The More Things Change...

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

October 23, 2004

Why is this country still tied?

Over the past four years, we've experienced a major terrorist attack, a recession, a dot-com shakeout, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate scandals and an active and tumultuous presidency. We've had an influx of new citizens. Millions have died of old age, and tens of millions have moved to new towns and new states.

Yet the political landscape looks almost exactly the same. We're still divided right down the middle. We're still looking at razor-thin margins in states like Florida. If you compare the demographic breakdowns of the Bush-Kerry race to those of the Bush-Gore race in 2000, you find they are quite similar. Why does everything in America change except politics?

That is the central mystery of this election.

The only possible conclusion is that there is some deep, tectonic fissure that shapes the electorate, a fissure so fundamental that it is unaffected by the enormous shocks we've felt over the past four years. Remember, it is very unusual to have two close presidential elections in a row. This hasn't occurred for about 120 years.

But what explains this stable divide?

Let me first tell you what it is not. Foreign, domestic and social policy debates do not explain the current tie. The election of 2000 was fought on a different set of issues. Then, we were arguing about things like lockboxes, compassionate conservatism and how to use the surplus. Now, we're arguing about war, terrorism and the deficit. The issues have changed, but the political landscape has not.

Moreover, as the Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina has shown, Americans are not that polarized on issues. When you ask people about policies you see a big group of moderates. If issue differences were shaping this campaign, you'd see these centrists sloshing back and forth and breaking the tie.

But two forces do account for the stable political divide. First, partisanship. We've just seen how passionately some people care about the Yankees and the Red Sox. Many people care that passionately about being a Democrat or a Republican.

Human beings are tribal. When they find themselves in a closely fought contest with a rival group, they become ever more tightly bound to their tribe. They see reality in ways that flatter the group. They nurture the resentments that bind the group.

In this campaign the two candidates do not just describe different policies. They describe different realities. In short, the partisan rivalry fuels itself. Once an electorate becomes tied, there is a built-in emotional pressure that keeps things that way. Even people who claim to be independents find themselves sucked into the vortex.

Second, and probably more important, we're in the middle of a leadership war. Underneath all the disputes about Iraq, we're having a big argument about what qualities America should have in a leader. Republicans trust one kind of leader, Democrats another. This is the constant that runs through recent elections.

Republicans, from Reagan to Bush, particularly admire leaders who are straight-talking men of faith. The Republican leader doesn't have to be book smart, and probably shouldn't be narcissistically introspective. But he should have a clear, broad vision of America's exceptional role in the world. Democrats, on the other hand, are more apt to emphasize such leadership skills as being knowledgeable and thoughtful. They value leaders who can see complexities, who possess the virtues of the well-educated.

Republicans and Democrats have different conceptions of the presidency. Republicans admire a president who is elevated above his executive branch colleagues. It is impossible to imagine George W. Bush or Reagan as a cabinet secretary. Instead, they are set apart by virtue of exceptional moral qualities. Relying on their core values, they set broad goals and remain resolute in times of crisis.

Democrats see the presidency as a much more ministerial job. They admire presidents who engage in constant deliberative conversations. Democrats from Carter through Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore and Kerry have all been well versed in the inner workings of government. It is easy to imagine each of them serving as a cabinet secretary.

It just so happens that America is evenly divided about what sort of leader we need: the Republican who leads with his soul or the Democrat who leads with his judgment. Even the events of the past four years have not altered that disagreement.

That's why we are still tied.