"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." - Charles Dickens, 'A Tale of Two Cities'
You might recall that I complained in a column last month of the "increasingly schizoid nature of American 'culture wars'" - that these days, supporters of the two major US parties "live on entirely different planets, fantasising to themselves in disconnected parallel universes" in which they "rarely actually communicate with each other at all anymore in the statesman-like way that might produce policy solutions that, say, enhance the public good."
Nothing could be a more appropriate, and sad, illustration of that emergent reality than the Republican and Democratic conventions just held over this past month.
Somewhat ahead of his time, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter penned a very perceptive book back in 1991 called Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. In it, he argued that the much-celebrated Tocquevillian tradition of rational public discourse and cooperation in the US, which over a period of 200 years had forged such a robust democracy, was breaking down - that an irrational, dysfunctional paralysis of the body politic was beginning to set in.
Hunter noticed that American public discourse was disintegrating into two rigid, armed media camps - narrow, self-enclosed symbolic universes in which people only communicate with other true believers who already see the world as they do. It's a sort of civil war, but a civil war of the mind (and the media), fought with propaganda and symbols, not physical weapons. Hunter dubbed these two warring cultures "orthodox" and "progressive", what today we would probably call 'red-state' and 'blue-state'.
Interestingly, even after a century and a half, the dividing lines on the US map between these predominantly 'red-state' and 'blue-state' cultures are still remarkably similar to what they were at the time of the Civil War, with the South predominantly of one political culture and the Northeast predominantly of another. Even more interesting is that they now seem to be polarised over whether they do, or do not, like the style and philosophy of the nation's first black president.
History may not repeat itself precisely, but it definitely rhymes. As Charles Dickens had noted in his time, "Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms."
'OBAMA'S AMERICA ACCORDING TO REPUBLICANS
Red-state Republicans believe in a limited, minimal government - one that minimises interference in the market, and in the lives of individual citizens. They fervently believe, with Thomas Jefferson, that "That government is best which govern least." The libertarian and Tea Party factions carry this even further, agreeing with Henry David Thoreau that "that government is best which governs not at all".
This laissez-faire individualist cultural mindset is usually accompanied by an emphasis on the importance of self-reliance (as opposed to group sharing or dependency), private (not public) solutions to problems, private (not public) ownership of resources, deregulation of the economy, states' rights, anti-immigrant sentiments, social Darwinism (belief in survival of the fittest, sometimes in tandem with hidden racial prejudice), and minimal or no taxation.
Seen from this perspective, one can begin to understand why Obama and his administration have so alienated the sensibilities of red-staters, and why they would be so eager to oust him by electing Romney and Ryan. Unfortunately, the Republican National Convention this year got off to a windy start. Republican strategists were so preoccupied with winning the crucial swing state of Florida that in choosing Tampa, they forgot the convention was being held during a hurricane season. As fate would have it, the first day's events and speeches were almost literally blown away, and had to be cancelled.
Charismatic speaker Governor Bobby Jindal, one of the most powerful national critics of Obama's policies, was forced to cancel his prime-time speech, scurrying back to Louisiana to manage the hurricane response. The entire convention agenda had to be squeezed into fewer days, with many potent speakers and events dropped.
The symbolism of this could hardly have been worse. This was also the seventh anniversary of the botched Katrina response by the Bush administration, still etched in the public mind as an example of inefficient, uncaring American governance. In terms of image management, then, Republican politicians had lost some of their momentum, with convention footage counterposed on television screens alongside images of disarray caused by bad weather. Not surprisingly, Romney did not get much of a bounce in opinion poll ratings coming out of the convention.
In spite of all this, though, the convention did manage to articulate most of the central premises of the red-state culture, and its angry critique of the Obama administration's view of America. Tea Party and traditional Republican 'true believers' reaffirmed their shared belief that the federal government (under Democrats like Clinton and Obama) has become massively bloated, and that this oversized monolith of unnecessary regulations now threatens the very existence of the republic, and the individual freedoms it ensures.
Republican convention speeches championed a sort of anorexia nervosa of the body politic, assuming that further cutting the fat out of public services and taxes, and a smaller, leaner government would make for a more attractive, healthier society. As vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, whose philosophy of government is patterned on Ayn Rand's 'virtue of selfishness', explained it in his convention speech:
"After four years of government trying to divide up the wealth, we will get America creating wealth again ... . In a clean break from the Obama years, and frankly from the years before this president, we will keep federal spending at 20 per cent of GDP, or less. Because that is enough. The choice - the choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth, or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.
'OBAMA'S AMERICA' ACCORDING TO DEMOCRATS
The Democrats were luckier this time around, and for once seemed to have planned better than the Republicans, as reflected in a four to five per cent post-convention bounce in the polls. Emotionally moving speeches by Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Julian Castro (mayor of San Antonio), and Joe Biden portrayed Obama as a courageous leader who, beset by the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, had led the country through difficult times with "a backbone of steel", and who needed another four years to "finish the job" of getting the country back on its feet. His domestic and foreign successes were highlighted, again and again, with the slogan, "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."
Waxing eloquent in a 50-minute speech in which he assumed the role of Democratic Party philosopher-in-chief, former President Bill Clinton brought into high resolution the basic differences that underlie America's warring red-state and blue-state cultures:
"You have to decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a we're-all-in-it-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. If you want every American to vote, and you think it's wrong to change voting procedures just to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority and disabled voters, you should support Barack Obama."
As Clinton suggested in his convention speech (and Obama and Biden reinforced in theirs), the blue-state mindset, too, believes in capitalist free enterprise and individual self-determination. However, they believe that capitalism can only be trusted to promote the public good if properly regulated by a strong democratic government. And individuals will sometimes need a helping hand from that government, if they are to fully achieve their life prospects.
Government exists not only to protect the freedom and private property of the fortunate, but also to actively promote well-being and equal opportunity for all citizens. Blue-staters, then, believe in a modified, liberal welfare state, as the proper role of government - certainly not as extensive or socialistic as the European variety, but with basic safety net protections for the poor, sick, unemployed and elderly.
BEST ELECTION MONEY CAN BUY
Of course, post-convention bounces are typically short-lived, so none of this really changes the fact that the election could still be close, and could go either way. Obama may be ahead at the moment in the polls by several points, but Republicans still have a 'turnout advantage' because of the new voter ID laws enacted in 10 states, which are expected to suppress Democratic turnout.
Republicans will also have a funding advantage (and hence with campaign ads in swing states in the remaining weeks), as a result of the United v Federal Election Commission decision lifting limits on corporate campaign contributions. So it's too soon to place your bets as to which 'culture' will win, just yet. As Will Rogers once wryly observed, "The short memories of the American voters are what keep our politicians in office."
Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and
Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland,
New Zealand, and former polling director for the Centre for Leadership
and Governance at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to email@example.com and