Winner Takes All

Wendy Radmacher-Willis

I am the mother of two young children. My husband and I both work. We go to church. We pay taxes. We know our neighbors and give money to our favorite charities. Mostly, we are just trying to keep the wheels on a full and chaotic life.

But, here’s the thing that keeps me up at night. I have no understanding of the person who would describe herself exactly the same way but lives on the other side of the cultural divide, the red-blue split as we are calling it this year. I literally can not understand why a working mom who wants the best for her kids and her community would list her top policy concerns to be abortion and same sex marriage. What about the Clean Air Act? What about education finance? What about getting those kids who are risking their lives in Iraq home and in college?

I had a friend tell me the other day that he resented the Bush administration because it had “radicalized” him. That characterization rang true for me. I feel like the current administration is a threat to my way of life, and I don’t mean that hyperbolically. However, I know that my red alter-ego feels the same level of fear and passion, but in the converse.

Someone’s going to win this election and someone’s going to lose, and this has become a winner-take-all contest. I agonize about what will happen in January, when the next four years stretch out before us. No matter who emerges, half the voters will believe that their cultural enemy is in control of the country. That will leave me and my red counterpart mistrustful and fearful for the future of our children. I am afraid of what will happen this November because of who might win, but I worry more that the chasm between citizens has become uncrossable.

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    If you take a look at the Bush administration, this result is not surprising. The administration looks at issues in black and white. It's the "either you're with us, or against us" attitude that has bled into society.

  • brett (unverified)

    You can't claim that only one side is responsible for polarization. I resent Bush's social agenda as much as anyone, but you can't blame him for the fact that the author (and others similarly situated) has no "no understanding of the person who would describe herself exactly the same way but lives on the other side of the cultural divide." Isn't it that understanding that would bridge "the chasm between citizens"? To blame polarization on only one side is to engage in polarization. How's that for irony.

    PS: Oregon Law?

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    We really seem to be talking polarization, don't we? Must be a hot issue. I think Brett's right--definitionally, polarization requires two poles. It's no more clear to lefties as to why Clinton roused such hatred among righties than it is for righties to understand why lefties have gone round the bend with Bush.

    On the other hand, equal participation doesn't mean equal blame. If a person beats on another's head with a hammer 20 times and on the 21st the beatee become enraged enough to try to stop the beater, you've got polarization--but you've also got some blame. Republicans have been in full power for 4 years, and have dictated the national direction since 1980. At the same time, they have demonized anyone who doesn't agree with them--witness Ashcroft's threats of senators, the GOP calling the cops on the Dems, the absolute evisceration of Max Cleland, etc.

    After 9/11, they (stupidly) tried to work with the GOP, giving the administration carte blanche on policy decisions. It got them further abuse. Whenever these abuses are mentioned, the GOP mentions Michael Moore or Al Franken. But what about leaders? Democrats' patriotism is being questioned by the GOP--that has never happened in reverse. And on and on.

    So we are polarized, and we can't pull back without getting together and healing some of the old wounds. I agree. But let's be clear about how it all started.

  • cullen (unverified)

    Wedge issues divide America, not parties. And, who pounds them in? Not the democrats. I ask: when have you heard a GOPer complaining about the “values” divide tearing the fabric of American community apart? I challenge you to find a book on it by a conservative republican. They love it and they want to keep it that way. When the topic of health care, environment, jobs, police, and childcare come up – they duck. Speaking to wedge issues ignites their base and brings their voters to the polls.

    Luckily for us – we feel just as strongly about some of these issues.

    My point is: The day that issues such as clean air, affordable health care and financing education are topics of conversation, is the day we might just find ourselves sharing cookie recipes with our red neighbors. Until then my lemon-poppy-seed cookie recipe will stay in my blue box.

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    I suspect that part of the cause of the values divide is a physical divide. As people make decisions about where to live based on lifestyle choices and amenities rather than family ties and jobs, they are in essence self-sorting based on interests and values, which have some correlation to political views.

    I am not in a position to share cookie recipes with any of my red neighbors because I do not have any red neighbors. The vast majority of my incidental contacts are with people who think a lot like I do.

    I like to believe that it would be easier to discover common ground if we had more contact with people with whom we disagree. If the neighbors I was working side by side with on my neighborhood playground were conservatives, we would have a basis for trust outside the political arena.

  • brett (unverified)

    Jeff, I think you're right that the increase in polarization probably was started by the right. If I had to, I'd peg 1994 as the beginning - the Contract with America, Gingrich, and all that. Then there was the impeachment in 1998. Then in 2000, all hell broke loose. But since 2000, there's just no way to say that the right has been more guilty than the left. Bush stole the election, he's fighting a war for Bechtel, Cheney is on Halliburton's payroll, Bush is Hitler, Bush lied about yellowcake, Bush is in league with the Saudis, etc. Sound familiar? Demonization is the preferred modus operandi these days, on both sides.

    It's a favorite canard by the left to say that their patriotism is constantly being questioned, but it's just not true. No respectable Republican believes that his equally respectable political opponents are not patriots. Of course there are bomb-throwers, but for every Ann Coulter on the right, there's a Michael Moore on the left. They should be ignored.

    Cullen, those issues are topics of conversation. We just differ on the solutions to these problems. I hope you don't believe that Republicans want dirty air, unemployment, and unaffordable education.

    Wendy, I think you're dead-on. Political segregation is endemic, and Oregon is a textbook case. The rural/urban divide here is staggering; you can hardly find a blue voter outside of Portland, Ashland, and Eugene, and you can hardly find a red one in those cities. But there may be more red voters out there than you think; many have simply stopped talking about it, because they are tired of having liberal dogma shoved down their throats.

    I think I'm changing my mind about this web site.. so far, so good.

  • Claire (unverified)

    I don't think it is necessarily true that you can't find blue voters outside of urban areas and vice versa. (Corvallis should probably be on your list with Portland, Ashland, and Eugene, btw.)

    My folks are from a rural town, one of those towns hard hit by the collapse of the timber industry and which now has a lot of farmers. They have been quite surprised to find a lot of like-minded folks (blue voters) who just don't talk publically or loudly about their politics, because they are tired of having right-wing dogma shoved down their throats.

    If red voters are out there, I'd say that plenty of blue voters are too -- it's just that they are both in the minority in their areas and they are both quiet for the same reason.

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    Brett, I think we've come to mostly common ground here. Wendy cites one of two secondary phenomena that has increased polarization. Another is our inadvertant identification with social signifiers. I grew up (way) east of the mountains, in a gun-rack-in-the-truck family. The physical distance Wendy describes is accompanied by a psychic distance we've built up: if you've got a pierced tongue and I've got a gun rack, we have very different values. (Politicians have further exploited this.)

    Pat Ryan was having fun with this a couple days ago (bless his heart). He was trying to point out that lefties sometimes tote guns (hunters--surprise--also like healthy forests), and the urban lefty's disdain over cultural issues is exactly what got us a GOP-dominated country. Lefties (or even better--Oregonians) would do themselves a favor by trying to reduce that psychic distance.

    (I'm enjoying your comments, too.)

  • brett (unverified)

    Jeff, at some point, we passed each other on the political spectrum like ships in the night. I grew up in a solidly Democratic suburban family. I was mostly Democratic until 9/11, but changed my mind soon thereafter. You're right, the psychic distance isn't as great as we think, and maybe sites like this will help to bridge the gap..

  • Greg Hamilton (unverified)

    Brett -

    Regarding your comment about Portland being a blue looks fairly red out here on the far-east side.

    I live out on SE 72 and Foster - and I feel like a blue in a sea of reds.

    Even thought the "economic recovery" hasn't really done much for the residents of Felony Flats, the majority of folks around here are still Bush supporters. Most of this appears rooted in God, Guns & Country - rather than any real political awareness.

    Still, I've got to wonder when the economic/social realities of this administration's class war are going to sink in?

    And when they do?

  • Matthew Uhre (unverified)

    C'mon man, give up the cookie recipe. I wouldn't say that the Bush administration has radicalized me, because my political beliefs haven't changed. But it has mobilized me. It has made me more active politically, and it has for the majority of my friends. So that's a good thing. If anything, I have sympathy for the red voters. This IS the end of the world as they know it. They are loosing the culture wars. Their beliefs are being dismissed or refuted consistently. And it's not like there are a whole lot of comforting alternatives for them. That is why there is such a concerted political response from the culturally conservative. They are scared. Give 'em a cookie.

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