By BILL SCHNEIDER
What the country wants to know is: Which America can manage the economy better? The answer is not clear. That’s why this election is so close. The Old America got us into this mess. The New America can’t seem to get us out of it.
The Old America’s rallying cry at the Republican National Convention: “Restore Our Future.” Take us back to the days when America was rich, great and powerful, the undisputed leader of the world. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared, “You might have asked yourself if these last years are really the America we want, the America won for us by the greatest generation.”
The Old America looked overwhelmingly white and middle-aged — or older. The Hollywood celebrity who captured the spirit of the Old America was Clint Eastwood, age 82.
The New America’s rallying cry at the Democratic National Convention: “Forward, Not Back.” President Barack Obama declared, “When Gov. Romney finally had a chance to reveal the secret sauce, he did not offer a single new idea. It was just retreads of the same old policies we’ve been hearing for decades.”
The New America celebrated diversity in age, race, sexual orientation and lifestyles. (The Old America doesn’t have lifestyles. They have lives.) The Hollywood celebrity who captured the spirit of the New America was Scarlett Johansson, age 27.
At the two conventions, we saw the ultimate triumph of the great-values divide that first became visible in California in the 1960s.
Back in 1967, political scientist James Q. Wilson, who grew up in what he called “Reagan country,” wrote an article in Commentary in which he tried to explain “the political culture of Southern California” to Eastern intellectuals. The Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan movements were protest movements, Wilson argued, but they were not expressions of personal unhappiness, frustration or despair. Just the opposite, in fact.
In describing Goldwater and Reagan supporters, Wilson pointed out that “it is not with their lot that they are discontent, it is with the lot of the nation. The very virtues they have and practice are, in their eyes, conspicuously absent from society as a whole.”
The same year, Richard Todd, who went to school in California, wrote an article in Harper’s in which he tried to explain “the Berkeley phenomenon” to puzzled outsiders. Why had that campus become the focal point of student unrest?
Was it true, as many commentators suggested, that Berkeley students were frustrated and dehumanized by the mega-university and that their political protest was an expression of personal anger and discontent?
After nearly 50 years, the two Americas have fought each other to a standoff. Though not in California, where the New America — and the Democratic Party — are ascendant, mostly because of the voting power of the newest Americans — Latinos. That’s why Republicans are worried about how they can survive without increasing their appeal to Latino voters. They are terrified that the U.S. may become California.
Both parties represent upper-middle-class elites, but they are bitterly competitive elites. Romney represents the elite of wealth, or as Republicans prefer to put it, “success.” Romney said in Tampa, “The centerpiece of the president’s entire reelection campaign is attacking success … In America, we celebrate success, we don’t apologize for it.” Obama represents the elite of education. The president told the Democratic delegates, “Education was the gateway of opportunity for me. It was the gateway for Michelle. It was the gateway for most of you.”
Neither candidate has a populist bone in his body. Romney keeps calling attention to his wealth (or hiding it in his unreleased tax returns). Obama seems disdainful of people less enlightened than he is (or as he once described them, people who “cling to guns or religion”).
Democrats had to trot out their old warhorse, former President Bill Clinton, to get populist juices flowing. Clinton is uniquely qualified to make the case that the New America knows how to manage the economy. Voters associate Clinton with good times (in every sense of the term).
But the Democrat on the ballot in 2012 is not Clinton. It’s Obama, and he has failed to deliver on the one thing both parties claim is their top priority — economic growth (“good times”). Republicans believe economic growth is sufficient. Government has to keep the economy growing and then stay out of the way. Democrats believe economic growth is necessary but not sufficient. Government must protect the economically vulnerable, even in a growing economy.
Obama failed to deliver on another promise as well. ”There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he said in 2006.
Oh yes there is. One met in Tampa, the other in Charlotte. And despite Obama’s appeals to post-partisanship, the two Americas show no sign of reconciliation. Instead, it’s a showdown.
Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.