concede gracefully.

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Washington: I know Obama performs better than Clinton in national polls when pitted against McCain, but is that also true for key swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida? The older, less financially well-off voters seem to be ones Obama has struggled reaching out to.

Earl Black: National (and even more) state horse-race polls taken this early usually are not worth much. It's especially difficult this early to know how well Sen. Obama might perform in those key states. Compared to Clinton and McCain, he's still less well-known nationally.

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Earl Black: I believe we are out of time. Thanks to all of your for your stimulating questions. I enjoyed the chat!

Best wishes,

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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