Pledges to work for more unity or "less polarization" are a standard post-election ritual. We've heard them from George Bush and John Kerry. They're hard to take seriously. Our age practices what I call "the politics of self-esteem." Political elites of all stripes (elected officials, activists, commentators) try to make their most fervent followers feel better by belittling the other side. By this, I don't mean that there aren't real differences over issues or that elections don't alter some government policies. What I mean is that, under the cover of these familiar conflicts, politicians and opinion leaders are really engaged in a contest to raise the spirits and affirm the beliefs of their supporters. This is what many Americans now want. They desire elevated self-esteem.
We should not be surprised. The psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) famously theorized that all people have a "hierarchy of needs," moving from basic requirements for food to love and then to esteem and "self-actualization." In a mainly prosperous society, politics drifts in the same direction. Government has already satisfied many economic needs. It now pays about $1.2 trillion annually in personal benefits (Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, etc.). Since 1950, the unemployment rate has averaged 5.7 percent. Faded is the terror of the Depression (average unemployment in the 1930s: 18 percent). Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan suppressed the great post-World War II economic scourge: inflation. Economic issues still matter, but absent some crisis, they matter less.
By contrast, people still want to feel good about themselves. The post-election elation of Bush voters and the wretchedness of Kerry supporters cannot be explained by objective differences on policies. Although a President Kerry might have governed much differently from Bush, their positions were similar on many issues. Both pledged to cut the budget deficit by half. Kerry promised to keep most of Bush's tax cuts, except those for people with incomes exceeding $200,000. Both pledged to kill terrorists. Kerry said he would pursue the war in Iraq, only more competently. These were differences of degree.
Even on gay marriage, the two were close. Both opposed legalizing gay marriage and supported "civil unions." That's the midpoint of public opinion. Here's what the exit polls found: 25 percent of voters support gay marriage, 35 percent back civil unions and 37 percent want no legal recognition of gay couples. True, Bush backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and Kerry didn't. But the amendment stands little chance of ratification. Bush and Kerry were merely signaling sympathy to core voters for positions that neither would take (for Bush's "base'': banning all recognition; for Kerry's: supporting marriage).
Psychology -- more than policy -- explains the post-election highs and lows. In American democracy, the verdict of the majority confers bragging rights that the winners are "in the mainstream" and the losers are someplace else. This thrills the winners and devastates the losers. The fashionable factoid of this election was the discovery that 22 percent of voters cited "moral values" as the most important issue for them, ahead of those who cited the economy (20 percent) or terrorism (19 percent). These were supposedly "values voters," mainly right of center and religious. Actually, "values voters" exist all along the political spectrum.
"Every liberal [thinks he's] intellectually superior to conservatives," Paul Begala, a former Clinton administration official, remarked on CNN. "Every conservative I know wants to think of himself as morally superior." Though these are generalizations (as Begala admitted), they represent real psychological imperatives. Politics increasingly strives to feed these self-images. The easiest way to make your people feel better is to cast their people as immoral, stupid, evil, corrupt or greedy. Politics, news and entertainment merge, because all seek to satisfy psychological needs. Michael Moore and Bill O'Reilly are more important political figures than most senators. The starkest contrast between Bush and Kerry was in the sensibilities they projected: Bush as decisive, steadfast and religious; Kerry as thoughtful, informed and worldly. " 'It's a Victory for People Like Us,'" headlined a Washington Post profile of a young evangelical couple. A similar Kerry story would have said: " 'It's a Defeat for People Like Us.' "
America is not (as I've written before) a polarized society, though its politics are polarized. "The great mass of American people . . . are for the most part moderate in their views and tolerant in their manner," writes political scientist Morris Fiorina of Stanford University in his new book, "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America." General attitudes on race and sexual preference have softened in recent decades. Divisions on many political issues exist, but they always have. Great passions are confined mainly to "activists in the political parties and various cause groups [many of whom] do in fact hate each other."
Just so. Polarization is increasingly the business of politicians, advocacy groups and opinion leaders across the political spectrum. The people who are most polarized like being polarized. They feel good because the other people are bad. Political elites could turn more toward the center, but that would mean appealing to less committed people who draw less of their identities from politics. This seems uninviting. "Good or bad, the split in America now creates a publishing opportunity on both sides of the fence," Jack Romanos, president of Simon & Schuster, told the New York Times after the election. "To publish for the middle of the road right now would be suicide."
The unassailable logic isn't reassuring. Although America isn't polarized, our political and media elites are working hard to make it so. The center still holds, but assaulted from all sides, it may not forever.