John Edwards was right; there are two Americas. He just failed to identify them correctly. After reading the post-election op-eds of many liberal pundits, it’s not difficult to discern the dividing line. These are people who describe most of America–or at least the majority who voted for President Bush–as intolerant, ignorant, and blind. Although they have been given a privileged opportunity to preach to the rest of us on the editorial pages of our leading newspapers, they apparently lack enough self-awareness to recognize that their own words reveal them to be the truly intolerant.
Two days after the election, the New York Times quoted 45-year-old Sandy Johnson of Carver County, Minn., as saying, “I have been made to feel by liberal people that my faith makes me weird. I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve either; I’m quiet about it. But I firmly believe that my country was founded on faith, and when I saw the popular vote this time, it made me feel like I’m not such an outsider, that there are others like me, and a lot of them.”
This simple statement should send shivers down the spines of the Democrats who are hoping one day to return to power in this country. If they wish to do so, however, they will have to jettison the likes of those smug liberals–liberals who have probably never met a born-again Christian, yet still know in their hearts that such people are intolerant and ignorant, focused entirely on imposing their religion and lifestyle on the rest of us. This liberal attitude is the true intolerance, and it is what will keep the Democratic party in a position of permanent minority until it can rid itself of this bigotry.
As evidence, there is this from Tom Friedman in the New York Times: “My problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad.” Similar sentiments were expressed the following day in the New York Times by Garry Wills, who argued that Bush voters were throwbacks to the age before the Enlightenment.
In his best-selling book, Bias, Bernard Goldberg noted perceptively that most liberal bias in the press does not arise from a deliberate effort to distort the news for political purposes, but from an essential ignorance that others can reasonably hold views different from theirs–an unwillingness, in effect, to accept differing views as legitimate. In this sense, the positions of Friedman and Wills rise almost to parody. The fact that Christian fundamentalists hold different views from their own means that, in their eyes, the fundamentalists are divisive and intolerant–as though the views of Friedman and Wills have a legitimacy that makes all others’ unworthy.
The story of the election just past is that the Sandy Johnsons have received this message loud and clear. They understand the bigotry they confront, and–if we credit Johnson’s remarks–they now see themselves as part of a very large group of victims. This is both good and bad news for the Democrats. The bad news is that it will take the party many years to persuade ordinary Americans that they are not held in contempt by those–such as Friedman and Wills–who purport to speak for the Democrats; the good news is that the Democrats will then be able to contest elections on the basis of legitimate policy differences with Republicans, without the burden of the distrust that Friedman-like rhetoric has sown.
There was a time, as many have noted, when the Democratic party was the “party of the people.” Although the party still lays claim to that title, everyone who has studied the 2004 election returns now knows that the claim is hollow. The Democrats now represent only a limited collection of interest groups clustered in or around the largest cities, and are represented to the world at large by an intellectual elite that is dismissive of differing views.
Around the time of the Vietnam War, the Democratic party was taken over by a left-liberal group that is not only statist in its outlook but wholly intolerant of the views of its opponents. That is one of the two Americas. It is likely that, when historians look into the partisanship and divisiveness of this era, they will find this factor at its root. Perhaps, inspired by the wreckage left around them by the GOP victory in 2004, Democrats of the center will be able to take back their party. If they do, however, their first chore will be to persuade the other America–the America of Sandy Johnson–that they are now willing to listen.
–Peter J. Wallison is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was White House counsel for President Reagan during the second Reagan administration.