LE ROUGE ET LE BLEU….The New York Times has an article today about a subject that, coincidentally, I was discussing at lunch with another blogger just yesterday: is it possible that the country is not really as polarized as everyone thinks it is?

Majorities in both places support stricter gun control as well as the death penalty; they strongly oppose giving blacks preference in hiring while also wanting the government to guarantee that blacks are treated fairly by employers. They’re against outlawing abortion completely or allowing it under any circumstances, and their opinions on abortion have been fairly stable for three decades. Virtually identical majorities of Blues and Reds don’t want a single party controlling the White House and Congress.

….”Compared to earlier periods ? the Civil War, the 1930’s, the 1960’s ? our disagreements now are not that deep,” Professor [Alan] Wolfe said last week. “Indeed, it is only because we agree so much on so many things that we can allow ourselves the luxury of thinking we are having a culture war. When one of society’s deepest divisions is over stem cells, that society is pretty unified.”

Exactly. In the same way that the most trivial disputes can often be the bitterest, the opposite might also be true: perhaps our increasingly bitter rhetoric is a sign that many of today’s worst disputes are actually pretty trivial.

Assault weapons bans? Not exactly a core isse of gun rights, is it? Partial birth abortion? It’s at the absolute fringe of the abortion debate. How many points of preference out of 100 can we give black applicants to law school? That’s a lo-o-o-ong way from Jim Crow.

To a certain extent, the same is true of economic issues. We fight enormous battles over whether tax rates should go up or down by three points and whether the Social Security retirement age should be 67 or 68. This is not the stuff of which legends are made.

And if I may be permitted a bit of blasphemy, even the Iraq war demonstrates considerably more consensus than it seems at first glance. Think about it: we have a conservative president who controls both houses of congress. Three years ago we were directly assaulted by Arab terrorists. Saddam Hussein was a brutal, murderous dictator who had been in a low-level war with us for years. And the United States has waged plenty of unprovoked wars in its history, so invading Iraq was hardly unprecedented.

And yet, even with all that going for it, George Bush was barely able to get support for the war, was forced to at least pretend he wanted UN support, and knows perfectly well that even his conservative supporters won’t accept an American presence in Iraq for more than a couple of years. Bush had everything going for him a president could have, but even so the country’s skeptical attitude toward foreign wars these days is widespread enough that his options were extremely limited.

This isn’t to say there aren’t any big issues left. Gay rights is certainly a core debate over values, although one whose ending is pretty much assured at this point. National health insurance provokes questions about the basic role of government in the modern world. And there’s no question that slow but steady changes in income inequality and wealth distribution are a potential timebomb that needs to be dealt with.

But on issues from abortion to gun control to the size of government to our position in the world, once you cut through the weeds it’s surprising how consistent the core majority positions of the country have been for the past 30 years. But you sure wouldn’t know it from listening to NARAL, the NRA, the Club for Growth, or MoveOn, would you?

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