Sunday’s New York Times carries a fascinating article
on American attitudes to Iraq. Polling reveals that the war divides
opinion very much along party lines, much more than Vietnam did a
generation ago:

An analysis by the Pew Research Center
for the People and the Press found that the difference in the way
Democrats and Republicans viewed the Vietnam War — specifically,
whether sending American troops was a mistake — never exceeded 18
percentage points between 1966 and 1973. In the most recent Times/CBS
poll on Iraq, the partisan gap on a similar question was 50 percentage
points.

The Times agonises over possible reasons
for this change, both in the nature of the war and the behaviour of
politicians. Some of them probably have some force, such as the way the
Bush administration has deliberately used national security for
political ends; Democrat senator Charles Schumer is quoted saying
“George Bush decided to make foreign policy partisan in a way that
Ronald Reagan or the first George Bush never did”. But then what about
Richard Nixon in 1972?

What the paper doesn’t come to grips with
is the way political parties have changed. In the 1970s, party
allegiances were much more fixed, based on a combination of class, race
and geography. Those old certainties have broken down, and have been
replaced, at least to some extent, by ideology.

Forty years ago,
knowing someone was a Republican might have told you something about
their social position, but it didn’t tell you a great deal about what
they believed. Now the correlation with class has weakened, but that
with ideology has strengthened. So it’s not surprising that the Iraq
war, sold fairly explicitly as an ideological crusade, should divide
the country along partisan lines.

Australia has gone through
something very similar. Historically, our parties were class based.
That division is still there, but much weaker than it was. This was
foretold by David Kemp’s research back in the 1970s, and it’s what John
Howard is getting at when he says (as George Megalogenis reports this morning) that “voters are less tribal.”

Some
of the space left by class, however, has been filled by ideology. When
John Howard entered politics, the parliamentary Liberal Party were
socially a very uniform lot: white, male, middle class, Protestant. But
ideologically they were quite diverse. Now the positions have reversed;
social diversity, but ideological conformity. What we gain on the
swings we lose on the roundabout.

Peter Fray

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