WSJ Columnist Peggy Noonan Pushes Myth Of a Divided America

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, in her Monday article, argued that President Barack Obama is furthering the divide between liberals and conservatives in the United States. She claims the president is ignoring the fears of many Americans that our country has arrived at “the Great Coming Apart,” and that the bonds of this nation will dissolve. Instead of trying to heal these divisions, she argues that the president has been more concerned with stoking the fires of division to suit his own re-election bid. But Noonan is guilty of the same charges she levels at the president, perhaps even more so. She stokes the fires of division by perpetuating a deep-seated myth rather than the truth: There is, in fact, no great political divide between Americans. By doing this, she further pushes moderates out of the political discussion.

It is a little surprising that Noonan doesn’t cite some study that purports to show how far apart the people of this nation have become. Such “evidence” is sure to exist. But this “evidence” has been shaped by a media that wants to create the illusion of a divided country. It makes for better headlines to say, “Red and Blue states further apart than ever” rather than, “We all basically want similar things.” Conflict breeds headlines better than amicable relations.

Morris Fiorina’s influential book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America demonstrates convincingly that the vast cultural divide that the media and political pundits speak of is not a reflection of reality. Americans, for the most part, have similar views on most subjects regardless of political leanings. From abortion to gay marriage, Americans have views that do not differ greatly from each other. From this, Fiorina decides that the majority of Americans are actually moderates. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a greater degree of polarization within this country; it’s just not the population that is polarized.

The polarization that grips this country is located within the political parties. I have written previously about how the strengthening of the parties has led to stronger voting lines. Couple this trend with increasing participation and control of the primaries by the extremes of the parties and it is no great wonder that the political elite of the country have become more polarized. The moderates have been weeded out through a selection process that brooks little dissent. This is why Republican candidates for president such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Jon Huntsman fight an uphill battle in their campaigns. It also means candidates like Mitt Romney have to defend their records seemingly at every turn, forced to either explain how their previous stances and policies fit with the party plank or even change stances.

Noonan does nothing in this piece to address the fact that most people don’t hold the same views as either party. From reading her piece, you would think moderates were a rare type, as she never qualifies that both parties are out of touch with the majority of people. The closest she comes is in mention of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who she sees as pushing moderate views that can’t seem to find a wide audience.  Of course labeling Ryan a moderate is generous to say the least, as his policy choices aren’t far out of line with the extreme right. To avoid perpetuating the myth of a divided people, Noonan should have mentioned that moderates are not nearly as engaged in politics as extremists, and thus Ryan’s, or an actual moderates, ideas are left without a mobilized base.

By pointing her finger at Obama and helping to perpetuate the myth that everyone in this country is either standing on the extreme right or left of politics, Noonan is herself guilty of sowing dissension amongst Americans. When she says that “liberals…know little of the South and don’t wish to know of it” she leaves moderates out of the political picture. Faced with two extremes, moderates often choose not to vote at all, as low voter turnouts often demonstrate. Thus, the political field is left to the two extremes that become more polarized every year. But perhaps Noonan wasn’t interested in bridging the supposed gap between the people of this country. Perhaps she was only interested in trying to make those standing in the middle of the political parties choose a red shirt or a blue one.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Ian Ferguson

Ian is a recent graduate of Boston College's department of Arts and Sciences' political science graduate program, where he received his M.A. His interests include American primaries, the state of Congressional cooperation (or lack of), and policy regarding international trade. He currently works in the defense industry. His opinions here are his own.

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