About the only indisputably true thing either candidate has said during an unbearably vicious campaign is that this election is about radically different visions of America.
President Barack Obama is selling a picture of a country mired deep in class warfare, where the rich are trying to manipulate the system for their own gain and everyone else’s detriment. He, and his government, are all that stands in front of a wealthy oligarchy determined to plunder America.
Challenger Mitt Romney paints a Norman Rockwell scene of grit, faith and hard work, threatened by a power-hungry, free-spending, “European”-style president who does not understand the values that made America great.
Neither vision is particularly appealing.
In various conversations with thoughtful people on all sides of the political debate, in every part of this richly varied country of ours, a few themes stand out. The complaints most often heard about the state of the nation in this election year are “polarization,” “lack of civil discourse,” and “no real debate on the issues.”
But not far under the surface, emotions are simmering. There is anger, of course. A disintegrating economy, high unemployment and the hopeless morass abroad have made many Americans wonder what has happened to their formerly unquestioned status as “the greatest nation on earth.”
Almost everyone is concerned about health care — the cost of it or the lack of it. Younger workers wonder whether Social Security will last until their retirement, and older voters are worried that “Medicare as we know it” may be yanked away from them any day now.
A lot of people say that our educational system is “broken,” and that the high price of college may soon make it impossible for many high school graduates to get a higher education. Meanwhile reports assure us that, without a college degree, there is little hope for advancement.
Compounding the anger is an even more powerful emotion: fear. Personal anxiety at the possibility of losing one’s job or home mixes with more overarching worries over terrorism, global warming or the population explosion.
There are genuine issues in the campaign, to be sure. But very little clarity emerges from the rhetoric.
Take the economy. The Republicans are trying to make unemployment and weak growth the centerpiece of the campaign. Obama, they say, has not been able to turn things around. Romney feels his credentials are solid: He has run businesses, saved the 2002 Olympics and managed Massachusetts. He can point to his own gold-plated economic status as proof of his expertise and, by many accounts, people are buying it.
“(Romney) knows how businesses work,” said Connie Thomason, a retired stockbroker in Arizona. “Obama doesn’t have a clue.”
The Obama camp argues, with some justification, that the president inherited an economic disaster from his predecessor, George W. Bush. And fairness also dictates that one point an accusatory finger at Congress, which has stood like a very large rock in the path of any progress ever since the Republicans gained control of the House in 2010.
Conventional wisdom tells us that people vote with their pocketbooks.
“Obama campaigned on hope and change, but he was handed so much crap when he became president,” said Sophia Yen, a pediatrician in Sunnyvale, Calif. “Still, if this becomes a referendum on the economy, then Obama will lose.”
But there are many who would argue that, even given the dire economic situation, social issues have taken over the campaign.
“I have been shocked at how the Republicans have managed to turn the middle class against its own best interests through sound bites over gay marriage or abortion,” said Victoria McMillan, a family therapist in Eugene, Ore. “It is an adroit move. They get people to fight over these kinds of things as opposed to bigger issues.”
Witness the raging debate over unions, she pointed out.
“It was the unions that gave us the 40-hour work week, and the benefits that allowed workers to enter the middle class,” said McMillan. “But now the middle class is turning against them. They are more upset at people within their own socio-economic group than they are with the very rich. They don’t hold Romney’s wealth against him, but they do not want firefighters or policemen to have more than they do.”
Another smart tactic adopted by the conservatives has been to align themselves with the religious right, she added.
“The Republican Party has become the Godly Party,” said McMillan. “Unless people take the time to become informed — and it is enormously painful to do so — they are basically following what is being taught from the pulpit.”
As retired Judge Joseph Dimmick from Utah put it: “If you give the Bible Belters a choice between saving Social Security and banning the teaching of evolution in the schools, they’ll go for banning evolution every time.”
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Lack of information is a big factor in this election, as more than one anxious voter has pointed out. Most are blaming the media, particularly the politically engaged outlets such as Fox News.
“For the past 25 years Fox News has been skewing facts and reality,” said Yen. “The polarization we see is because people can choose their news. There is no middle ground. In the past, when everyone was watching the same stations — CBS, ABC or NBC — there was some commonality of views. Now people can limit themselves to outlets that reinforce their opinions.”
People like Mike Wycko, a retired businessman in Arizona, love Fox News. Wycko calls uber-conservative Rush Limbaugh “brilliant,” and deems Michael Savage “a genius.” Savage is a radio talk show host famous for what some see as racially charged hate speech. He once called Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush “Obama’s homie” for wearing a hooded sweatshirt on the House floor in support of slain teenager Trayvon Martin.
No wonder things are getting out of control.
There are those — Wycko among them — who argue that MSNBC is just as slanted to the left as Fox News is to the right. But Yen is having none of that.
“MSNBC might have a 20 percent slant,” she insisted. “Fox News’ slant is at least 80 percent.”
But there are very few people who watch it all. Well, maybe some.
“I put on Rush Limbaugh podcasts when I am driving cross country,” laughed one Berkeley professor. “It makes me so mad that I am able to stay awake.”
Whatever the reason, the United States is as bitterly divided now as at any point in recent history.
The Republicans have been using the term “socialist” to smear Obama and his policies, to great effect. While Romney has stopped short of using the actual word, his message is getting out loud and clear.
“Obama is the worst thing ever to happen to America,” said Ron James, a construction worker in Iowa. “He is a socialist who wants to turn our democracy into a European-style government.”
The Democrats are having a harder time with a catchy message. Obama’s plea for patience and more hard work in the face of a slow recovery just does not seem to have the punch of “Keep America free.”
But in the end, voters will have to choose.
In 2010, Romney released his manifesto, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” It boils down to a few main points: America is good. It has a special destiny. Americans are also special, and deserve their greatness.
“There are superior cultures, and ours is one of them,” he wrote.
For some, this smacks of paternalism, or worse.
“The conservatives are so afraid of socialism, and what they are getting instead is fascism,” said McMillan.
In 2006 then-Sen. Obama, on the other hand, wrote a book called “The Audacity of Hope,” which has a more modest message: “at the core of the American experience … (is) a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work,” he said.
So voters much choose between visceral, patriotic, feel-good bluster, or a quiet, cerebral call to “pride, duty, and sacrifice.”
The California pediatrician summed it up succinctly: “It comes down to a contest between hope and fear,” said Yen. “If fear wins, it will be worse for almost everybody.”
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