Closing of the American Mind

There are, as they say, two Americas. There is the America of the rich and the America of the poor, as Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards likes to point out. There is the America of Red States and Blue States, populated, as columnist Dave Barry likes to joke, by "ignorant racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed cousin-marrying road-kill-eating tobacco-juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks" and "godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving leftwing Communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts."

These divisions seem to grow, and to grow more antagonistic, by the year. But the real divide, the separation that may matter more to the future of American democracy, is between the political junkies and everyone else. The junkies watch endless cable-TV news shows and listen to angry talk radio and feel passionate about their political views. They number roughly 20 percent of the population, according to Princeton professor Markus Prior, who tracks political preferences and the media. Then there's all the rest: the people who prefer ESPN or old movies or videogames or Facebook or almost anything on the air or online to politics. Once upon a time, these people tended to be political moderates; now they are turned off or tuned out. Aside from an uptick in the 2004 presidential election, voter turnout has drifted downward since its modern peak in 1960 (from 63 percent to the low 50s), despite much easier rules on voter registration and expensive efforts to get out voters, writes Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "The Vanishing Voter." For all the press hoopla over the coming presidential primaries, turnout rates are likely to dip way below 30 percent, he predicts.

It's axiomatic that democracies need an informed and engaged citizenry. But America's is indifferent or angry. Washington has entered an age of what Ken Mehlman, President Bush's campaign manager in 2004, calls "hyperpartisanship." Partisanship is nothing new, or necessarily bad—after all, it can offer voters clear choices. But it has become poisonous. In "How Divided Are We?," a 2006 essay in the journal Commentary, conservative thinker James Q. Wilson writes about candidates who regard their competitors "not simply as wrong but as corrupt and wicked." There is in modern political polarization a strong whiff of the old paranoid style of American politics: the left imagines big corporations plotting with neocons to protect Big Oil, while the right imagines a conspiracy of big media, Hollywood and academe to subvert traditional values.

What happened to the "vital center," the necessary glue to getting anything done in a system that is premised on checks and balances? It's hard to imagine the leaders of the two parties sitting down at the end of the day to share a drink and a joke, as President Reagan was able to do with Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill in the 1980s or President Johnson was able to do with Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen in the 1960s. Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has referred to President Bush as a "liar" and a "loser." The popular debate is no more civilized: just read the comments posted by ordinary citizens on the Web sites of the mainstream media (much less partisan blogs). They often run along the lines of "Hillary is the Devil" and "Bush is a baby killer."

The causes of this divide—between the angry and the indifferent, the news junkies and the politically disaffected—are varied, deep-seated and, unfortunately, hard to cure. The evolution of the two parties has hardened ideological divisions and driven away moderates.

The historically minded tend to dismiss, or at least downplay, such observations about the present, arguing that it has been ever thus. Jefferson and Adams fought over religion; Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton; on the floor of Congress members occasionally struck each other with fists and canes. All true, but just because the past had its dismal chapters does not mean the division of the moment is any less important, and it is the case that we are in a particularly bleak phase of partisanship.

And the middle of the 20th century was a bit better on the question of cooperation. Back then the political parties tried to be big tents. The Democrats numbered conservative Southerners as well as liberal Northerners. The Republicans had some big-city liberals as well as rural conservatives. But then, starting in the 1960s, when Presidents Kennedy and Johnson bravely embraced civil rights, Southern conservatives deserted the Democrats. By the '80s, Democratic strength was centered in the big cities and along the coasts, and liberal interest groups had taken over the party. Neither party tried as hard to reach out to the ideologically diverse.

Partly in response to the impression of liberal bias in the mainstream media, the Republican right has made a highly successful industry out of talk radio and Fox News Channel, the network created by Roger Ailes, a former Nixon-Reagan political operative who cut his teeth peeling conservative ethnics away from the Democratic Party in the 1970s and '80s.

It is a mistake, however, to think that Fox News turns viewers into partisan conservatives. "They came that way," says Prior, the Princeton political scientist whose book, "Post-Broadcast Democracy," offers the clearest and most insightful explanation of why American politics has become more polarized. Fox was responding to a shift in the political landscape brought on largely by technological changes that drove media habits, says Prior. In his book, Prior shows that developments in broadcasting lie at the heart of some disheartening trends in American political life.

The old order—a larger, more politically moderate voting public—was a matter of choice, writes Prior, or rather a lack thereof. In 1970, at about 6:30 p.m. at least two or three nights a week, about half the country could be found watching the evening news on one of the three major networks. The broadcasts tended to be fairly sober-minded, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand presentations by trusted anchormen like Walter Cronkite. The network news shows had to be evenhanded because they appealed to such large and politically diverse audiences, and because the networks had to mind a "Fairness Doctrine," imposed by Congress in return for granting precious broadcast licenses on the narrow bandwidth of VHF TV. The huge audiences watched them because, with only four or five channels to watch on most TVs, there wasn't much else on.

But then, in the 1980s and '90s, came cable TV and the Internet. Before long, viewers had scores of channels to choose from, or they could abandon TV altogether and entertain themselves online. Prior estimates that about half the viewers of the evening news wandered away to watch entertainment—sports, movies, reality TV, whatever. Today, the evening news shows draw about 10 percent of the viewing audience. For the political junkies, the offerings are much more bounteous than in 1970: not only 24-hour news channels but an infinitely expanding blogosphere. Some commentators and political figures—notably Al Gore, in his latest book, "The Assault on Reason"—see the Internet as democracy's last, best hope, a way of opening the world to free-flowing ideas. But others note that the Web tends to be long on opinion (which is cheap to produce) and short on actual reporting (which is expensive and strains the capacities of old-line news organizations shorn of viewers, listeners and readers).

Political junkies can find anything on the Internet, but what they look for tends to reinforce their prejudices. It is now possible to design a 24/7 "Daily Me" on the Web to replace that bulky, soggy but multifaceted newspaper that once landed in the driveway each morning. "We are creating enclaves of like-minded people," writes University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, author of " 2.0," an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Historically, notes Sunstein, narrow-interest groups have fueled social progress, like the civil-rights movement—but also cults and Nazism. "There is a general risk that those who flock together, on the Internet or elsewhere, will end up both confident and wrong," writes Sunstein.

Congress is a mirror of this narrow-casting. It seems improbable that Congress could make the sort of compromises necessary to pass meaningful legislation to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, say, or to significantly lower greenhouse-gas emissions.

There is a faint clamor for leaders who will transcend "business as usual" and unite, rather than divide, the country. With about three out of four Americans saying the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and both Congress and the president drawing historically low approval ratings, this might be a good time to find common ground to look for far-reaching solutions. The presidential candidates by and large at least give lip service to "coming together," though at the same time their cynical operatives are usually maneuvering to drive voters further apart with "wedge issues" and negative advertising. Americans could, of course, reject this hypocrisy and demand the sort of leadership that reaches across the political aisle to accomplish hard tasks. But first they will have to switch off the Xbox or click away from the Home Shopping Network or "Girls Gone Wild" and go out and vote.