State Leadership Conference

American media outlets have greatly exaggerated the existence of a giant moral divide in the nation, said Morris P. Fiorina, PhD, the Stanford University Wendt Family Professor of Political Science, in a plenary session speech at the 2005 State Leadership Conference.

The bulk of media reports have claimed "moral values" decided the 2004 presidential election, but, in fact, Americans also ranked the economy/jobs, terrorism and Iraq as other critical influences on their votes (see chart), said Fiorina. What's more, he noted, moral values is a sweeping category; by comparison, other exit-poll questions addressed the importance of single issues. Collapsed together as "security," the category of terrorism/Iraq would rank 34 percent and be the winning election issue.

Frustrated by such overinterpretation of the election results by the media, Fiorina and his colleagues, Harvard University's Samuel J. Abrams and Brigham Young University's Jeremy C. Pope, conducted their own investigation of wide-ranging public polls for their recent book "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America" (Longman, 2004). Their conclusion: Americans' values are much more similar than they are different.

"Both red and blue states are basically centrists," said Fiorina. "Red states are a little more conservative than blue states. But people by and large see themselves in the center."

Fiorina acknowledged, however, that Americans' views diverge considerably more on such issues as abortion, gun control and gay issues (including same-sex marriage) than they do on such issues as education, race and the environment, according to postelection polls in 2000. But even in the case of abortion, he said, "most people aren't extreme on where they draw the line [on if and when to abort a fetus]. It's 10 percent on either extreme."

What really did decide the 2004 election were perceptions of strong leadership by President Bush and concerns about terrorism--"the real story of this election," said Fiorina, based on his analyses of 2004 exit polls. But because the culture war explanation was spicier, the media instead latched onto it, he said.

"You don't get a lot of ratings, headlines and readership by writing that Americans agree on most things," said Fiorina.

Several fallacies, he said, feed the media's culture war myth:

  • Portraying "closely divided" and "deeply divided" as the same. News outlets such as USA Today and The Economist have claimed that the close to 50/50 split between Republicans and Democrats indicates a deep national divide--but that interpretation overlooks the many voters in both parties who identify as centrists, said Fiorina.

  • Equating political elites with typical Americans. Activists tend to hold more extreme views than ordinary citizens, said Fiorina. And that trend has grown: Political polarization among state and national elected officials has increased drastically since the 1960s, while political views among average Americans have increasingly converged across age, education, religion and region, though interparty dislike has increased somewhat, Fiorina noted.

As a result of the hyperpolarization among politicians, Republican and Democratic voters generally view the other party as less centrist than it really is overall, Fiorina claimed.

  • Presenting skewed news values. News outlets often present information in ways that misrepresent the facts, said Fiorina. For example, one news report he read at first claimed Republicans and Democrats have never been further apart. Then its last pages noted there weren't great statistical differences between party members' views.

  • Confusing positions with choices. Voters who chose Bush in the last election often cited as reasons his leadership and terrorism-handling more so than his stances on abortion and same-sex marriage--yet the media decided the voters' latter positions were the big deciders and dividers, Fiorina noted.

He'd like to see increased recognition that "most Americans remain pretty reasonable people willing to come together to find common ground and reasonable solutions to problems." The trouble, Fiorina concluded, "is we don't have leaders who want to lead them in that direction. We have leaders who want to divide rather than unite."

Leaders aren't, however, always partisan, and can accomplish much when they cross party lines, noted discussant Stephen Pfeiffer, PhD, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Psychology, which sponsors psychology's national political action committee. He urged psychologists to recognize the importance of bipartisanship in effective work on Capitol Hill. For example, bipartisan efforts propelled the 1996 Wellstone-Domenici Mental Health Parity Bill into law, noted Pfeiffer. (And the same efforts will be necessary to expand the law, experts say, before its expiration this Dec. 31--see page 54).

Other discussants at the session were psychologists Judy Ann Buffmire, PhD, a former member of the Utah House of Representatives, and Democrat Ruth Balser, PhD, of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Buffmire and Balser largely agreed with Fiorina's contention about media exaggeration of the values rift, but Balser said not all party leaders are as divisive as Fiorina claims. In her view, for example, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who lost his 2004 White House bid, "has tried to move the Democratic party toward the middle."

Issues in the 2004 presidential election













Moral values


Health care


Source: National Election Pool, 2004

What 2004 voters liked best about their presidential choice




Strong leader



Shares my values



Cares about people like me



Keep country safe from terrorism



Source: Los Angeles Times