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A More Perfect Polarization

Raja Palaniappan

The dust has settled. The election is over, and like it or not, we are given, (or rather we have given Bush) four more years. The analyses of the results of last Tuesday have already begun to roll out. In similar fashion to the post-championship analysis of any sporting contest, heroes and clutch players emerge. The genius of Karl Rove’s campaign stratagems has been confirmed. The failures of the losing side are showcased as well: Democrats being criticized for elitism, an absence of cohesion, and a lack of strength.

However, perhaps the most noteworthy analysis of the contest on November 2 is on the playing conditions that both contestants had to deal with. The political climate that this nation currently faces is perhaps one of the most polarized and divided than any previous election years have ever seen. Each side vehemently believes in its cause, each finds disgust with the “misinformation” with which the other makes its decisions, and each side has been decided for a long time now. This sort of polarization manifested itself into unprecedented activism within the citizenry and record-breaking turnouts at the polls on Election Day. Now that the election is over, its conclusion is not thought of as another passÉ event in American politics: one side braces for its worst nightmare, the other sighs in relief as it truly believes that it just dodged the dire bullet of catastrophe for America.

The candidates themselves quickly recognized the difference between this year’s political climate and those of elections past. Whereas primary elections usually showcase the more radical positions of candidates as each side courts its base, and the general election finds candidates pushing towards the middle courting the apathetic but moderate vote, this election proved wildly different. There was no consensual push towards the middle on the part of either candidate; each man attempted to gain momentum not by catering to the opposite side, but rather by riling his own base. Bush very decisively chose to not address the NAACP, a move that many pundits foretold would later haunt him. Kerry, either directly or indirectly, remained well to the left of mainstream America’s social preferences, from stem-cell research to gay marriage. Bush remained well to the right of educated-America’s position on the same issues. Kerry’s one attempt at catering to the other side was botched in a mire of controversy that gave him his doom-laden nickname. He tried to convince voters throughout the summer that he would not compromise national security to an international veto, would not be merely a pawn in the hands of the U.N., and would not hesitate to use force when the safety of his nation required it. His argument was viewed as transparent and flaccid as he could not overcome the image of being a flip-flopper on perhaps the only vote of his 20-year senate career that was discussed in this election: “voting for $87 billion dollars in Iraq, before voting against it.” In the end, each candidate could do naught but work to rile their supporters enough to make them more enthusiastic and vocal than the other side, and thus force the polls to fluctuate the few percentage points one way or another, as they did through the tail end of the campaign.

This unwillingness of candidates to court the other side illustrated one important notion regarding the 2004 electorate: people, for once, were truly divided on the issues at hand, and voted on that basis rather than on a preference for one man over the other. Neither Bush nor Kerry could woo voters traditionally from “the other side,” as the other side vehemently disagreed with the positions of the other candidate. Whereas the disillusioned apathetic voter in previous elections expresses dismay at the inability to tell the difference between one candidate and the other, or one party or another, such criticisms did not arise this time around. The candidates did not spew the same vote-courting political-speak as in elections past; each one actually had a clear position, which happened to be in direct opposition to his opponent’s on nearly everything. Voters saw this, and votes were cast based on a true preference for each candidate’s positions on the issues rather than more subjective evaluations of “likeability.”

This notion has implications far more dire than may originally seem evident. The American electorate is split into two factions, just as much in direct opposition with each other as their figure-head presidential candidates were. From seasoned politicos down to the bread and butter middle class populace, liberals decry the ignorance and arrogance with which conservatives operate and form their beliefs, and conservatives forewarn the social and economic catastrophe that the weak liberals will lead the country towards. A look at the electoral map of this past election illustrates why: the geographical distinction between the “red” states and the “blue” states has never been so distinct. Kerry won all of the traditional liberal bastions: the northeast, the west coast, and Chicago, whereas Bush won the entire conservative “heartland” of the country. The rift is between the cosmopolitan liberal, and the white-picket-fence conservative: the election itself has been called the contest of “Metro. vs. Retro” (John Sperling). The young and educated city dwellers are losing touch with the middle class suburbanites from which they spawned.

The country is spiraling towards a cultural division that has not been witnessed since the civil rights conflicts of the 60s, and symbolically enough, the nation’s capital is caught exactly in the middle, straddling a blue state and a red one, Maryland and Virginia. Even a look at the electoral map by county shows this distinct geographical polarization: every major metropolitan center is colored Democratic blue, and the wide expanse in between is colored Republican red. Even states written off to Kerry early on, such as New York, Pennsylvania, or California, geographically are predominantly red, with the only blue areas popping up around the major cities.

Such cultural disparity does not bode well for the future of a country that is trying to cope with economic uncertainty at home and unpopularity abroad. A mistrust and a distrust among citizens is not something that should be fostered, especially with the current inherent mistrust of foreigners that pervades the nation. Most importantly however, is that the government not give up on the faction that does not support it. The Republican Party had a banner night on Nov. 2, and did so by ignoring its critics, and working hard in areas of great support. With the knowledge that America approved them for all branches of government, there is great danger that our new government will attempt to further a one sided agenda that represents only 51 percent of the populace, and the strong minority will have no power to wield to prevent it. Bush’s practice of surrounding himself with yes-men and ultraconservatives cannot continue, lest the left be alienated enough to rally back in two years. John Kerry’s conceding calls for reparation and a more unified nation need to be heeded with tremendous gravity, as the strength of this nation will crumble from within if such unity is not restored, and no amount of deficit defense spending can prevent that. If Bush truly has become wiser from his first term as President, he will reach out to the other side, and show at least a semblance of the compassionate conservative uniter that he promised us.

Raja Palaniappan is a member of the class of 2007.