The Consumer: Society Isn’t Polarized— But It Isn’t United, Either

The American public is polarized as never before. Or it’s not. You know we’re living in odd times when people can’t even agree on whether divisiveness is rampant in daily life. And yet, that’s what we’ve got now. One school of thought holds that controversies on everything from war to gay rights have spread divisiveness throughout American society. Others see the political battles and culture wars as the pastime of a narrow elite, with most people paying little heed. Does either viewpoint fully capture what’s going on these days? It’s clear that political debate is especially heated. In matters of broader culture, though, evidence suggests that people aren’t so much polarized as merely going their own ways. And while consumer behavior is less a source of social cohesion than was once the case, the reasons (which I’ll touch on below) are largely unrelated to current chattering-class preoccupations.

If we sense an exceptional divisiveness in public life these days, it’s partly because the casual coarseness of everyday life has seeped into the once-formal realm of civic discourse. (A whole genre of cable-TV programming now expresses that sensibility.) Nor does it help matters that the presidential-election campaign season is so prolonged. The vituperation once confined to a few months is now a fixture of the evening news for years on end. But bear in mind that relatively few people give their attention to political disputes. As recently as October, a Harris Poll found just 58 percent of Democrats and independents claiming to have heard of Howard Dean. It’s not as though most people get worked up about even the best-known political figures. In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted this month, respondents were asked to give their opinions of George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, on a scale ranging from “like a lot” to “hate.” Just 5 percent of Democrats said they hate Bush, with another 33 percent saying they “dislike him a lot.” Just 10 percent of Republicans said they hate Hillary Clinton, with another 46 percent saying they dislike her a lot. If this doesn’t sound like universal amity, neither does it qualify as unprecedented anger.

It’s widely agreed that “Nascar dads” are the crucial swing constituency for the 2004 elections. And so they may be. But let us note an obvious-but-overlooked point: Nascar dads are interested in Nascar, while there’s no reason to suppose they’re interested in political issues. In other words, electoral success in our polarized-as-never-before nation turns out to depend on the druthers of a rather apolitical constituency. This hardly indicates that political passions are roiling society as a whole. One gets a similar impression from the way Americans have reacted to what’s supposedly the hottest of hot-button issues: gay marriage. In polls conducted on this matter, majorities of respondents have consistently said gay marriage should not be legalized. But are they ready to fling themselves on the barricades to fight it? Not exactly. The University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey found 49 percent of adults “strongly oppose” a law in their state to allow gay marriage, even as just 32 percent “strongly favor” a federal amendment to bar it. A September poll by ABC News yielded similar findings (see chart on facing page).

Much is made of the fact that differences in voting behavior correlate significantly with people’s religious (or irreligious) attitudes. The theory is that politics and religion are aligning in ways that put Americans in two antithetical camps. This notion looks shakier, though, when one notes that religious faith is the norm across the political spectrum. In Harris polling, 87 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats said they believe in God. Gallup found 67 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats saying religion is very important in their own lives.

Moreover, it’s hard to place religious and nonreligious Americans in alien camps when there’s so much variation in the nature of belief. A Barna Research report last year referred despairingly to “the smorgasbord of religious beliefs professed by most people,” including regular church-goers. And religious people are not predictably dogmatic in the way they apply religious tenets to moral questions. One example: Another Barna study found “born-again” Christians evenly split on the question of whether it’s morally acceptable for an unwed couple to cohabit.

As further evidence of unorthodoxy in Americans’ religious beliefs, a Harris Poll last winter found 31 percent of adults saying they believe in astrology and 27 percent saying the same of reincarnation. A study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found college students expressing much interest in spiritual matters. However, they define the term in such a way that 73 percent have had a spiritual experience “while witnessing the beauty and harmony of nature”; 30 percent have had a spiritual experience “while engaging in athletics”(!). The media paid lots of attention to the Alabama judge who literally enshrined the Ten Commandments in stone in front of his courthouse. The irony is that many folks who consider themselves religious would have trouble naming all 10. Culture wars should be made of sterner stuff.

Since a sudden disruption is more conspicuous than a gradual improvement, we tend not to notice long-term reductions in social divisiveness. Race is a case in point. As recently as 1987, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found fewer than half of adults (48 percent) saying “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other.” In a Pew poll this summer, the figure had risen to 77 percent. At the same time, the number of people saying they “don’t have much in common with people of other races” has dwindled to 15 percent.

Human ingenuity being what it is, though, people find new ways to look askance at each other as old ways fall into abeyance. There were moments in the past year when pro-SUV and anti-SUV people seemed to regard each other as distinct (and incompatible) races. Commercials by an outfit called The Detroit Project suggested that people who drive gas-guzzling SUVs are funding terrorism. Any self-respecting time capsule for 2003 ought to contain the Pew poll that asked with a straight face whether respondents thought Jesus would drive an SUV. (For what it’s worth, 29 percent said he would, 33 percent said he wouldn’t and most of the rest refused to answer.) Writing in January for The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, columnist David Brooks said he was tempted to buy an SUV just to annoy the self-righteous types who attack these vehicles as “the locus of evil.” It’s not clear that any of this affected sales of SUVs, which are more sensitive to factors like gasoline prices and dealer incentives. But the fracas did attract enough attention that consumers felt compelled to take sides.

This wouldn’t have happened in the old days when a vehicle was either a utilitarian purchase or an assertion of status in a well-understood hierarchy. The fact that it did so reflects a broader shift in the way people feel about their choices as consumers. We like to look down at the blatant status seeking that supposedly characterized Americans a generation or two ago. In so doing, though, we overlook the fact that there was something sociable about “keeping up with the Joneses.” It required us to know what stuff the Joneses owned, and it made our sense of self-esteem dependent on winning their approval— and vice versa. The power of status-symbol products depended on general consensus about a fixed pecking order. When Gerald Ford became president following Richard Nixon’s abdication, everyone knew what he meant when he modestly referred to himself as “a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

Today, it would be hard to concoct an equivalent reference that would resonate so clearly. Why? In keeping with the general rise in individualism since the 1960s, people have become more self-expressive in their consumer choices, and correspondingly less bound by an agreed-upon code of status. Now, we’re making more of a personal statement when we buy an item, not marking our place on the social scale. And while a given purchase will have clear significance within our own social circle, its status value may be opaque to other people who have similar income and education—but a different set of interests. The hand-loomed rug you bought on your expensive trip to Bhutan may look like a thrift-shop reject to someone who doesn’t care for travel; his expensive new stove may make you feel as if you’ve strayed through the kitchen door of a diner. With people indulging their individual taste, the common language of product status has given way to mutually unintelligible dialects. This process isn’t well described as “polarization,” though. It’s more a matter of “to each his own.”

Sometimes, people in one demographic niche will import an item from a different cohort—a phenomenon exemplified this year in the vogue for foam-fronted trucker hats. Once a strictly blue-collar item, the trucker hat was adopted by urban hipsters (for its working-class aura) and Hollywood types (for, in turn, its hipster aura), and then by consumers en masse (for its Hollywood aura). Thus, various sorts of people were buying the same product for different reasons. Whether the net effect of this is to produce more or less social solidarity is anyone’s guess.

Moving from low-tech to high-tech, we see that the Internet offers a whole new venue for exercising personal choice—including the choice not to bother with it. The wired and the unwired are often said to stand on opposite sides of an unbridgeable “digital divide.” But they might simply have different interests. One telling indication of this: A study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 20 percent of adults who don’t go online live with someone who uses the Internet at home. Different keystrokes for different folks, evidently.