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‘Politics of Polarization’ Hurts Democrats, Study Says

If America is to have a competitive two-party system, Democrats must confront “dominant myths” that keep them from seizing the political center and building a stable majority, two political scientists and former Clinton advisers contend in a new paper.

Bill Galston of the University of Maryland and Elaine Kamarck of Harvard, who served together in the Clinton White House, are credited with helping shape Bill Clinton’s approach to politics and governance in an influential 1989 study, “The Politics of Evasion.”

In a new study, “The Politics of Polarization,” they once again identify a series of “myths” that they say cloud Democrats’ minds, along with a new political reality they call a “great sorting out” of American voters.

Self-described liberals are more likely to vote Democrat and self-labeled conservatives more prone to vote Republican than in the past, they say. Yet a strong plurality of Americans associate themselves with the moderate center of the political spectrum.

That means the country’s system of polarized politics does not provide a natural home for many Americans who define themselves as moderates and creates substantial distance between the political parties and the people.

“Many Americans do not want to choose between a vigorous economy and a strong safety net, between individual liberty and national security, between social tolerance and moral tradition or between military strength and international cooperation, and they resent a politics that forces them to do so,” Galston and Kamarch write.

Polarization has tilted the field against Democrats, they say. With three conservatives for every two liberals, a Democratic candidate must win upwards of 60 percent of the moderate vote to win a national election–a target that only <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Clinton has reached in recent times.

While many people believe recent successes by Republicans reflect an electorate that is becoming more conservative, studies show little movement in how Americans self-identify their ideology, they say. What has changed, however, is that liberals are less likely to vote for a Republican and conservatives less likely to vote for a Democrat than before.

Religion, they say, is an “overriding factor” in this great sorting out. Where Catholics and Jews once tended to vote Democratic and Protestants to vote Republican, today evangelical Protestants, traditionalist Catholics and Orthodox Jews tend to be conservative and Republican voters. Mainline Protestants, Vatican II Catholics and Reform Jews tend to vote Democratic, and Democrats win only among voters who are less observant or do not have religion in their lives at all.

The authors describe President Clinton’s legacy on moral issues as “one of lost opportunities for Democrats.” Clinton initiatives on welfare reform, crime and affirmative action, they say, solved a set of race-based values issues that beset Democrats in the 1980s. But the Monica Lewinsky scandal “left a lasting moral stain” on Democrats, helping Republicans to outpoll Democrats on “family values” and prompting voter defections among married women and Catholics.

While “moral values” appeal to those voters, they tend to view the term as broader than abortion and tolerance for gays, two issues trumpeted by the religious right. Catholics, for example, were more likely to emphasize personal integrity, family solidarity and social issues in open-ended questions about values than mention of specific positions on abortion, gay marriage or the Ten Commandments.

Catholics are more pro-life than the electorate as a whole, and tend to oppose legalizing gay marriage, the authors say. But they also respond affirmatively to themes like social justice, favor policies that benefit the middle class and deplore economic inequality and corporate abuse.

That doesn’t mean that Democrats must jettison long-help principles on issues such as abortion and gay rights, however. But Galston and Kamarch do urge their party to show more tolerance and common sense.

They say most people hold a moderate view on abortion, believing most abortions should be legal but perhaps supporting certain exceptions, like parental notification requirements or banning so-called “partial-birth” abortion.

While Republicans allowed high-profile pro-choice figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudolph Giuliani to address their convention in 2004, many Catholics remember that Democrats refused to allow a pro-life governor to address them in 1992.

Among “myths” that Democrats need to explode, they say, is “the myth of language,” the thesis that the problem with the Democratic Party is not what it believes but how it speaks. The “simple-minded” manifestation of this view says if Democrats have a problem with religious voters, the solution is for candidates to quote the Bible as often as possible.

“Candidates who begin waving the Bible after a lifetime of public secularism will have a hard time conveying conviction and retaining credibility,” they write. “Jimmy Carter appealed to religious voters (including some who were quite conservative) not because he quoted verses from Mark and Luke when he ran for president, but because he had grown up as a regular church-attending Christian and viscerally understood the community from which he came.”

Democratic candidates, they say, “have to establish a bond of trust with the electorate that is based as much on character and integrity as policy agendas and issue papers,” they conclude.

Their ideal candidate is a person of strength, with core convictions and the ability to act on them amid challenges and criticism; of integrity, who tells the truth and whose words and deeds coincide; and of empathy, who understands and cares for ordinary people.

“In American national politics, candidates who appear cold, calculating, vacillating or elitist rarely succeed,” they say.

The 64-page study was released under auspices of The Third Way organization.

Galston, who was a senior adviser for Al Gore when he ran for president in 1988, spoke at a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics in 1995.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.