Here is a dangerous and wrong-headed headline I have seen around the Web in the few hours since Gov. Palin shot and scored on the St. Paul ice: "Palin reignites the culture war."
The idea of a culture war is 90 percent myth. The 10 percent that is true applies only to the target of Palin's oratory -- the political elite. Americans who are extremely politically engaged are polarized and may feel they are in a culture war. People who attend political conventions are such people. And since the Republican convention of 1992 when Pat Buchanan first declared the culture war, the press has loved the story and routinely assumes it there is a culture war.
But the vast majority of voters are not polarized, do not have partisan views and do not take extreme positions. Elections have been close not because the country is at war with itself, but because voters dislike and distrust both parties so intensely. With no good choices, voters sort into two roughly equal camps. I get into this at greater length here if you're interested.
Last night, Sarah Palin did not ignite or even continue a culture war. She did the exact same thing most success modern national office-seekers have done; she beat up on Washington, the political establishment and the press. It wasn't very different at its core than what Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush did.
The press is inclined to see such performances as reflecting a true schism in the soul of our nation. It doesn't. There maybe a schism, but it is one between the political elite and the un-polarized, eclectic, pragmatic, inconsistent and usually moderate middle.
The phony culture war narrative fuels a bad civic habit of intolerance and demonizing those we disagree with. Even though most voters aren't polarized, they can't help but absorb some of the obnoxious vocabulary and belligerent style of politicians and the media. That's why we sometimes we sound worse than we are.