“This year’s presidential election campaign shapes up as just about the emptiest and the most depressing in living memory,” wrote Tony Thomas, former American business editor of The Economist, in a recent essay about American culture for Contemporary Review, a quarterly magazine that has published continuously from Oxford since 1866. Thomas’ piece is really about the way Americans are different from the English, and it focuses on our regional identities, political loyalties, and social mores. But his last sentence rings with the disappointment of someone who has loved our country as a stranger.
Is it the electoral college jiu-jitsu that makes you feel like the race is already decided everywhere but Ohio? The relentless PAC ads that come in threes and layer decontextualized quotes over unflattering stills? The two mutually exclusive sets of facts that underlie every substantive point of debate between the party platforms? Or is it that four years after we voted for hope and change, an end to war, and a road to recovery, we still feel mired, we’re still fighting in Afghanistan, and Big Money is still boss?
I don’t blame Obama for where we are. Sooner or later, the chickens come home to roost. For 40 years, our country has not come to consensus on its most basic social issues: race, morality, and poverty. The rising tide that lifts all boats has kept us from settling up with the past. As the tide turns, around 80 percent of Americans say the economy is the top issue in the election. But it’s not going to decide their votes. Their identities will. You’ve seen the maps. Our world is divided. In Red America, white conservative voters, concentrated in the south and west, form a nostalgic values-based alliance between the suburban rich and the rural lower middle class. In Blue America, the educated bourgeoisie and the urban poor, concentrated in our coastal cities, want to be cut loose as citizens of the global society.
The real government problems of our day are bipartisan and reformational: national debt, campaign finance, welfare, health care, the use of military force, and the environment. None will get settled without a consensus-driven middle class push strong enough to overcome the stasis of the big money lobbies, which do not discriminate politically. The redneck pickup driver and the bisexual lab technician have to vote together, have to believe the same government can fix their problems without attacking who they are. The American Dream, always a partial truth, is in danger of becoming a flat out lie.
A good time to read some Abraham Lincoln: “Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”