The Pundits are Polarized, Not the Public

FoxNews has an article quoting Michael Moore and Bernard Goldberg making the case that the United States is very divided politically. The main evidence for this is the absurdly close 2000 election and the popularity of ideological books such as the recent bestsellers by Moore and Goldberg. I suspect the reality is just the opposite.

One of the longstanding debates between the left and the right is whether the news media — especially broadcast television — is biased toward one side or the other. As someone who is often infuriated at news broadcasts, I think the answer is neither. Rather, news broadcasts are targeted toward a middle-of-the-road relatively non-ideological political position which I suspect the vast majority of Americans subscribe to.

What the Left and Right do not want to hear is that, for the most part, Americans aren’t really into ideological politics. In fact most of the people I know a) are not really interested in politics and b) tend to have a mishmash of views across the ideological spectrum. I see a fair amount of interest in very narrow special interest politics — someone concerned about federal funding for breast cancer research, abortion-related activism, but not much beyond that.

Of course people like Michael Moore and Bernard Goldberg want to think that there is this deep political division and that they are appealing to their respective side, but I suspect sales of their books are driven largely because of the general middle-of-the-road consensus. Personally, being an extremely ideological person in a relatively non-ideological society drives me nuts. My idea of entertaining television is “Crossfire.” So of course the minority of ideological folks, fed up with the bland centrist television news, are going to flock to buy books like Bias or Stupid White Men.

The 2000 election is really the clincher. Moore thinks that because Gore and Bush were separated by a few hundred votes, that is an indication of a divided country. Maybe among hardcore Democrat and Republican activists, but the reason they were so close is that they held almost identical positions. Sure they differed on some of the details — details that most people don’t seem to give a hoot about — but their broader ideological positions were almost identical. Bush moved to the Left on abortion, Gore moved to the Right on free trade, and they looked more like members of the same party during the nationally televised debates than sworn ideological enemies.

If Americans were really divided by ideology, I would have thought Ralph Nader would have actually been able to poll significant numbers. Moore, after all, campaigned incessantly on behalf of Nader as the true left/liberal candidate and I suspect his performance in the polls — under 5 percent — closely reflects the number of people in Moore’s ideological tent.

And 5 percent of adults in the United States is more than enough to make a book like Moore’s a best seller. And the same phenomenon probably explains Goldberg’s success. Yes, 400,000 copies is a lot of books, but it’s still a drop in the buck to the small percentage of committed ideological conservatives.

The claim that Americans are polarized is simply wishful thinking on the part of Moore, Goldberg and other ideological activists.


There’s a Bias, but Is It Left or Right? FoxNews, March 26, 2002.

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