Andrew Sullivan hearts Barack Obama, misunderstands American politics

Don't get me wrong. I'm on Team Obama too, for the most part (see last item). Andrew Sullivan's 400,000 word (apprx.) love letter to Barack centers around the idea that he can diffuse the ticking time bomb that is a deeply divided American public. Indeed, Obama has been pushing his conciliatory nature as a central plank of his campaign too, with the idea that Republicans wouldn't hate him so much - wink to Hillary - that they would bottleneck any and every proposal that comes down the pike. There's probably some merit there.

(For those of you who don't know, I've been taking some poly sci master's classes. No, that doesn't make me especially insightful or anything, but it has allowed forced me to read a lot of books and articles of smarter people than myself who figured out equations on how to measure such shit. Some of the science - and it's unbelievable how much of a science politics can be when you try to make it so - is intuitive, some of it runs contrary to conventional wisdom. So with that background, I need to make a few points about how Sullivan, and everyone else in the commentariat, frames the divisive American public.)

Back to Sullivan: "Obamaâ??s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take Americaâ??finallyâ??past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directlyâ??and uncomfortablyâ??at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a warâ??not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decadeâ??but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about warâ??and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obamaâ??and Obama aloneâ??offers the possibility of a truce.

The traces of our long journey to this juncture can be found all around us. Its most obvious manifestation is political rhetoric. The high temperatureâ??Bill Oâ??Reillyâ??s nightly screeds against anti-Americans on one channel, Keith Olbermannâ??s â??Worst Person in the Worldâ?� on the other; MoveOn.orgâ??s â??General Betray Usâ?� on the one side, Ann Coulterâ??s Treason on the other; Michael Mooreâ??s accusation of treason at the core of the Iraq War, Sean Hannityâ??s assertion of treason in the opposition to itâ??is particularly striking when you examine the generally minor policy choices on the table. Something deeper and more powerful than the actual decisions we face is driving the tone of the debate."

Could Obama bring together Congress? Probably. Especially if he has high approval ratings. There's some old, yet seminal research out there demonstrating that Congress, especially the Senate, is amazingly responsive to what members of Congress perceive the "national mood." They not only roll with public opinion, but they actively seek to get ahead of the curve, and thus claim the mantle of leadership. If Obama is popular, as he probably would be on account of the fact that no one hates him, members of Congress would, if the usual pattern holds, acquiesce to him, especially if he can rally public support to his side. That's where the "good public speaker" thing enters the equation.

Could Obama bring America together? Here's the rub: He doesn't really need to. In 2004, a political scientist named Morris Fiorina wrote a very accessible (by political science standards, anyway) book detailing the actual-versus-perceived divide in American culture. The book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America is worth more than a brief summary, but at its heart is makes this central claim: America is not deeply divided, it is closely divided. Most Americans are too ambivalent to really engage in politics. They are by and large what you term moderates. The reality is, the elites polarize. The more political knowledge you have, the less likely you are to be a moderate. Other research supports this idea of the polarizing elites.

In other words, most leaders of the respective parties and activist groups are more polarized than Americans at large on just about everything. And since the media usually talks to these people, there ends up a distorted picture of the American public as a blue-state/red-state civil war in the making. The truth is, most people just don't give a shit. And on the issues they care about, they're usually somewhere in the middle. The problem, from Fiorina's point of view, is that candidates tend to be towards the polar ends of the spectrum, and voters have to choose a candidate, so there is an appearance of polarization that does not exist.

Anyway, I'm done wonking and off to lunch.


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