After Clinton, a Wider Cultural Divide

First we had the election, in which issue differences were muted and voters could have gone either way. Then we had the post-election ordeal, when the country seemed torn apart. The stakes suddenly escalated, and millions of voters had a desperate interest in making sure that the wrong man didn't get elected.

Now we have the question: How divided is the country? It sure looks divided. Al Gore won the nationwide popular vote by about half a percentage point-the closest outcome since 1960. But George W. Bush got elected by carrying the Electoral College, 271-267. The closest electoral vote since 1876.

Republicans have a razor-thin edge in the House. The Senate? Dead even. You can't get any closer than that. The parties are as closely divided in the states as they are in Washington. Seventeen states have Republican-controlled legislatures. Democrats control 16. And 16 are split. (Nebraska's Legislature is nonpartisan.)

The Clinton years have equalized the strength of the two parties. President Clinton blurred party differences on economic policy, although he created a deep division over values. The resultant Clintonism is a policy of the center--the "Third Way," between Left and Right. A lot of it was stolen from Republicans. And it worked. It brought the country peace, prosperity, declining crime rates, and declining welfare rolls. On Election Day, nearly two-thirds of Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction. Then why didn't Gore get two-thirds of the vote?

Because almost 60 percent of the voters said that the moral condition of the country was seriously on the wrong track. Clinton created a consensus on policy. But not on values. You can see the values split on the 2000 election map. The conservative heartland went for Bush. Gore's support came from the liberal coasts and the liberal upper Midwest of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. And from areas dominated by minorities, such as African-Americans in the Mississippi Delta, Hispanics in South Texas and Florida, and Asian-Americans in Hawaii.

Lifestyle differences had a powerful impact on the way people voted. Urban America went heavily for Gore. Rural America went for Bush. Suburban voters were split. Kate O'Beirne labeled it "the ZIP code election" in National Review. Married voters went for Bush. Single voters for Gore. Regular churchgoers for Bush. Less-religious voters for Gore. Gun owners came out for Bush. No guns meant Gore. Why do styles of life suddenly matter so much? "Lifestyle" is a 1960s word, and Bill Clinton was the first President to come out of the culture of the '60s--sex, drugs ("I didn't inhale"), and rock 'n' roll. Clinton is a hero to African-Americans and Hollywood liberals and feminists because of his liberal values, not because of his centrist policies.

Conservatives hate Clinton because of his values. Conservatives believe the values of the '60s corrupted American culture with an ethic of self-indulgence. Read any book by Bill Bennett. Impeachment and the Florida election results were the latest skirmishes in the nation's ongoing cultural war.

The 2000 campaign was a contest over policy, and it brought Americans together. Elect either candidate, and you would get some version of Social Security reform, campaign finance reform, tax cuts, prescription drug coverage, and an expanded federal role in education. The post-election campaign was a more polarized contest. Suddenly it was all about race and abortion ights--issues that had barely surfaced during the pre-election campaign. And partisan lines hardened.

Clinton's legacy made the Democrats more competitive on economic issues--in the suburbs, for instance. California and New Jersey are suburban states that used to be reliably Republican. But they are also coastal states whose voters don't like the ties between the GOP and the Religious Right. Clinton made it safe for tax-sensitive suburbanites to vote Democratic. He also got economic liberals such as Bill Bradley and Ralph Nader to denounce Clintonism as a sellout.

At the same time, Clinton reduced the Democrats' appeal in culturally conservative areas of the country. Such as Tennessee and Arkansas and West Virginia, states Gore should have won. Talk to a liberal, and they'll give you this analysis of the 2000 election: Gore lost because he kept his distance from Bill Clinton. But the truth is, Gore lost because he couldn't keep his distance from Bill Clinton.

Gore couldn't have done much better with liberals and minorities. He carried California and Illinois by 12 percentage points, and New York by 25 percentage points. African-American turnout was up in many parts of the country (such as Florida), and the black vote went 90 percent in favor of Gore. The gender gap was bigger than it has ever been. Women preferred Gore to Bush by 11 percentage points. But men preferred Bush to Gore by 11 percentage points. That was Gore's problem. Try as he did to keep a distance from Clinton--by naming Joe Lieberman to the ticket, for instance--he was always Clinton's man. Voters who hated Clinton came out strongly against Gore. Consensus on policy. Divided on values. That's America these days. Has American politics ever been this closely divided?

Interestingly, yes. For 30 years after the Civil War. That war sustained a deep cultural divide--North vs. South, instead of Left vs. Right. A President was impeached along straight party lines. For three decades, presidential elections were extremely close. So close that, in 1876 and 1888, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral vote. Imagine that.

William Schneider is a resident fellow at AEI.

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